Quality full-backs roamed around Tynecastle in a sideshow to this straightforward win over Alloa.
The classy Takis Fyssas returned for the day to see former colleague Robbie Neilson managing a side with a 100 per cent home record this season. Those two played in one of the strongest Hearts teams of the modern era in 2005, but there is a new kid aiming to join their pantheon of full-back greatness.
Callum Paterson charged forward to score the second goal in Hearts’ 2-0 victory and generally spent his afternoon rampaging up and down the right flank like an express train. His development into a potential international right-back continues apace after October’s call-up to Gordon Strachan’s Scotland squad. He is still just 20 but already exudes many of the attributes required of the modern, attack-minded full-back. The closest comparison at the moment would be a young Alan Hutton, except with an aerial threat.
Now, Paterson has a fair distance to go before he could claim Neilson’s level of consistency at club level. Even further till he could be measured near a European champion like Fyssas. However, much like Hearts at the moment, he is beyond comparison in the Scottish Championship. It would be a huge surprise if he did not continue to thrive in the Premiership next season, provided his club end their promotion push successfully.
Paterson scampered forward to join in attacks at every opportunity against Alloa. He was also back defending when necessary, winning challenges on the ground and in the air. His play was a standout feature of a routine Hearts performance in which midfielder Miguel Pallardo also showed his class. On the left flank, the experienced Adam Eckersley was just as effective.
Paterson linked with Jamie Walker and sprinted towards the six-yard box to convert the winger’s cross, putting his team 2-0 up with less than 30 minutes played. It was his third goal in 12 appearances this season after he underwent knee surgery in July. James Keatings had scored a crisp opener from 20 yards on 16 minutes before the full-back again etched his name on the scoresheet.
“I’d been running up and down that right wing for the first half an hour like a headless chicken,” he smiled. “I eventually got the ball to my feet and I put it away. I don’t know how it went in but I hope I can get a couple more before the end of the season. All I usually am is a decoy. It was great being involved in the goal. I love supplying goals as well and I’ve had a few assists this season. That feels just as good, if not better than a goal.”
Paterson has shown an ability to link with whichever winger is selected to play ahead of him. On Saturday, it was Walker but Billy King and Sam Nicholson have also played wide right this season. All three have had to get used to the sight of Paterson whizzing by on their outside time after time.
“Me, Jamie, Sam and Billy have all played together in the youth ranks and now we’re taking it into the first team. Hopefully we can build on that and take it on to a bigger stage,” said Paterson.
There seems little doubt he will go higher. His impressive performance on the day Fyssas returned to Tynecastle seemed entirely fitting.
The Greek won the Scottish Cup with Hearts and made a poignant contribution the night the club reached the Champions League qualifying rounds in 2006. His “Champions League, la, la la,” rendition on the pitch that evening will live long in the memory of everyone who witnessed it. He was paraded on the pitch at half-time on Saturday – prompting Hearts fans to re-enact said chant – and made his way downstairs to the manager’s office at full-time.
There, he chatted with former team-mate Neilson. Paterson’s name would likely have cropped up during their conversation, as might the fact Neilson is steering something of a juggernaut at Tynecastle. Hearts have won every game there this season and look a formidable force at the top of the league.
“It’s a hard place for other teams to come and we love playing here,” continued Paterson. “The fans are on our side the whole time and it’s a horrible place for other teams to come. We’re enjoying it and looking to stay unbeaten here. It’s a massive achievement to be unbeaten at home. I hope we can carry that on till the end of the season.
“Individuals are scoring goals, we score good team goals, we’re winning games and the fans are on our side. It’s just massive. We’ve had in the past the excuse of us being young and growing into the game but we’re all experienced professionals now. The more experienced professionals can help the younger players improve. Everyone is going to improve throughout the season when we’re winning games as well.”
A healthy crowd of more than 15,000 attended Saturday’s match but Hearts now enter a different environment tomorrow night. Cowdenbeath’s Central Park is no place for the faint of heart. Cowdenbeath got a result away from home on Saturday [a 2-1 win at Queen of the South] so they have a bit of form. We want to go up there and take the three points. We take a lot of fans everywhere. Having the fans there is great and they keep the game going no matter where we play. It’s going to be different going up to a smaller ground on a Tuesday night. It will be freezing cold and the wind will be blowing but we’re prepared for that. We’ve shown that we’ve got the class in the team to play football in all conditions and win games.”
Neilson declared himself pleased after taking three points from Alloa and acknowledged that his players were mindful of the midweek fixture looming. “The boys know they have a game tomorrow so I think that was at the back of their minds. A few of them took their foot off the gas for the last 30 minutes, but they controlled the game and saw it out comfortably. I’m fine with them conserving energy because it’s a huge game coming up. I’m delighted with our home record so far, but those games are all done now, they’re in the past. We have another nine home games left to play, that’s the important thing. Our focus is on Cowdenbeath and we’re going there to win.”