If LEE Wallace ever becomes manager of Scotland, he will know how to handle the conundrum of whether to keep picking a player left playing lower division football through no fault of his own.
Perhaps he can write a thesis on the subject as he nears the completion of his Uefa B licence course. The full-back understands why he was left out at the start of Scotland’s World Cup qualifying campaign, since he was playing in the Third Division at the time. However, he feels he is a better player now. This improvement he partly attributes to his nascent managerial career with Edinburgh amateur side Heriot Vale as well as his continued efforts to gain his first coaching badge.
Wallace feels comfortable about describing himself as a “football geek” and someone who is “borderline insane” when it comes to research. The former Hearts player is never happier than when hunched over a laptop devising systems and analysing screen shots of formations. Part of his course work to obtain his B licence has involved compiling a dossier on a team’s strengths and weaknesses. Wallace’s first thought was to pick Barcelona. However, a friend on the course had already chosen them, so Wallace opted for Ajax instead. “I quite liked Frank de Boer,” he explains.
“I put together their strengths and weaknesses this season and obviously it has been hard to find weaknesses with Ajax,” he said. The obvious question to ask is whether he would make this invaluable document, which took two weeks to compile, available to Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager whose side’s hopes of qualifying for the knock-out stage of the Champions League hinge on two upcoming matches against the Dutch champions. “Maybe”, said Wallace, coyly. Later, he added: “If he gives me his email I can email it over.”
He is proud of his commitment to self-improvement and unconcerned by those who tease him for being a swot. It has become an obsession, he concedes. “Whereas some people might not enjoy the written work and the laptop work I am actually quite a geek when it comes to this,” he explained. “I am relentless. I am borderline insane when it comes to studying and research. Hopefully that will pay off in 20 or 30 years’ time.”
No wonder Scotland manager Gordon Strachan likes having him around the squad. Wallace is someone whose brain is constantly churning with ideas about tactics and formations. The left-back is also intent on proving that he is able to cope with the leap from lower league football with Rangers to the international arena, something that Craig Levein previously acknowledged was a concern. Wallace stepped into the fray for the last ten minutes of the win against Macedonia last month and his only regret is that he did not score when presented with an opportunity shortly after coming on.
Still, it gave him a “lift” to be a part of the international group again. Now he has Croatia in his sights in Tuesday’s final qualifying clash at Hampden Park. Wallace hasn’t started a Scotland match since the 2-1 win over Liechtenstein three years ago. Rangers’ troubles meant that his chances have been restricted, although Strachan is proving slightly more receptive to the idea of playing someone currently stationed on a lower rung of Scottish football.
Wallace admits that he feels the spotlight is on him because some observers are waiting for him to make a mistake and confirm their suspicions that Scotland should not be recruiting from League One.
“Probably because there’s been a lot of talk about that when the previous manager was leaving me out for that reason, because he felt I wasn’t able to make the step up,” reflected Wallace.
“The new manager has come in and said if you’re doing well at that particular time for your club then you’re always in with a chance.
“There was never a discussion between Craig Levein and myself,” he added. “I just went by what was said in the media at that point…that it would be hard for him as a manager to pick someone who was playing in the bottom tier of Scottish football. Back then, I totally respected him for that as I respected him as a manager. I put my sole focus into Rangers and worked hard hoping that that hard work would pay off further down the line.”
The only difference, he says, between the Lee Wallace then and the Lee Wallace now is that he is a more accomplished player. In what way? He says he cannot put a finger on it – he just knows that he is more confident. Intuition is another valuable quality for a budding coach to have.
“I’ve thought about how I’ve improved but I can’t quite pick out specifics,” he said. “It’s the natural progression from being a Rangers player. You’ve got a huge level of expectancy to win games – even more so now.”
He senses that it has something to do with an accelerated maturity, which has been forced upon him on those occasions he has deputised for Lee McCulloch as Rangers skipper.
But the greatest change, you suspect, has occurred because of his burgeoning knowledge about the game, some of it learned at Largs, and some from the three seasons’ practical work he has done with Heriot Vale, who play in the Lothian and Edinburgh amateur football league.
“That has had a huge benefit for me,” he said. “It has given me a great platform and a great way to look at what works and what does not work and what they [the players] enjoy.
“It makes it easier that half the team is made up of my pals. I was 23 when I started and obviously it’s a long way away until I want to get involved in that side of things but it has given me a great start. I am also doing these badges and listening to other players relaying ideas from their club managers – I have already done that with some of the boys here with Scotland. I am just really hungry to learn.
“It is difficult for my friends sometimes sitting in a dressing room listening to me,” he admitted. “Or sitting listening to me on a training field, but they have got a bit of respect and they have been tremendous. It has been really enjoyable.”
As for his preferred formation, the one he is employing at the moment – and which has helped take Vale to top place in the league – it is 4-1-3-2. Two up front? It will never catch on.