Almost two years have passed since Callum Paterson executed the perfect overhead-kick to save the day for Scotland.
His acrobatic effort in the dying minutes against Georgia in November 2013 screamed past goalkeeper Giorgi Nadiradze to steal a 1-1 draw for Scotland Under-21s and keep alive hopes of qualifying for the European Under-21 Championship. He only entered the field as a substitute striker 20 minutes beforehand. At the back of his mind, he knows that day may come again.
The young Scots face France on Saturday and Iceland next Tuesday in two vital qualifiers for the 2017 European Under-21 Championship. Paterson is firmly established at right-back these days but suspects his days as an emergency forward aren’t quite over.
He was shunted up front twice last season at club level to good effect, scoring in both Hearts’ wins over Cowdenbeath at Central Park. At international level he is seen very much as a full-back, however he is ready for the day when he’s again asked to perform heroics up front.
“It’s not happened yet but it’s always in the back of my mind,” said the 20-year-old. “Even if the manager tells me not to, I might end up going up myself one day. It’s good to have that attacking aspect to your game.”
He was initially used in the centre-forward role by former Hearts manager John McGlynn after breaking into the senior team at Tynecastle aged 17. He scored some goals but naturally reverted to a more suited berth in defence.
“I miss scoring the goals but I still chip in with a few. For me, an assist is as good as a goal. I do miss it a bit. It’s always the strikers who get the headlines. People don’t really focus on who is clearing the ball off the line, they focus on who puts it over the line. It’s good to score goals but it’s also good to do a job for the team. I think playing as an attack-minded full-back is my best position. I’ve got energy to get up and down and the physicality to do the defending.
“It’s always good to see the game from other areas of the pitch. I’m a right-back so now I know what a striker is thinking. When I played up front I knew what the right-back was wanting me to do and where he wanted me to go. I’ve said in the past that it’s always good to add new strings to your bow and play in different positions. It doesn’t affect you in a bad way.”
Paterson openly admits he still needs to improve defensive aspects of his game. In that regard, he has his own personal tutor at Riccarton in the shape of Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson.
“It’s good to have any manager coaching you but to have a manager who played your position, for as long as he did it, at the level he did, is great for me. It’s great to have him bringing me on and coaching me as a right-back,” said the player.
“He has done one-on-ones with me a few times. He takes me into the office, shows me the videos of what I’ve done right, what I’ve done wrong and how I can improve. It’s good to have that one-on-one coaching.”
That said, nothing beats experience. Paterson feels he is a much-developed player from the gangly kid who emerged from the Riccarton youth academy three years ago.
“I was a wry teenager, new to the game, a raw player running about like a headless chicken,” he admitted. “I’ve played in a lot of games now against bigger players so it’s nice to feel within myself that I’ve grown up. It comes with experience.
“I’m one of the more experienced ones [within the Scotland Under-21 squad] so it would take a lot more to faze me now. I’ve played against big teams in the past and I’m looking forward to playing against France on Saturday.
“I feel in myself that I’ve matured a lot and I’ve experienced a lot more. The relegation [with Hearts] and things like that have matured me a lot and brought me on as a character.
“I’m an attacking full-back so there are aspects of the game I need to work on, like defending and one-on-ones and stuff. That’ll come with more experience, time and coaching.”
Part of that mature outlook involves seeking out knowledge and tips from others by himself. While many of his non-footballing friends may spend their time frequnting establishments on Edinburgh’s George Street on a Saturday night, Paterson is at home watching Match of the Day.
Studying the best right-backs in England’s Premier League is a key part of his progress and something he pays particular attention to.
“Seamus Coleman scores goals for Everton from the right-hand side all the time. He’s always in at the back post supplying assists for the strikers as well,” he explained.
“It’s good to watch people like him and Kyle Walker. They’re all attacking full-backs and big athletic guys. I sit and watch them.
“We played Manchester City in pre-season last year and then Everton this year. Coleman was playing right-back for Everton. I wasn’t just standing watching him, although I probably did that a couple of times. It’s nice to play against big-name players who are good at playing your position. I like to watch players like that.”
Scotland will likely need every ounce of expertise over the next few days to build on their encouraging start in this qualifying campaign.
A 2-1 win over Northern Ireland in Lurgan last month got newly-appointed coach Ricky Sbragia off to an ideal beginning with the Under-21s. Now comes a hazardous test against France – a nation renowned for developing technically gifted young footballers. After that comes Iceland, whose senior team have already qualified for next summer’s senior European Championship on the back of producing their own golden generation of players.
Both games are being staged at Pittodrie and the young Scots are desperate to build on the foundations laid against Northern Ireland.
“So far, this is the biggest game. Iceland is a big game on Tuesday as well so we’re looking forward to them both. At club level, we played Celtic not too long ago and France is another big one so the big games just keep coming thick and fast,” said Paterson, who firmly believes Scotland have the talent to end a 19-year wait for a place in a European Under-21 Championship finals.
“You look at the depth and quality we’ve got in the squad. There’s Ryan Gauld, Ryan Fraser comes up from Ipswich, having played for Bournemouth. I think we’ve got a massive chance and I hope we can do it.”