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The Isolation Interview: The unshakeable Lee Wallace

You could say it’s been a testing few years for Lee Wallace but you won’t hear that from him. The Scotsman is the latest in the hotseat for our Isolation Interview series.

You’ve got to have some proverbial stones to make it in football. And if by some against-the-odds chance you’re blessed enough to actually make it, then you’ve got to find a little something extra if you want to stay there. This is no untold secret of course—every footballer’s read the handbook. But it’s when you pepper in some of the unexpected that you really find out what kind of character you’ve got swirling around inside. When you throw in a cruciate ligament rupture here or a groin surgery there. When you take the joy of signing for one of the continent’s most decorated clubs and sucker punch it with words like administration and liquidation. When you unselfishly sacrifice to help right a wrong only to later be forced to watch some of your best years trickle by. It’s enough to wrestle the hardest of hearts into submission, to make you feel as though the man in the sky is merrily watching you march two steps forward and one step back, waiting for you to give in. To tap out. To call it a day. Luckily, Lee Wallace has got some serious stones.

For all the challenges that have come before, the biggest one facing Wallace right now is trying to keep the peace in a household with four young kids. Suddenly, a stadium full of the Championship’s finest doesn’t seem so daunting compared to a seven-year-old, a five-year-old, a two-year-old and a seven-month-old calling the shots. It’s a welcomed chaos for the 32-year-old however, who since signing for QPR on a two-year deal last June, has been living alone in London away from his family who’ve remained in Scotland. As much as he’s now treasuring this time spent at home, Wallace is longing for the day when the garden workouts are no more and he’s reunited with a squad he feels was building towards something exciting. “There was a real confidence in the group. It wasn’t an overconfidence but it was a good run and we were climbing the table,” he says. “The place was vibrant, there was decent momentum and it would’ve been interesting to see where that momentum would have taken us.”

Wallace’s on-field part in that has been 11 appearances this season, including a quite outrageous volley against Swansea in the FA Cup. Looking back over those matches and beyond, it’s been a sort of stop-start year for the Scottish international. He missed pre-season and a good chunk of the opening stages of the campaign with a hip injury before being tasked with the prospect of dislodging one of the team’s star performers in Ryan Manning at the left-back position and breaking into a winning side that was sitting in fifth place on the Championship ladder. There’s reasonable cause for Wallace to feel as though he’s deserved more consideration but he says in the context of it all it’s something that isn’t weighing too heavily. “Personally I’ve been fairly happy. What I mean by that is in the previous two years, with injuries and also the scenario at Rangers I hadn’t played a lot of football,” says Wallace. “Of course I would have loved to have played more games than I have but just to be given the opportunity to play, to have the trust that the manager and the club had to bring me down, has filled me with confidence and that sense of belonging.”

Wallace speaks like a statesman because he is a statesman. After his switch from Glasgow to London was announced, QPR’s social channels were flooded with messages of praise from Scotland, congratulating R’s fans on having acquired a leader of the highest ilk. They don’t make grandstand-sized tifos up there for just any old bloke. And although Wallace hasn’t been able to show that side of himself on the pitch as much as he may have liked, it’s something his teammates see each and every day at Harlington. “The way the manager works, every session counts and every player is important,” says Wallace. “Whether it's in training or your contribution in analysis, he’s always watching. As a professional player you need to be ready to take your chance.” It’s why in the sessions immediately following a game, where those who weren’t active on match day are put through their paces, it’s Wallace who has been taking charge and leading through example with the type of fervour reserved for Saturdays. “I’ll keep working hard and trusting the process,” he says. “There’s no complaining from me, only hope and aspirations that I can contribute at some point. I’ve got to be grateful for the opportunity to be playing at such a great club.”

