Wal­lace wants talks but first there’s a fi­nal to be won.

Loyal to the club when oth­ers walked, Wal­lace is con­fi­dent show­down at Ham­p­den will re­pay his faith

The Herald - Herald Sport - - FRONT PAGE - MATTHEW LIND­SAY

Lee Wal­lace, the Rangers cap­tain, will hold talks with man­ager Mark War­bur­ton about whether to make him­self avail­able for Scot­land’s end-of-sea­son friendlies fol­low­ing the Wil­liam Hill Scot­tish Cup fi­nal today, writes Matthew Lind­say.

How­ever, Wal­lace, who re­vealed he has been play­ing with a knee prob­lem this sea­son, ad­mit­ted that get­ting him­self in peak con­di­tion for the start of the 2016/17 cam­paign was his pri­or­ity this sum­mer.

If Rangers de­feat their Lad­brokes Cham­pi­onship ri­vals Hibs at Ham­p­den this af­ter­noon, they will be handed a place in the Europa League next sea­son and will have to play in the first leg of the sec­ond qual­i­fy­ing round on July 14.

G or­don Stra­chan’s side take on Italy in Malta on May 29 and then play France in Metz on June 4, as they fi­nalise their prepa­ra­tions for the start of their Rus­sia 2018 qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign next sea­son.

Be­ing in­volved in that double-header against the Euro 2016 fi­nal­ists would only give Wal­lace, who has played in all 49 Rangers games this sea­son, a fort­night off be­fore pre-sea­son train­ing starts on June 18.

War­bur­ton re­acted an­grily to the news that his skip­per and Bar­rie McKay had been in­cluded in Stra­chan’s squad – when Aberdeen, Celtic and Hearts play­ers had been left out to give them time off to pre­pare for Euro­pean matches next sea­son.

“The break we had in these weeks was great for my­self just nursing a few things along,” said Wal­lace. “Not to sound overly dra­matic, but the knee is­sue I have had for a wee while, it was good to give that a wee break and a wee breather.

“Dis­cus­sions are go­ing to have to take place with my­self in the next cou­ple of days. I think these dis­cus­sions will cer­tainly hap­pen, what­ever the out­come of Satur­day’s game. I think that again that’s some­thing we’ll speak to the man­ager about.

“I have had a programme in place to get my­self along in these last few weeks, these last few months, whether it will be com­ing off the lower-leg stuff in the gym, ta­per­ing off in the ac­tual train­ing ses­sions and just get­ting my­self through games.

“So I think what’s most im­por­tant to me is that I’m the best I can be come when­ever Rangers re­port back. Whether that is tak­ing the 21-day win­dow the man­ager has re­ferred to, hav­ing the full rest, the full shut­down, then so be it. Or if it’s go­ing away and there is an ex­tended break, it will be dis­cussed with the man­ager.”

Wal­lace won his last cap in a friendly in­ter­na­tional against the United States in 2013.

OF all the Rangers play­ers who de­clined to “do walk­ing away” from Ibrox back in the dark days of 2012, Lee Wal­lace was per­haps the most sur­pris­ing. The left-back was just 24 and had been capped six times by Scot­land when the Glas­gow in­sti­tu­tion’s fi­nan­cial feck­less­ness caught up with it.

Why, many in the game asked, would he spend sev­eral years of what is a short ca­reer play­ing in the lower leagues and jeop­ar­dise his in­ter­na­tional fu­ture in the process in or­der to stay?

Wal­lace could quite eas­ily have moved on, as the ma­jor­ity of his team­mates chose to do, plied his trade at a higher level and re­mained in­volved in the na­tional set-up.

The sin­gle-minded in­di­vid­ual, though, has never, not when Rangers were suf­fer­ing ig­no­min­ious draws and de­feats to part-time ri­vals and not when their steady rise to the top flight stalled last sea­son, had cause to re­gret his de­ci­sion.

He will cer­tainly feel vin­di­cated by his stance when he leads Mark War­bur­ton’s team out in the Wil­liam Hill Scot­tish Cup fi­nal to face Hibs in front of a crowd of more than 50,000 at Ham­p­den this af­ter­noon.

Vic­tory for Rangers, who have al­ready won the Lad­brokes Cham­pi­onship and Petro­fac Train­ing Cup in the 2015/16 cam­paign, would com­plete what would be an un­prece­dented do­mes­tic tre­ble.

It would be an im­por­tant mile­stone for a club des­per­ately striv­ing to es­tab­lish it­self as a ma­jor force in Scot­tish foot­ball and se­cure a place in Europe af­ter years of board­room mis­man­age­ment and cor­po­rate van­dal­ism, not to men­tion for Wal­lace him­self personally.

“You visu­alise these things,” he said. “You look to mo­ments like this in your ca­reer. You’ve done so since you were a lit­tle boy and you do so as a player. We have ob­vi­ously been blessed in terms of the sea­son we’ve al­ready had. It’s been a good sea­son, but if all goes well, we can turn it into a great sea­son.

