A pre-season friendly at Stark’s Park will always stir positive memories for Callum Paterson.
It was, after all, a July warm-up match away to Raith Rovers which kick-started a remarkable three years for the Hearts youngster.
Apart from those enthusiasts who had followed closely the fortunes of Darren Murray’s Under-20 team, few Hearts fans had heard of the then 17-year-old South Queensferry boy by this point in 2012.
The club was in a state of flux, entering a period of uncertainty as financial mismanagement under Vladimir Romanov began to take its toll. The revered manager, Paulo Sergio, had moved on to be replaced by John McGlynn, who was viewed by Hearts’ hierarchy as the man to nurture a group of highly-regarded youngsters into the first team to fill the voids left by the departures of big-hitters like Stephen Elliott, Rudi Skacel, Ian Black, Craig Beattie and Rudi Skacel.
Despite their collective lack of first-team action, the likes of Jason Holt, Jamie Walker, David Smith and Denis Prychynenko had all been touted as the young players most likely to come into the side and make their mark after starring in the Under-20s team and enjoying loan spells under McGlynn at previous club Raith. Paterson’s name had never been on the radar of the wider public. Until the July 14, 2012.
In McGlynn’s first match in charge of Hearts – a testimonial for his former Rovers player, Laurie Ellis – he included two rookie full-backs. One was Kevin McHattie, a left-back who was at least known to supporters by virtue of making a ten-minute substitute appearance under Sergio the previous August before being farmed out to Paul Hartley’s Alloa Athletic side. The other was Paterson. The fact he was gangly, athletic, dark-haired and playing at right-back meant some supporters who hadn’t availed themselves of pre-match team news merely assumed this was Ryan McGowan, the club’s established right-back, in his usual berth. The Aussie, of course, was being tried out in a more advanced central midfield role, an experiment that didn’t last long. Not that this was down to any deficiencies on Paterson’s part, however. Quite the opposite.
With just 28 minutes of the match gone, the young unknown bounded into the Raith Rovers penalty box and skelped a low left-footed shot powerfully into the net to open the scoring. His team won 3-0, but, more pertinently, Paterson, three years on and still only 20, is a mainstay of the team. In fact, he and McHattie are the two only members of the starting XI that day who are still at Tynecastle as the Premiership newcomers prepare to head across the Forth for their third friendly of the summer at Stark’s Park tonight.
“That was a great day for me, I really enjoyed it,” Paterson told the Evening News. “It was only a testimonial, but even still, to go there on your debut and play well and score was really good for me. I was only 17 and me and Kev came in and he set me up for the goal.
“John McGlynn gave me my debut and I can only thank him for that. I’d never really even trained with the first-team before but he threw me in. It was a shock at the time to be involved but it was good as it helped mature me and set me off on the path to becoming the player I am today. John played a big part in me getting to where I am today.”
It would be stretching a point to suggest Paterson has never looked back since that breakthrough moment. He has, after all, endured a couple of bad injuries – one which ruled him out of a League Cup final – form dips which manifested from being overplayed by necessity in his early days in the team and involvement in the gruelling 2013/14 campaign, when he and his young colleagues were relegated from the Premiership as the effects of administration left Hearts beleaguered and bereft. Even then, he finished as his team’s top scorer that season with 11 goals.
At the onset of his fourth year as a member of Hearts’ first team, the 20-year-old has already made 101 competitive appearances for his club, with a remarkable 94 of these as a starter. No other current top-level Scottish player of his age-group has had such prominent exposure by this stage of their career. In addition, his fledgling CV can boast 22 competitive goals for Hearts, a couple of Europa League starts against Liverpool, Scotland Under-21 status, a full Scotland call-up and a Championship winners’ medal.
“I’m delighted with how things have gone for me since my debut, especially with getting the Scotland call-up and winning the league last year,” said Paterson. “Hopefully I can carry it on and take it into this season. I’ve had a few ups and downs along the way.
“I’ve had a couple of bad injuries and a few bad performances over the years but I feel like I’m back on my feet and hopefully it’s onwards and upwards from now on.”
The next phase of his rise will involve establishing himself as one of the top right-backs in the country and helping Hearts achieve their goal of finishing in the top six on their return to the Premiership. “When I played in the Premiership before I was only a young guy,” he said. “I’ve matured a lot in the last year and I’ve experienced a lot of ups and downs over the past few years. Hopefully I’ve matured enough to do well in the Premiership.
“Only time will tell how well we’ll do as a team. We’ll need to wait and see how we do in our first few games in the Premiership. It’s looking good though.”
This was the general vibe among Hearts’ players and supporters following a fruitful five-day pre-season trip to Ireland last week. In their friendly victories over Dublin sides Bohemians and Shelbourne, there was an inescapable sense – as there was last summer – that Robbie Neilson’s team mean business. Quadruple sessions at their training base reaffirmed the work ethic that the head coach demands, while first impressions of Juanma Delgado, Gavin Reilly, Blazej Augustyn and 18-year-old development player Jahmal Howlett-Mundle suggest Hearts have continued their trend from last season of recruiting well.
“The trip to Ireland was great although it was hard work,” explained Paterson. “We played two good teams and got results against them. It’s never great to concede a couple of goals but the main thing from friendlies at this stage is to get fitness.
“The new boys have bedded in well. Juanma scored on Saturday, Gavin’s done well and Jahmal, especially, has played well. He loves a tackle. He’s composed and he’s got decent experience for a teenager from having been at Crystal Palace. We’re looking forward to having him on board.”
The young Englishman’s presence merely adds to the height in a physically-imposing Hearts squad. “We’ve got a lot of height in the squad now,” said Paterson. “I was saying to the boys that I used to be one of the tallest and now I’m probably one of the smallest. It’s always a good thing to have big players who can also play a bit and get about the pitch.”
With optimism rife among the Hearts fans ahead of their team’s return to the Premiership, a big travelling support is expected to make the short journey to Kirkcaldy for their first sight of the new faces in Scottish soil. “Stark’s Park’s always a nice wee place to go and play, and we always take a good support there, so I’m looking forward to it,” added Paterson.