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
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
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.