James Wallace has had enough.
Enough of the injuries, enough time wasted in the treatment room and enough of the jokes, despite being delivered with the best of intentions, from team mates and coaching staff alike.
“Even though some of the lads give me stick, saying ‘Well done James, you’ve made it through the warm-up,’ it hurts. It hurts because they don’t know in my head what I’ve been through. I know it’s only banter and that they mean it in the right way but football is tough, it’s a dog-eat-dog business. I’ve got to brush it off and make sure it stops.”
Wallace was speaking after his latest comeback during Sheffield United’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy quarter-final against Fleetwood Town in midweek. By his own admission, the midfielder’s career in South Yorkshire has been shaped by chronic fitness problems rather than the uncompromising tackles and incisive passes which persuaded Nigel Clough, Nigel Adkins’ predecessor at Bramall Lane, to sign him from Tranmere Rovers 17 months ago. Nineteen appearances and 11 starts later, Wallace is now confident the issues which also curbed his progress on Merseyside are now a thing of the past.
“I’ve not been in a good place at times,” he told The Star earlier this week. “I’ve been in tears through the sheer frustration of it all. I know everyone has injuries. Everyone has a different experience of football. Unfortunately mine has been three years of them and battling to get properly fit. But I’m putting it behind me now and getting all of those negative thoughts out of my head.”
Wallace, who progressed through the ranks at Everton before crossing the river in search of regular first team action, is a fighter in every sense of the word. The 23-year-old, who has represented both England and the Republic of Ireland at youth level, is an avid follower of boxing and spends his summers working up a sweat alongside some of Liverpool’s most successful pugilists inside one of the city’s legendary gyms. Perhaps the only time Wallace enjoys being in a world of hurt.
“I go training a lot at the Rotunda in Kirkdale during the off season and the Smith family, Paul, Callum, Stephen and Liam, are in there a lot,” he said. “There’s a few footballers who do it; myself, Jose (Baxter), Bradley Orr and Ryan Lowe all go. So does Jamie Carragher, he’s in there all the time and he’s still fitter than anyone else. It’s a help because boxing is one sport where you’ve got to be mentally tough. You don’t have any other players around you to back you up, it’s one on one and, at times, a battle with your own mind. I watched the Rocky Fielding and Callum (Smith) bout at the weekend and, as everyone knows, it finished in the first round. I know Rocky and although he had a set-back, he’s still a damn good fighter who I’m sure will go on to become a world champion. He’s been knocked down but he’ll get back up, carry on and comeback even better. There’s a lesson for us all there.”
Wallace, who credits Adkins with improving his outlook, has been employing more conventional methods too.
“I’ve been seeing a sports psychologist for the past few weeks to get me in the right frame of mind. It’s been a massive help and I feel a lot more confident about things even in training. The gaffer here is really big on how you react to things. He’s always banging on about it and, if he sees your head drop after a bad pass or something, he’s shouts at you: ‘Come on, pick yourself up and react.’ That’s what he wants, that desire to improve and come back. That and the work with the psychologist has taken the negative thoughts out of my head. If you get knocked down you’ve got to be able to get back up again, like the boxers do, and I feel much stronger now in my mind.”
Although Wallace is unlikely to feature in Adkins’ starting eleven when they return to league action against Southend tomorrow, his performance at Highbury illustrated why his absences have been so vexatious for United and why, despite numerous false dawns and set-backs, they have been wise to persevere with a player who, in peak condition, could be the most authoritative midfielder in the division.
“Tackles are a big part of my game, I like to get about the pitch and it just felt good to be back out there and doing it again,” Wallace said. “The first one I made was a big one but it wasn’t to prove anything to myself. It’s just what I do. To be fair, I got away with it a bit because I was slightly late and it could have been a booking. But, as my fitness and sharpness comes back, those will get a lot cleaner.”
Wallace, whose passing repertoire would also prove a valuable weapon as United attempt to force themselves back into the play-off positions, is scheduled to continue that process by taking part in a reserve team fixture next week.
“The aim is to keep building up, do 60 minutes, 60 minutes and then up to the 90 mark. Play back to back 90 games and then really kick-on. Last year I was worried about injuries whenever I trained or played but now, mentally, I’m in a much better place. I want to help and contribute. Be ready when I’m called upon and then, hopefully, all these interviews about injuries can stop.”