IN A SEASON that was mainly joyful for Hearts, one of the most pleasing aspects for their fans and coaching staff was the overall performance of Lee Wallace, which saw him lift the Young Player of the Year award at the Tynecastle club.
Like everyone else round Gorgie way, left-back Wallace is only too happy to acknowledge the role played in his development by manager Csaba Laszlo, attributing much of his success to the metaphorical application of managerial leather to his gluteus maximus: "At the start of last season there were a few moments where I was slack and my play wasn't as good as it should have been, and I was taken away and told about that. That was a kick up the backside for me and at the time it was a bad period for me.
"It was as early as the third or fourth game. The manager just took me aside and told me he was going to help me and what I had to do. That week in training I rolled up my sleeves and got on with it and the confidence just came.
"He cut the slackness out of my game and brushed up on my defensive side of things. As soon as I got my confidence back I realised it was all about keeping things simple and, along with the help of my team-mates, I got going again."
Wallace joined the Tynecastle youth organisation straight from school and Salvesen Boys Club and he is in no doubt about the importance of the Academy for Hearts, not least because it produced his left-wing partner Andrew Driver; Wallace is desperate for his colleague to return from the heel injury which has ruled him out of the start of the season.
Wallace said: "Myself and Andrew proved to be a good partnership last season and we got a lot of confidence from playing together. He is a good player and got his international recognition, representing England Under-21s which is a great achievement for him. The sooner he is back the better for me, and that's no disrespect to anyone else who might play on the left. It's just that with Driver, there is a special partnership.
"We go back five or six years. He came in full-time before me and I'd come up while I was still at school and played a few games. We know each other's games which is ideal, but that's what Hearts is all about – the youth set-up.
"They are always bringing youth players through and there are more on their way just now. The manager always says to them that if they do well there's no reason why they can't get involved."
The 6ft 1in Wallace has the security of knowing that he has signed an extension to his contract which will keep him at Tynecastle until 2012, unless a club considerably bigger than Hearts makes them an offer they can't refuse.
"Like every young player I have a lot of ambition but I am a Hearts player just now and am solely focused on Hearts," said Wallace.
One of his ambitions is to play at full international level for Scotland, having worn the dark blue at Under-19 level – he was in the side which reached the 2006 UEFA Under-19 championship final – then Under-20 and Under-21s. Many thought he would be called up for next week's World Cup qualifier against Norway by Scotland boss George Burley, his former manager at Hearts.
"I've not spoken to George Burley since he was part of the set-up here," said Wallace. "I've got an ambition to play for the full Scotland team but it's a thing I just need to keep working away at. If you're doing well here you never know what can happen."
Wallace is presently awaiting a court appearance in connection with an incident alleged to have occurred in an Edinburgh nightclub. The player called it a "stupid wee stumbling block" and added: "Hopefully, I will be back on track." There can be no comment on the specifics of the case, but Wallace did make a general point: "You are always going to get people trying to wind you up but I'm not going to react to that. It's just best to ignore it. You get it here and there – not a lot, but sometimes it can happen."
Asked if he had any sympathy for Derek Riordan, who was disciplined by Hibs for another night-time incident last weekend, Wallace was adamant: "None at all." It might be interesting if the two meet in the Edinburgh Derby on 7 November, when Wallace is looking forward to playing against a side managed by John Hughes, whom he acknowledged as "a Hibs legend".
Wallace feels Hearts can do even better than last year's third place: "I'm not saying we are going to win the league but we will aim to try and split the Old Firm. There's no reason why we can't.
"Everyone within the club has the objective to finish as high as we can. We want to better last year which is obviously second or first."
The leadership of Laszlo, the man he called "a breath of fresh air", is crucial: "You noticed straight away, the minute he walked in the dressing-room, you could tell he was a different type of person, a huge character. I think he spoke for an hour that morning and you could tell right away what sort of a man he was, what he was looking for and his aims.
"Over the season he got the rewards for that. We did our part on the pitch but he and his staff did theirs too. He has stuck to the same philosophy since pre-season last year, the same formation, always being positive."
One of those rewards was entry into the Europa League play-off where they'll meet Dinamo Zagreb.
"We're just focused on trying to win the game over the two legs," said Wallace. "Do that and we're guaranteed another six games which will be massive for the club. For every single player in this squad it will be their first taste of European football at Tynecastle. I was involved when it was at Murrayfield and, don't get me wrong, although the atmosphere was great, there's something extra here at Tynecastle.
"With the crowd behind us this place is going to become a fortress and come the European games, if we get there, the nights here will be massive."
A Fortress Tynecastle with Lee Wallace on the left rampart against European opposition? Hearts fans would surely welcome it.