Callum Paterson smiles and takes a seat in the reception area at Hearts’ Riccarton training complex.
He is polite, courteous and enthusiastic in conversation, especially on his recent Scotland call-up. If the truth be told, though, he is sick of sitting around talking about football.
He hasn’t kicked a ball in anger since a scathing tackle on Hibs’ Dominique Malonga at Easter Road three weeks ago. The subsequent red card brought a two-game ban, although promotion from the Scotland Under-21s to the full squad last week eased Paterson’s frustration slightly.
Nevertheless, he endured a watching brief throughout the European Championship qualifying win over Ireland and the friendly defeat by England. He’s now had enough of sitting around. To employ football parlance, he is desperate to get stuck in about it again.
Tomorrow provides a perfect opportunity. Paterson’s return comes at a timely juncture with Rangers due at Tynecastle for a potential powderkeg occasion. The stadium will be bursting at the seams as Hearts try to open a nine-point gap at the top of the Scottish Championship. Paterson is fit and fresh after his suspension and keen to get back into action.
“I’ll be fresh, but my legs are turning to jelly,” he laughed. “I’ve not played in what seems like ages, so hopefully I can do a job tomorrow.
“I always want to play, but it’s my own fault, really, that I missed the two games through suspension. It was a silly decision at the time. It’s in the past now and I just need to put it behind me and forget about what happened.
“It’s not like people go their whole careers without being sent off, but hopefully that’s my last one. It’s a bit of a blow and I just want to get back playing football. I can’t wait for tomorrow to come.”
He must wait to discover whether the Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson reinstates him at right-back. Paterson returned from international duty with renewed vigour despite not featuring in any of Scotland’s two matches.
“It’s always frustrating not to play, but it’s the national team. I can’t really complain to anybody and I can’t moan at all. It was a massive achievement even getting into the squad and then being on the bench. I was happy to be a part of it.
“It was a massive week, although it was a bit of a surprise when I got the call-up. To be on the bench against England, and even just being involved in training, was an unbelievable experience.
“Of course, it was a steep learning curve. The standard of the players is very high. It was great to train alongside people like Darren Fletcher, James Morrison and Steven Fletcher, and to see how they play. It showed what standard you need to be at to play in the Premier League in England.”
That prompts the question of how far away Paterson is from that level. “Not as far as I thought I was, but I’ve still got a lot to work on and a lot to do,” he replied.
He hopes to put into practice what he learned with Scotland against Rangers, selection permitting. Jordan McGhee has played right-back in his absence as Hearts beat both Raith Rovers and Falkirk. It remains to be seen whether Neilson keeps faith with the 18-year-old or goes with the more experienced Paterson – who only recently turned 20 himself.
“It’s obviously a massive game. You can’t say you don’t want to play against Rangers. It’s going to be one of the biggest games of the season other than Hibs so everyone is buzzing,” he said. “It’s two big teams going in against each other. One will be trying to close the gap, the other will be trying to extend it. The game is really important for both clubs.
“There is never really much of a psychological advantage because these games take care of themselves. Hopefully the boys are in the right frame of mind do go and do the business.”
Thoughts of putting a sizeable gap between themselves and Rangers is at the forefront of the Hearts players’ minds. The Glasgow club hold a slight advantage in terms of experience, but Paterson explained that they won’t be able to beat Hearts for appetite.
“It’s pretty equal. They are more experienced than us, but we have the ability and the more hungry players,” he said. “That’s been shown throughout the season. Hopefully these things will cancel each other out and it will be a fair game. We’re focusing on ourselves and there’s no pressure on us at all. We just need to keep doing what we’ve been doing.
“It would be a massive boost, but it is a long way to go in the season. To go nine points clear would be great, but to be nine points clear at the end of the season would be even better.
“People might think it’s an important time of the season. If we win this game and then lose the next ten then it isn’t going to look great. It’s a long season but we’re just focusing on the weekend at the moment.
“The fans have been brilliant throughout the whole season and we can’t ask for any more. We’re just hoping they can give us what they’ve given us all season. Their support is really important to all the lads.”
Like Paterson, Rangers’ Lewis Macleod was a Scotland inductee who watched, listened and learned this week. “We didn’t really talk about tomorrow’s game because we had more important things on our minds at the time. He’s back at his club now and I’m back at mine so we’ll be thinking about it now,” said Paterson, who revealed he prepares the same way for every match. “My mum always cooks me pasta and pesto the night before a game, so that will be the same tonight. It’s a bit of a superstition because I have it before every game.”
Regardless of what food he eats or drink he takes, Paterson has waited a fair amount of time for the chance to play again. He is more than ready.