BORN in England, Callum Tapping looks more than comfortable in a Scotland tracksuit. This is his first call-up to Billy Stark’s under-21 squad and the Hearts midfielder acknowledges he is only here because of one brave decision 18 months ago.
Joining Hearts from Tottenham Hotspur was a bold move designed to get him first-team football. He’s been patient at under-19 and under-20 level, but has now made four senior appearances in the last four weeks. In three starts, he has yet to lose a first-team game and he is now about to head to Greece for a friendly with the Scotland Under-21s. It has been quite a month.
Tapping, right, explains that he only ever considered representing one nation. Born in London to an English father and Scottish mother, he moved to Larbert aged five and considers himself a Scot. Nothing else. He learned of his call-up at the back of the Hearts team bus on Saturday night as it pulled out of Dingwall following the 2-2 draw with Ross County. The rise to prominence has been rapid but the 19-year-old isn’t flustered in the slightest.
“This is another step up and as a player you’re always stepping up,” he told the Evening News. “There are loads of good players here. I’m just trying to get used to the new faces, get comfortable in this environment and then get playing. Hopefully I can stay in the squad now. That’s the aim. When you get a chance like this, it’s like getting into the first team at Hearts. You want to impose yourself and make in impression. It’s Billy’s decision, though.”
Having promoted Tapping from the Scotland Under-19 squad after only four first-team outings, Stark clearly rates him highly. Tapping doubts whether the exhilaration he has experienced lately – playing in a national cup semi-final and earning an under-21 place – would have occurred had he remained in London in August 2011.
“I always believed I made the right decision to come up to Hearts,” he continued. “Being at Tottenham was a great experience and a big learning curve for me, but I looked around and thought ‘am I going to play in the first team here or not?’
“When I got the opportunity to go to Hearts I knew I couldn’t turn it down. Hearts is a big team in Scotland and I had to take the chance. It all happened quite quickly. Hearts told me I’d come in and start at under-19 level and it was up to me to progress from there. There is no special treatment for anybody coming in. It’s was up to me to push on. That was a good message for me.
“The last 18 months at Hearts, working with Darren Murray, have been brilliant. He’s always there pushing me on and his support has been great. He brings your confidence up, pointing out when you’re doing well, but he isn’t slow to tell you if you need to be told either.
“Every young player wants to play in the first team. It’s just a matter of biding your time and you need to take your chance when you get it. I’d like to play more games in the coming weeks now. I think I’ve done not badly so far, considering we’ve had two wins and a draw in that time. It’s good to play in a team that’s doing well.
“At the back of my mind I wasn’t too sure what the difference would be between reserve football and under-20s compared with the first team. I’ve stepped up and, obviously, you feel the difference, but the players around me have helped make it easier. This is my first call-up to the 21s. I was on the bus after the game on Saturday. The gaffer came across and told me about the call-up and said he was pleased for me. He told me I’d done well in the last three games, congratulated me and told me to go and push on with Scotland.”
Isn’t Tapping’s international allegiance the cause of friction at home between mum and dad? “No, not at all,” he smiled. “My dad laughs it off. He’s always had my back and supported me. I’ve always just focused on playing for Scotland because I was brought up here. If I got the chance, I wasn’t going to say no.”
He even took the diligent move of joining Paul Hartley’s Alloa on a month’s loan towards the end of last year. It was the final part of his preparation for elevation to the Hearts first team and accorded the player vital experience of what he calls “men’s football”. Yet Tapping isn’t entirely new to the Scottish game.
“I was with Celtic for five years between the ages of ten and 15,” he recalled. “Then I moved on to Hamilton and Tottenham took me down to England at 16-and-a-half.
“I was playing games for Hamilton and one day they took me aside and said they’d been approached by Tottenham asking if I could go down and train with them in the summer. I went down for two weeks and they said they were interested in me. I went down again a few more times and played some games. Then Tottenham and Hamilton came to an agreement and that was it.
“It was a good achievement for me but I was a wee bit nervous being away from home at 16. I moved to London and it was a great experience. I spoke to Joe Jordan [former Tottenham assistant manager] a lot when I was down there and he was really good with me, a good influence. Now I’m looking to push on and keep improving.”
With that, Tapping heads off to Glasgow airport to catch the flight to Greece. He’s been flying at Hearts in recent weeks. Now he’s flying with Scotland.