Callum Paterson had the wind in his sails as he returned for pre-season, encouraged by the prospect of finally being able to flourish in a Hearts team unburdened by off-field problems.
After emerging with his stock high following a gruelling two-year baptism in an administration-ravaged first team, the teenager was relishing being able to show what he could do in more favourable circumstances this season.
To that end, things started well enough when he put Hearts 3-0 up 40 minutes into their first competitive game of the exciting new era, a Petrofac Training Cup tie at home to Annan at the end of July. The scoring touch which had brought him four goals in the last four games of last season was evidently still there.
Then disaster struck as he caught his studs in the ground right on the stroke of half-time, twisting his knee, and, as would soon become apparent, sustaining cruciate ligament damage. Only now, nearly two months and seven competitive games down the line, is he ready to return to action as his table-topping team prepare to welcome Cowdenbeath to Tynecastle tomorrow.
“To get an injury like that against Annan in the Petrofac Cup – it’s a bit of a waste for me,” he sighed ruefully. “After finishing last season so well, I was buzzing for the start of the season, so to get injured so early in the first competitive game before the league had even kicked off was a nightmare.
“Missing out on the Rangers and Hibs games was especially frustrating. I’ve been at all the games, watching them and it’s been enjoyable. It’s really frustrating when you’re watching from the sidelines thinking ‘I could be out playing there’, but at the same time it’s great to watch when the team are doing as well as they are at the moment. When the team is winning and the boys are coming into training happy and full of confidence, it’s good to see and helps make you feel good when you’re injured. I’m back fit now and hopefully the injury is not going to hinder me in the future.”
While Paterson’s stock was high at the time of his injury, he was concerned that, with the club now in a position to bolster their squad with new signings, he might end up falling down the pecking order. As it is, he will be trying to win back the right-back berth from fellow teenager Jordan McGhee, who has helped Hearts take 13 points from their five league games so far. “As a young boy still trying to establish myself in the team, you’re a bit worried when you’re injured and you see new, more experienced players coming in,” he admitted. “It’s going to be harder for me to get back in the team but having so much competition will help make me a better player.
“Last year it was a case of the manager playing whoever was fit. I’d probably have gone straight into the team, but this year there’s far more competition. Jordan’s playing really well at the moment so it’s not going to be as easy as just going in and taking his position. We’re good friends but it’s going to be a bit of a battle between the two of us to play at right-back.”
This is the second time since breaking into the first team that Paterson has had to overcome a significant injury after he suffered ligament damage to his foot that caused him to miss the last four months of his breakthrough campaign, including the 2013 League Cup final against St Mirren. The 19-year-old is philosophical with regards to the setbacks he has faced so far.
“I’ve had a few big injuries already but that’s part and parcel of the game,” he said. “You can’t just expect to finish your career without injuries. There’s always going to be ups and downs along the way. I’ve had my fair share of ‘downs’ already so I’m looking for a few ‘ups’ now. I’ve made a pretty fast recovery and that’s down to the physios and the work I’ve put in myself. It’s been hard but it’s going well now. The first couple of days back in training you’re a bit wary of the injury and you don’t really want to go full-pelt, but once you get a bit of confidence you get right back in about it and you forget all about the injury.”
After coming through the bulk of Monday night’s Under-20 match against Rangers unscathed, Paterson feels fit and ready to face bottom-of-the-league Cowdenbeath as Hearts look to get back on track following their goalless draw at Dumbarton last weekend.
Having only ever known life in a Hearts team which has toiled in the bottom six of the Premiership under first John McGlynn and then Gary Locke, the full-back is eager to experience being part of a buoyant Jambos side challenging for a title. “The young boys like myself all benefitted last season from playing regularly in the first team in front of big crowds but we’ll benefit even more this season from having more experienced boys to help us through,” he continued.
“We were struggling a lot last season and now we’re doing alright, but last week showed that we’re not going to be able to stroll it this season.
“All the fans thought we’d just go to Dumbarton and walk all over them, but we knew it wouldn’t be as easy as that and it showed at the weekend. Cowdenbeath are just the same. They’re down at the bottom, probably fighting against relegation even this early in the season, and they’ll be wanting to take the scalp of one of the big teams.”
Paterson and his fellow Hearts youngsters will encounter a familiar face in the shape of their former Under-19 captain Chris Kane, who is now playing for Cowdenbeath.
“I’m looking forward to catching up with Chris and seeing how he’s getting on,” said Paterson. “He was captain of the youth team I was in and I played with him for a few years, so it’s good to see him doing well at Cowdenbeath.”
Regardless of injury troubles and Hearts’ recent difficulties on and off the field, Paterson feels privileged to have played for the club during such a pivotal period in its history. With stability restored under Ann Budge’s ownership, he hopes the sense of optimism around Tynecastle can help carry the club back into the Premiership. “The last few years have been a great time to be a Hearts player,” he said. “With everything that happened last year, the season-ticket sales, the fans backing us and everyone around us backing us, it’s been an amazing time to be at the club – hopefully I’ll be here for a few more years. We’ve had a lot of hardship and bad times in the last couple of years, so getting promotion this season would be a reward for all the hard work that’s gone on and give everyone a massive boost.
“The fans have been great and the manager’s been brilliant – everything’s going well so hopefully we can keep it going.”