He is the player who survived rejection, positional changes and the loss of his footballing patron to carve a niche at Bramall Lane.
Kieran Wallace is a survivor. A midfielder turned defender who, after being released by Nottingham Forest 16 months ago, is proving the City Ground’s loss is Sheffield United’s gain.
“When I left Forest, yes, it was disappointing,” he says. “It’s a big blow when that happens for any young player but you don’t get anywhere by feeling sorry for yourself or moping about do you? I still had belief in myself and so pretty much just got on with things and looked for a way back in.”
Wallace, who hopes to make his seventh start for Nigel Adkins’ side against Port Vale tomorrow, chose what some might regard as an unusual route. Rather than accept an invitation from one of the well-appointed academies vying for his services, the former England youth international decided Ilkeston, a pioneering non-league club from Derbyshire, was the best place to relaunch his career.
“I had the chance to go to a few other clubs but I chose Ilkeston for a reason,” Wallace explains.”Basically, I just wanted to play football because I thought that would give me the best possible chance going forward. I know some people might have thought I’d be better off staying in the league but I’d have been starting all over again really and that’s not something I wanted to do. Anyway, Ilkeston have got a really good set-up and you get really good coaching there. It’s very professional. I don’t think it was brave, dropping into non-league, because for me it was the best thing to do.”
Wallace’s decision was vindicated when, only months after arriving at the New Manor Ground, he was awarded a professional contract by United before making his senior debut less than four weeks later at Fleetwood Town. Although Che Adams, another player acquired from Ilkeston, made an explosive start to life in South Yorkshire - scoring twice during a Capital One Cup tie against Tottenham Hotspur - Wallace’s progress has been more deliberate than dramatic. But impressive nonetheless.
“Playing first team football there really toughened me up. We had a young team but you are playing against men and the results really mattered. If you made a mistake, it mattered and you had to learn to deal with it and get back to doing your job. Looking back, that really helped and it was one of the reasons I went there. “There was a real physical edge to the games to because the result made a massive different to people and their lives. What I mean is, some of the teams will have been on a win bonus and if they didn’t get it, then that could make a real difference to how they lived their lives. It was a really good experience for me.”
Nigel Clough, the manager responsible for signing Wallace and Adams, was dismissed soon after United’s defeat in the League One play-off semi-finals last term. His departure, given that the former Liverpool and Manchester City midfielder had been instrumental in bringing Wallace to the club, appeared to undermine the 20-year-old’s position. Instead, combined with a pre-season injury crisis, it promises to be Wallace’s making instead. Adkins, who named him as a makeshift centre-half for United’s friendly with Ilkeston, has been mightily impressed by Wallace’s performances both there and at full-back.
“Going into defence has been really new for me,” Wallace says. “But I enjoy learning and, wherever I end up position-wise, it’s going to help me out I’m sure. It will improve my game because, even if I do go back to midfield, I’ll have more understanding of that the lads back there want.”
“When I first went there I thought ‘okay, I’ve never done this before.’ It was a bit of a surprise but I was pleased to be playing and thought I’d just do my best and get on with it,” he continues. “I wanted to do well for the team and also myself because I was back at Ilkeston. So there was a little bit of pressure there because you always want to do well when you go back to an old club don’t you. I owe Ilkeston a lot and wish them all the best. It’s a great club, just like here.”
Appearances can be deceptive. Beneath Wallace’s Nottinghamshire drawl and delightfully unpretentious haircut, lurks a cerebral individual dedicated to perfecting his craft.
“I used to think, when I was a midfielder, why are they getting mad because I’ve given them that pass or why haven’t they given me the ball when I’ve dropped short for it? Now, I know and can appreciate what’s going on. At the back, you see the whole picture a lot more because everything is usually happening in front of you. And there are sometimes when you’ve got to go long, you can’t risk a short pass into midfield even if it might be on at other times. You get a really good idea of shape and I think it’s helped me a lot in terms of my learning and development.”
Wallace, of course, is not the only player to swap United’s engine room for its rearguard in recent years with Clough, who dispatched him on loan to Lincoln City towards the end of last term, also placing similar demands on Ryan Flynn.
“I haven’t really asked Flynny about it,” Wallace admits. “But the rest of the lads at the back, who have been doing it all the time, talk to me throughout and I pick-up lots from that. I’m enjoying myself and that’s got to be a good sign. The boys have been brilliant with me.”
Likewise Adkins, together with his lieutenants Andy Crosby and Dean Wilkins.
“The coaching staff have been really good to me as well,” Wallace says. “We do tons of stuff about the details and they always make sure we’re really prepared, that we know all about the opposition and how to deal with different scenarios that might come up in games. That give you confidence before you start.”