Hearts’ Callum Paterson: I was always going to pick Scotland

Callum Paterson can't wait to run out at Hampden as a Scotland player for the first time. Pic: SNS
Callum Paterson can't wait to run out at Hampden as a Scotland player for the first time. Pic: SNS
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CALLUM PATERSON makes his Hampden debut tomorrow as a proud, chest-thumping Scotsman. Although eligible for South Africa, Zimbabwe and – heaven forbid – England, he has waited years to walk out at the national stadium in dark blue. To him, it was the only choice.

Growing up in Scotland, attending school in Scotland and playing with Scottish kids at a Scottish club instilled unshakeable patriotism in the Hearts defender. Born in London to a Zimbabwean mother with South African parents, he was never likely to be short of international options. Yet, all through childhood, Scotland was his only consideration.

Two senior caps to date against Italy and Malta let Paterson demonstrate why he can be this country’s international right-back for the next decade and beyond. Now comes a baptism at Scotland’s spiritual home against Lithuania in a World Cup qualifier.

Paterson spent years watching Alan Hutton and Steven Whittaker rampage up and down the Hampden flanks. In a quirk of fate, his emergence has relegated Hutton to deputy right-back. The man from Tynecastle has usurped the Aston Villa counterpart who, at 31, is ten years his senior. Ever since his school days in Edinburgh, Paterson coveted that position.

“If you take me back to primary school, when I watched Scotland play and watched Hearts play, I would think: ‘If I ever got to play one game for that country, or for Hearts, it would be the best thing I’ve ever done,’” he said. “To play as many games as I have for Hearts [he made his 150th competitive appearance at Fir Park last Friday], and now to get off the mark for Scotland, I’d like to add a few more caps to my collection.

“I liked watching Hutton and Whittaker for Scotland, even if Whittaker played left-back. I like watching big, strong full-backs play. They were the two I’d look at. To play in the team ahead of Hutton in the Malta game was massive. Even in training before the game, I learned a lot from him so I’m grateful for that.

“I was born in a different country. My mum and her family are from different countries, but Scotland is all I’ve known. I’ve always lived here, I’ve been brought up here, I speak Scottish, my friends are Scottish, everything about me is to do with Scotland. I could never turn my back on that, especially with the people here coming and asking me to play for them.”

The Scottish Football Association officials didn’t need much of a sales pitch. “Not at all. At the end of the day, it was entirely up to me. I would’ve picked Scotland anyway, there was no thought of picking another country. None of the other nations really asked. People were talking on Facebook and Twitter but it was just rumours, there was nothing substantial. I would never have picked them anyway, so there wasn’t much point in people talking about it.”

Playing in a competitive international last month removed any possibility of another country persuading him to change allegiance. It also confirmed Paterson as the preferred choice of national coach Gordon Strachan for this qualifying campaign. “It was massive for me. I was nervous going into the game,” admitted the player. “I realised during the game and afterwards that I’ve just got to relax and play my game. The manager has showed a lot of faith in me, coaches have put in good words, so it’s down to me to prove I’m worthy of playing there.”

Paterson finds himself part of a clutch of young burgeoning internationalists who are key to Scotland’s future. Oliver Burke, Andrew Robertson, Barrie McKay, John McGinn and another Hearts academy graduate, Jack Hamilton, are all relative newcomers in their late teens or early 20s. Strachan is trying to blood them and already has the crux of a solid defence in place.

“There’s the likes of Jack in goal and some young centre-backs at Hearts. That’s the foundation to build a team on,” insisted Paterson. “With Kieran, myself and Andy as full-backs, it’s a great base to build from.”

The goal threat carried by the Hearts full-back is a serious bonus both for club and country. He is currently joint-top scorer at Tynecastle and arrived at the Scotland camp fresh from a thunderblast of a strike at Fir Park last Friday. “I was asked to play a more disciplined role and I did that until I hadn’t scored a goal. I thought I may as well go up there and get one so we could settle the game,” he smiled. His versatility and attacking prowess have seen him used as a striker in the past at Hearts, but that is unlikely to happen under Strachan.

“At the start, people were saying: ‘He’s just a young boy, stop moving him about.’ I had no qualms with it,” stressed Paterson. “I wanted to play in as many positions as I could. It hasn’t hindered me at all. If anything, it’s progressed me and made me a better player. I’m thankful that I’m here with the opportunity to play anywhere, but hopefully it’s right-back.”

Regardless of his desire to step out at Hampden, he is eager just to experience an international match which doesn’t take place in Malta. Both his Scotland outings so far came on the Mediterranean island, and he played a European tie there with Hearts in July just for good measure.

“I’ve been there three times in three months but it’s always good to go away no matter who you’re playing. We played Italy over there, then we went over with Hearts, and then again for the game last month. For the Italy game with Scotland and the Hearts game [against Birkirkara], we were in the same hotel. Me and Jack were actually in the same room.”

He could be forgiven for craving another foreign trip to avoid questions here about his club future. However, Paterson is relaxed about the situation as his Hearts contract runs down. He intends to leave as a free agent at the end of the season but is determined not to be distracted in the meantime. Lithuania tomorrow and Slovakia on Tuesday are at the forefront of his thoughts.

“I’m here to play for Scotland and I’ve got two massive games to look forward to, so of course I switch off from it. I switch off from it when I’m at my club anyway. Being here, it’s all about Scotland, nothing to do with Hearts at all. Everything is fine at Hearts.

“It’s not like the gaffer [Robbie Neilson] is going to say: ‘You’re not playing if you don’t sign.’ It’s nothing to do with that. I’m enjoying playing my football, I’m playing loads of games and I’m scoring goals. I just have to keep doing what I’m doing.”

International exposure may create more options if he is as consistent in dark blue as he has been in maroon. “Yes, it could in hindsight. Like I said, I’m just enjoying playing. Whatever comes later will come.”

His unwavering focus is something Scotland will need if they are to make a decent fist of this double-header. Beating Lithuania would seem essential and a draw in Slovakia would be acceptable results on the road to Russia 2018. Paterson was just four years old last time the Tartan Army enjoyed a major tournament in 1998.

“I can’t remember it but I’d love to help the country get back there and hopefully I can be part of that. It would be great to get there, especially for players who have been here throughout the years and missed out.

“It won’t put added pressure on us. The older boys aren’t looking to the younger boys to help them out. It’s more everyone working as a team. We know we’re capable of it. We’ve narrowly missed out in the past.”