Robbie Neilson could spend the entire international break pondering how to get Hearts strikers scoring without finding an answer. His biggest attacking threat comes from right-back Callum Paterson.
Creating chances isn’t an issue, converting them remains a massive one. There appears to be no obvious fix.
Paterson joined up with the Scotland squad at Mar Hall last night after his late header rescued a point for Hearts in Saturday’s 2-2 draw with St Johnstone. He is the club’s top goalscorer this season with six in all competitions – more than all four strikers combined. Tony Watt, Conor Sammon, Bjorn Johnsen and Robbie Muirhead all featured at the weekend but again drew a blank.
The situation is not quite of desperate proportions because Hearts are still in the mix near the top of Scotland’s Premiership. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a worry. Neilson knows his forwards should be bulging nets more often. As much as he is grateful for Paterson’s rampaging power, lethal feet and aerial threat, no team should have to rely so heavily on a defender for goals.
Recent results – a 2-0 defeat at Kilmarnock, 3-3 draw in Inverness and the 2-2 scoreline from the weekend – are the cause of mounting frustration. Yet there is an abundance of character which continues to drag Hearts out of trouble. Defenders and midfielders are finding the net but simultaneously can’t stop the team conceding.
The reinstated midfielder Prince Buaben opened the scoring against St Johnstone with a header before Danny Swanson equalised on his return to Tynecastle. When substitute Chris Kane struck five minutes from a time – a goal Hearts fiercely disputed claiming offside against Steven MacLean – it seemed the visitors would leave Edinburgh victorious. Paterson felt differently and met Don Cowie’s corner two minutes later to tie the scoreline.
“It shows the character we’ve got in the team. The last few games haven’t quite to plan but we’ve got an excellent team and it shows we’re up for the fight,” said goalkeeper Jack Hamilton. “Everybody can see how good Callum is in the air and the goal threat. He’s scored six goals this season, which is excellent for a right-back. Everybody knows how good he is.
“He’s got everything. He works hard on and off the park, eats the right things, he’s just an all-round player who does his job very well. I’ve known him since we were 15 or 16 and we room together when we’re away with Scotland. He’s played more than 150 games now and he’s a key player for us.
“We know we have fantastic players and everybody is working hard. We know we have the quality to get goals but sometimes in football things don’t go for you.”
Neilson’s comments pointed more to others needing to be more clinical in the final third. “Callum is certainly our main threat at the moment. He gives us goals at set plays and in open play as well. He’s a big threat – and we need to get into our stride striking-wise and scoring goals.”
The man himself is now focused on Wembley, where he will play for Scotland on Friday night. His emergence as first-choice international right-back this season has forced the predecessor Alan Hutton into retirement. He could face £49million Manchester City winger Raheem Sterling in the World Cup qualifier.
“Raheem has improved since the past time I played him,” said Paterson, referring to Hearts’ 2012 Europa League qualifier against Liverpool. “I’m excited to be part of that match on Friday. It’ll be the biggest game I’ve ever been involved in and a massive achievement. For me even to be in the squad is a big thing.
“Hopefully I can get a game and see how Raheem has kicked on since we played Liverpool five years ago. Hopefully not too much because I played right-midfield that game but he gave me a torrid time.”
Neilson is convinced Paterson’s goalscoring ability will ensure he is named in Scotland’s starting line-up to face England. The 22-year-old was born in London but moved to Scotland as a child.
“I would definitely be putting him in against England,” said Neilson. “If we get a set-play at Wembley, he’s the man you want in there. Believe me, no matter who you are playing against he’ll score goals. Hopefully he plays, it’s up to Gordon [Strachan] but I think he has played well the last two games so I don’t see why he wouldn’t be in.”
Hamilton will also make the trip south as the third-choice goalkeeper in Strachan’s squad. He is unlikely to be involved other than sitting amongst the substitutes. However, he is eager to experience such a high-octane occasion as Scotland try to win and rekindle hopes of reaching the 2018 World Cup finals.
The goalkeeper is certain Paterson won’t be overawed by the surroundings. “He’s played the last few games for Scotland and he’s done really well. That shows the quality he’s got. Coming through at youth level, you always knew he had something. It’s just a pleasure to play alongside him.
“A game of football is a game of football to Callum and that’s the way to be. He’ll give his all and hopefully do well for the team. It will be an excellent experience down there. You aren’t going to get much bigger than 90,000 people at Wembley.”