TOM LEES came away from Bury’s player-of-the-year awards evening at a packed Gigg Lane clutching silverware – and one man is in no doubt the young Leeds United defender should have been celebrating national recognition a few weeks earlier.
Namely stand-in Shakers boss Richie Barker, who has only gushing words to say about the loan centre-half’s contribution to the Lancastrian club’s first promotion since 1997.
The 20-year-old came out of his shell and became a man in a footballing sense, according to Barker, and proved a pillar of consistency from the moment the first ball was kicked in August.
The Midlander was one of the first names on the Shakers’ teamsheet, first for Alan Knill and then for interim manager Barker, who presided over six straight victories at the end of last term to help Bury clinch a place in League One.
Signed just before the start of the season, Lees – who spent the 2009-10 campaign on loan at Red Rose neighbours Accrington Stanley – was a key figure throughout, while also chipping in with some massively-important goals at the business end of the campaign.
He scored in 1-0 wins over Lincoln City and Burton Albion, and grabbed Bury’s opener in the 3-2 victory at champions Chesterfield which confirmed promotion on April 23.
Whites boss Simon Grayson has monitored his progress closely, with speculation abound that Lees – who signed an extended two-and-a-half year contract in December – will be given the chance to show his wares in pre-season with United.
But one thing is for sure, if Lees is once again farmed out on loan, then Bury – certainly if Barker is handed the full-time post – would have him back like a shot.
There would be no shortage of takers elsewhere, with former Shakers chief Knill, now at Scunthorpe and the man who brought Lees over the Pennines to Bury, also expected to have a more than passing interest in the Warwick-born defender.
Barker told the YEP: “He’s probably the best young centre-half in League Two. I thought he was unlucky not to get in the (PFA) team of the year, but he came away with a couple of club awards from our presentation evening, including players’ player of the year.
“He was very good and had a great attitude.
“He was brought in when we got an injury to one of our centre-halves early on and played almost every game after then. You could see him progressing and getting more confident and stronger as the games went on.
“In the eight games I was in charge, he was absolutely excellent and also weighed in with a few important goals.
“He can do the physical stuff, but sometimes doesn’t need to do that because he reads the game so well. He’s got a bit of pace as well and will be a big loss to us, if we can’t get him back.
“He can play as well. We try and play out from the back and when the ball goes into him, you are confident he’ll be able to deal with it and play his way out of trouble.”
While Lees learnt plenty playing alongside veteran centre-back Efe Sodje, still able to comfortably cut it in the lower leagues at the age of 38, Barker insists it was the former who was very much the main man.
It was Lees who looked the old hand during Bury’s climatic charge to promotion, which saw them push John Sheridan’s Spireites all the way for the League Two title at the back end of the season following a turbo-charged run.
The 6ft 1in defender, who missed just one league game all season and started 50 matches in all competitions, proved part of the fabric at Gigg Lane, while proving massively popular with team-mates and supporters alike during a special campaign.
Barker added: “Tom was alongside Efe for most of the season, but in the one or two games Efe didn’t play, he partnered Ben Futcher who has been around a bit as well and played 350 games.
“But to be honest, towards the end, Tom looked the experienced one (alongside Sodje). The one thing he is as well is a winner, you can see that. Whenever we got beat, he was not happy about it, which is a good trait to have.
“I think Tom has enjoyed being part of something. Sometimes, when you are on loan and are a month here and two months there, you aren’t really part of it. But the fact he was here so long meant he got treated as one of our players. We recently went away for the weekend, when the chairman took us away, and Tom came with us. There was no question Tom wasn’t part of it and the team spirit has been really good.
“He’s a bit of a silent assassin to be fair and doesn’t really say a great deal and keeps himself to himself. But on a couple of away trips, he has got up to a bit of mischief, but he’s a great lad!”
The man himself admits his loan spell at Bury, extended to the rest of the season after his initial six-month stint ended in December, couldn’t have gone any better, while insisting he has matured massively during his spell across the M62.
Lees ironically first heard about a possible move to Bury when he was about to come on as a sub in United’s 4-0 humbling at Gigg Lane in a pre-season friendly last summer, with then home boss Knill whispering in his ear not to get injured because he was going to sign him on loan.
And following his dream season at Bury, which he will forever be grateful for, he intends to start turning his thoughts to the future shortly, with Grayson expected to run the rule over him in pre-season.
Lees said: “I am going to enjoy the next few weeks and then sit down with the people at Leeds and see what the plan is. I’m sure there have been plenty of people watching me this season in the stands, whether they are from Leeds or other clubs.
“I just had to stake my claim by playing well for Bury, which I did. I think my performances got better as I grew into the way the club played and I became more experienced.”
“It has been a great season. I have really enjoyed my time at Bury and to cap it off with promotion is fantastic.
“I have enjoyed playing with this group of lads and have made some good friends. I will maintain these friendships over the next few years, wherever my career takes me.
“I can certainly take a lot away with me. I worked under a good manager, who taught me a lot, and lined up with some good players. Playing games every week has helped me no end.
“I have learnt a lot. It was important for me to play centre-half and, hopefully, I have proved I can handle that job. There are a lot of good strikers in this league and I think I have more than held my own against them.
“I have improved. I am still a long way from what I want to be as a player but every player should say that.
“You want to get better all the time. But I do think I made the most of my time here.”