Ideally, Callum Paterson would help return Hearts to European competition before heading off into England’s sunset next summer. This isn’t an ideal world, however, and the full-back knows he may not get that opportunity.
A serious transfer bid in January could take Paterson south five months before his contract expires. Privately, he has already made clear his intention to leave Tynecastle. Qualifying for Europe again would be the perfect swansong for the 22-year-old.
July’s defeat by the tiny Maltese club Birkirkara in the Europa League qualifying rounds still rankles, not only with Paterson but the entire Hearts squad. It is a wrong they are eager to put right by entering the competition again next season.
That means finishing second or third in the Ladbrokes Premiership. Their quest continues tonight in Lanarkshire against Hamilton Academical. Paterson is already mindful that he could be entering his final few weeks as a Hearts player but would like to hang around and help his formative club back into Europe.
“That would be a massive positive for me. To get the club back to where they belong and where they’ve been in the past would be a great achievement for me and them,” he said, speaking exclusively to the Evening News.
“I don’t get the choice but it would be nice to finish on a high. We’ll see what happens. The fans have been positive but it was a disappointment for them when we went out of Europe in the summer, especially with the way we played and the way we went out. It wasn’t great. In a way, we’ve probably got a bit to repay them by qualifying again this season.
“We thought we had a real good chance of getting through at least to the next round this season. It wasn’t to be, we didn’t play well enough. We all know we’ve got to go and do it again.”
He is trying not to become consumed by speculation around his long-term future. Wigan Athletic submitted three bids for him during August, all rejected because they didn’t meet Hearts’ valuation.
“I don’t look to my situation, really. I’ve got to wait until it comes about itself. I’ve got a lot of football to play between now and then so I’m focusing on that just now.” Asked if he is confident he will still be in Edinburgh after January, Paterson replied: “It’s in the Gods’ hands, isn’t it?”
Hearts face nine potentially pivotal matches between now and then as they look to climb above Rangers and Aberdeen into second place in the league. December in particular will be a crucial period, with six games crammed into the month before the winter break.
“It’s a key period and we realise that,” said Paterson. “There are a lot of games coming up but that’s what the winter break is for. We have to give it our all in the next nine games that are left before the break and hopefully get as many points as we can.
“It has been stop-start and we started off well this season when a lot of games came thick and fast. The split in fixtures hasn’t helped us so we need to get back on track I think. This run of games now will do us the world of good.”
Hearts find themselves embroiled in a league within a league near the top, with Rangers, Aberdeen and St Johnstone all challenging them for that second spot. Most people reluctantly accept that Celtic are difficult to catch given their sizeable points advantage at the summit.
“It’s all about who can be consistent, at the end of the day,” continued Paterson. “Everyone is good enough to beat each other around that area of the table. We just try to keep winning. You have to be realistic, Celtic are quite a few points ahead now so we’re focusing on second place. Depending on where we are, we’ll try to challenge for first.
“There are a lot of games coming up that we need to win if we’re going to be second. Playing Rangers twice before Christmas is two massive fixtures for us. We hope to get maximum points.”
New Douglas Park is now called the SuperSeal Stadium due to sponsorship but it remains a venue where Hearts haven’t won since February 2011. Hamilton lost 3-1 at Tynecastle in September despite taking the lead on 50 minutes through Ali Crawford.
“They’re a hard team to play against. They were hard against us at home,” admitted Paterson. “It’s a bit different playing them on astro. They play on it every second week, so they’re used to it. We need to go there and play our game if we want to win. They can compete but that’s when we need to show our quality. We want to move the ball about and do what we do best. I’d probably rather it was a Saturday game to stay in the routine but, at the end of the day, it’s my job to adapt to a Monday night fixture.”