The next 46 games will decide whether Sheffield United are playing Championship football next season, writes James Shield.
For James Wallace, who admits to being “embarrassed” by a debilitating injury record since arriving in South Yorkshire, they could also define the rest of his Bramall Lane career.
“I’m in my early Twenties, that’s still young, but I need to start playing games. I’ve got to kick-on now and start proving what I can do.
“You don’t come to a club like this if you’re not a good player. But, when you are at a big club, you’ve got to be able to stamp your authority to get a place in the team.”
Wallace was able to present his case on an all too infrequent basis last term with a series of complaints, including knee, groin and thigh problems, limiting the former Everton midfielder to 13 appearances including only eight starts. But, as United prepare to begin another gruelling League One campaign, he is confident things will be different this time around. Both in a physical and, perhaps even more importantly, psychological sense.
“One thing I’ve really worked on is the mental side of things.
“Last season I was going into games thinking I was going to get injured. I was thinking ‘I can feel something’ here and ‘I can feel something there’ which isn’t any good.
“But I’ve been doing double sessions at training, going into the same challenges I was before and feeling great. I don’t feel anything is going to happen.
“I’ve got a much stronger mentality. I was never right in my head or my body last year.”
Tomorrow’s visit to Priestfield will be a match of new beginnings for United. Nigel Adkins, previously of Southampton and Scunthorpe, takes charge of his first competitive fixture since being unveiled as Nigel Clough’s successor nine weeks ago. New signings Martyn Woolford, Billy Sharp and Conor Sammon are also expected to feature.
Despite those forays into the transfer market, Adkins, seeking the fifth promotion of his managerial career, has recognised plenty of talent already exists within United’s ranks.
Potentially the division’s most devastating midfielder, Wallace is a sporting conundrum and solving how such a fearsome tackler can be so fragile off the ball has featured prominently on Adkins’ ‘to-do’ list this summer.
“Mostly, it’s my missus that has helped. She’s been really good and so has the gaffer too,” Wallace says. The first day I met him, he told me to read a book called ‘The Chimp Paradox’ and he also recommended a film about that type of thing.
“They were both interesting and I feel as if I’ve got something out of them. They gave me a different perspective and some food-for-thought which is good.
“Some people believe in it. Some don’t which is fair enough. But I’m willing to try anything. I’ll give it a go.”
Wallace, who joined United from Tranmere Rovers last summer, has been troubled by his prolonged absences. Not least because, after forging an enviable reputation at Goodison Park’s academy, he turned his back on the Liverpudlians five seasons ago precisely “to play more games.”
“I remember one game away last season, at Doncaster, which really sums the situation up probably better than anything else.
“I’d been out for a while and I didn’t expect to start but I got picked, put straight back in the eleven and five of my family came over to watch.
“After about 15 minutes, I pulled my thigh. But I played on because, after everything else that had happened, I was too embarrassed to come off. Especially in front of them.
“So I played on and made the whole situation worse. Which, looking back, was obviously far from ideal. It wasn’t the right thing to do but I felt that I had to do it.”
A change of regime at Bramall Lane persuaded Wallace to adopt a fresh approach after missing May’s League One play-off semi-finals. Studying Steve Peter’s tome about managing his ‘inner chimp’ - the part of brain which runs on gut-instincts, snap judgements and emotions - is part of that blueprint. Always combative, Wallace now plans to be more calculating too.
“The last few years, because I’ve felt the need to get fit, I’ve really blasted it. I was doing stuff in the gym, leg weights and all of that stuff. I was really working hard.
“But, this time around, I thought why not do something different?
“So, basically, I just sat on the sun lounger for two weeks. I did nothing. Just had a complete rest, recharged my batteries and put my feet up. Which, to be honest, felt good.”
Wallace, who has taken part in five of United’s six pre-season friendlies en route to Kent, is reaping the benefits.
“I’ve enjoyed this pre-season more than any other I can remember. So I’m really looking forward to what’s ahead and trying to get this club to where we all think it should be.
“It’s mostly based on football, which is good, but it’s really challenging and tough on the body. It’s a test, there’s no doubt about that, but one you look forward to doing.
“I’ve managed myself much better and the gaffer has looked after me too. I feel in a really good, positive frame of mind and can’t wait to get going. Just get out there and start to get involved in the games.
“I think all of the lads will tell you the same thing.”