Paul McCallum faces a fight to reclaim his place at Hearts after being dropped from the starting line-up.
Manager Gary Locke held talks with the striker before the 4-2 loss at Kilmarnock two weeks ago to explain his reasons for demoting him to the bench. After four starts and no goals since his January loan move from West Ham United, McCallum admitted he had no argument with the decision.
Now he is battling for reinstatement ahead of tonight’s meeting with Dundee United. Tynecastle will host its first competitive Friday night fixture for 50 years when the in-form Tayside club arrive in Gorgie and McCallum is eager to make his mark on the occasion. Speaking exclusively to the Evening News, he conceded that the lack of goals is causing him concern. The Englishman has previously been on loan at Torquay United, AFC Wimbledon, and Aldershot Town, scoring a total of ten goals in 24 matches.
“It has been preying on my mind a little bit because, in my previous loan spells, I had a few goals by now. Here, I’ve not really had any chances at all,” he said. “I had one header in the last game at Kilmarnock which was flagged offside. It wasn’t offside and it went in, which really sums it up for me. It’s a bit frustrating at the moment.
“It wasn’t really a surprise being on the bench. As a striker, you’ve got to score to keep your place in the team. I’ve played a few games now and I haven’t scored so it’s given me a bit of an eye-opener. I need to work hard to get back in the team and notch a few goals. The manager spoke to me. He gave me his reasons and they were valid reasons. I just have to move on. He didn’t say anything about the goals. He just told me why and that was it.”
Asked why he has yet to bulge a net in Scotland, McCallum hesitates. “I can’t really put my finger on it. Normally, I score goals when the team gets the ball wide and crosses it. Hearts seem to prefer to play in to feet and knock the ball around a little bit. Teams in the lower leagues in England get it wide and cross it into the box and that’s where I come to life.”
In that regard, the impending return from injury of Hearts wingers David Smith and Jamie Walker should help his cause. “They’re back training this week so hopefully, if they get back in the team and start putting a few ball in the box, I’ll start scoring. I think they can definitely help me.”
It would be wrong to suggest McCallum is unhappy with life in Edinburgh having left London hoping to enhance his reputation as a prodigious forward. The 20-year-old actually enjoys the Scottish capital more than its English equivalent. “Me and my family have settled in nicely. I probably prefer the city of Edinburgh to London,” he said. “It’s very nice and it’s a little bit quieter than London, which is nice. You get to sit back and relax a bit.
“I think the football is different in the sense that it’s more physical, but I’ve been out on loan in the lower leagues down south and it’s just exactly the same. In fact, you get even more physical stuff than football. I don’t really consider that a reason for me not being able to adapt.
“I think I just need a couple of more games and hopefully things can take off. As a striker, it’s always about when you get that first goal. It’s like a weight lifted off your back. Hopefully it will be coming soon.”
Almost as big as the challenge of scoring is the difficult task of understanding the Scottish tongue. McCallum’s cockney accent is distinctive amongst the predominantly young and native voices inside the Riccarton dressing-room. He admitted communication is not always straightforward despite there being no actual language barrier.
“The accent has been the biggest thing to deal with,” he laughed. “When the players are speaking to me I can understand them, but when they’re in conversation with each other I have no idea, no idea what’s going on. It’s just the Scottish dialect. The only word I understand is ‘wee’, which means little. That’s the one and only word.
“It’s been an enjoyable experience up here so far, though. Playing in big stadiums and playing against Celtic was a big highlight. They’re a Champions League team and I think we did well against them. The home support at Tynecastle is brilliant and it’s great to play in front of thousands of people there. I just want to keep playing and hopefully I can notch a few goals.”
The scoring drought has prompted a touch of soul-searching and some phonecalls south to a trusted ally. McCallum refuses to name the source of his motivation, but is content to have a reliable friend to call upon in difficult times like these.
“I speak to someone who has been with me since I played non-league,” he said, coyly. “He just tells me to keep focused and explains to me that it happens to the best players. If I’m in a bad place I’ll give him a ring and he’ll give me a bit of advice.
“He’s a close friend who used to be a fairly prominent footballer back in the day. He’s been watching me since I was playing non-league and he’s always there on the end of a phone.”
He is pressed to reveal this person’s identity. “I don’t name-drop,” is the answer, accompanied by a wry smile.
The hope is that there will be no more phonecalls to the mystery ex-pro if McCallum can get of the mark with a goal tonight. It will be his primary objective, whether he starts or features as a substitute. He still believes Hearts have not yet given up of avoiding relegation, but concedes that only wins will suffice from now until the end of the season.
“There is still hope, we just need to try and win our last few games,” said the player. “If we do win them then it’s not impossible. Hopefully we win tonight and get the ball rolling. When you’re playing at home it’s a big boost because having the big crowd behind you really helps. I realised that against Celtic. As long as the fans stay behind us we will do alright.
“I saw Dundee United were a couple of goals down at the weekend and I thought, ‘that will be good to deflate their confidence a bit’. Then I checked the final score and they’d come back to win 3-2.
“Tonight will be a hard game, but we just need to concentrate on ourselves and aim for three points.”
And a goal, of course.