Trust Wallace to know a thing or two about pulling on the shirt of a storied club. Much has been made about the eight seasons he spent at Rangers—eight seasons in which he’d experience just about the full complement of football’s peaks and troughs. “In my first press conference with the club I said I wanted to become a winner,” he says. “But I don’t think anybody could’ve predicted what would happen.” In his debut season after signing from Hearts as a 24-year-old, Wallace made 34 appearances for The Gers, chief among them an Old Firm derby where he scored what would be the winning goal in front of 50,000 at the Ibrox. Yet months later came the news that the club was going into administration and would be liquidated, with the new entity being demoted to the third division. No less than 11 players declined to have their contracts transferred over and the option was there for Wallace to follow suit. “Not for one moment did I have to question whether I was going to stay or not,” explains Wallace. “My love for the club had grown in that first year so if anything the fact that we had to restart the journey just further solidified my ambition to become that winner I said I wanted to be.”

Where others might have been understandably worried about their careers stalling, Wallace saw it as an opportunity to prove his worth. “What came first for me was the love for the club,” says Wallace. “That outweighed any of the external perceptions or the ramifications at international level or the potential places I could’ve signed at. Rangers was enough for me.” Wallace’s loyalty would be rewarded as he was named vice-captain and then later captain, as he eventually led Rangers back to the Premiership in 2016. He also fulfilled his boyhood dream of representing Scotland which he did so on 10 occasions, including during a World Cup qualifier against England at Wembley. Back at Rangers though, things took a turn. A combination of injury troubles and a falling out with the management meant Wallace found himself on the outer and he would go on to make only seven league appearances over the next two seasons.

Even now, Wallace refuses to look back on that period with any sense of spite or regret. “I’ve got nothing but positive things to say,” he says. “It was difficult because you go from playing and being an important part of the team to not but as hard as it was I always gave my best. How things ended doesn’t take away from all the magnificent times and all the good people I met—that’s never going to change.” Wallace says he hasn’t yet been able to fully soak up what it meant to be captain of Rangers—so caught up was he in the intensity of it all—but he’s looking forward to the day when he’s able to sit down and appreciate what was a special phase in his life. “I’ve maybe not done it enough and maybe when I stop playing I’ll be able to zoom out and reflect properly,” he says. “But I came across a video a few days ago and it hit me. The captaincy for me was a 24/7 thing. It wasn’t just a case of playing your best on game day because you’ve got the armband on. It’s the magnitude of the club. It’s what you’re representing.”

For now though, Wallace is completely focused on doing what he can to represent his new club in the best possible way. A close second to that is continuing to cultivate his love of coaching, something that he’s been working away at over the past decade. “If you were to speak to teammates of mine at Hearts they would probably say there was absolutely no way Lee would having coaching ambitions but as time goes on I’ve matured,” he says. Wallace recalls his first foray into management—at the helm of an amateur team in Edinburgh comprising of the mates he grew up with—as a bit of a rite of passage. “It might sound easy but having to coach your best mates and speak to them in dressing room is harder than you think!” From there he’d have roles with lower league outfits Tynecastle and Kelty Hearts while at the same time developing his game on and off the park with Rangers. “What coincided with my learning at Rangers and the role I had as a player was the fact I had to grow as man and I think that helped me mature on a coaching level as well,” says Wallace.

This season however marks the first in eight years in which Wallace hasn’t been actively coaching in some capacity. Playing under Mark Warburton—a manager who he formed a kinship with during their time together at Rangers—has helped to stimulate Wallace’s learning in the meantime. “The gaffer is meticulous in his work and John Eustace and Neil Banfield and the support staff operate at a level that is quite easy to stay engaged with,” says Wallace. “I’m always working away on the laptop, taking notes, having good conversations with my teammates, trying to keep mentality sharp.” Central to all of that is Wallace’s affinity with the Spanish way of football. Growing up, his first strip was a Barcelona strip and he idolised Pep Guardiola, Johan Cruyff and their approach to the game. Wallace has even been learning Spanish in the last couple of years, such is his adoration. “In an ideal world, with a bit of luck and hard work it’d be nice to go and challenge myself in an environment like that,” says Wallace. “Learning Spanish is just adding another dimension to how I can move forward in the coaching world.” If Wallace’s now 16-year playing career is any indication, it’s a coaching world that in the not too distant future will be gaining one of its most motivated, strong-willed and unshakeable students—one with the stones to prove it.