“It [vic­tory] means the world. We are aware of ev­ery­thing that is at stake in terms of Hibs and their his­tory [the Easter Road club have gone 114 years with­out win­ning the Scot­tish Cup].

“But we are also aware of what we can do in terms of the jour­ney for the guys who have been there, suf­fered the drop, been part of the process to get us back to where we should be play­ing. We have man­aged to do that, we have got the Petro­fac along the way and we can now make it a re­ally great sea­son if all goes well.”

The suc­cess which Rangers, who de­feated their city ri­vals Celtic on penal­ties in a clas­sic semi-fi­nal encounter at Ham­p­den last month, have en­joyed un­der War­bur­ton this sea­son has come of lit­tle sur­prise to Wal­lace.

An as­pir­ing man­ager who has coached at both He­riot Vale and Tynecas­tle FC in his home city of Ed­in­burgh, he recog­nised what was pos­si­ble soon af­ter the for­mer City of London trader was ap­pointed last sum­mer.

“I started to gen­er­ate that be­lief when the man­ager first spoke to us,” he said. “Af­ter suf­fer­ing the dis­ap­point­ment we did last year, it quickly turned to look­ing for­ward to things again and look­ing for­ward to what can be.

“Cup fi­nals nat­u­rally are go­ing to be part of that, es­pe­cially the Scot­tish Cup. We man­aged to do that this sea­son with the Petro­fac. We were ex­pected to go and do well and we man­aged to de­liver. I am not sure we were ex­pected to win the Scot­tish Cup. A lot of ques­tions came about af­ter the St John­stone result [Rangers lost to the Perth club in the League Cup]. There were ques­tions whether we could play this style of play against Pre­mier­ship op­po­si­tion. But we have been able to do that on three oc­ca­sions since then.

“We know in house what our goal was at the start of the sea­son. Of course it would be a dream for ev­ery­one in the dress­ing room to cap off what would be­come a great sea­son. It is cer­tainly one we are con­fi­dent of, but we are aware of their threat as well.”

In­deed they are. Rangers and Hibs have squared up to each other on no fewer than five oc­ca­sions this sea­son, with the for­mer win­ning three of their meet­ings and the lat­ter pre­vail­ing in two.

For a while, the Ed­in­burgh and Glas­gow clubs were locked to­gether at the top of the Cham­pi­onship ta­ble and Alan Stubbs di­rected some sub­tle and some not-so-sub­tle digs to­wards War­bur­ton.

Stubbs’s care­fully con­sid­ered re­marks about the dif­fi­culty of his coun­ter­part’s job, the en­vi­able size of his bud­get and the pres­sure his play­ers were un­der, how­ever, have dried up of late as his side’s bid to win pro­mo­tion has floun­dered and failed.

Wal­lace stresses it didn’t af­fect any of the Rangers play­ers at the time the phoney war was be­ing waged in the me­dia and is of lit­tle con­cern to them now hos­til­i­ties have ceased.

“We were aware of that,” he said. “We were aware of the ar­ti­cles, the press con­fer­ences, of cer­tain as­pects of the me­dia and the mind games. But we were fo­cused on what we had to do. It never got to any of us.”

Rangers have gone three weeks with­out a com­pet­i­tive game since their fi­nal Cham­pi­onship game of the sea­son against St. Mir­ren on May 1.

Whether that will put them at an advantage or disadvantage to Hibs, who have been in­volved in two in­tense play-off semi-fi­nal matches against Falkirk dur­ing the same pe­riod, will be­come ap­par­ent this af­ter­noon.

“It’s been a dif­fer­ent chal­lenge for us, but the man­ager put to­gether a re­ally good programme that we used well,” said Wal­lace.

The for­mer Hearts de­fender knows all about the de­mands on Hibs to end a bar­ren run in the Scot­tish Cup that stretches back to 1902. He ex­pects their play-off semi-fi­nal de­feat to Falkirk will sim­ply have strength­ened their re­solve round off their sea­son with an his­toric tri­umph.

But the 28-year-old be­lieves if Rangers per­form, as they have done in the last three rounds of the cup against Pre­mier­ship op­po­nents Kil­marnock, Dundee and Celtic, he will lift what will be the first ma­jor piece of sil­ver­ware of his play­ing days.

“We are ex­pect­ing Hibs to try and rec­tify the dis­ap­point­ment of not get­ting pro­moted to the top flight,” he said. “But if we hit our lev­els then we know what will hap­pen in the game. It is up to us to do that.”

“We have ob­vi­ously been blessed in terms of the sea­son we’ve al­ready had. It’s been a good sea­son, but if all goes well, we can turn it into a great sea­son

LET BAT­TLE COM­MENCE: Lee Wal­lace and David Gray, the Rangers and Hiber­nian cap­tains, pose with the tro­phy

Pic­ture: SNS

EYES ON THE PRIZE: Rangers cap­tain Lee Wal­lace stayed with the Ibrox club through­out their jour­ney back up the leagues when he could have so eas­ily walked away. Now he gets his re­ward.

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