Diving into a shark pool at Deep Sea World was apt preparation for Callum Paterson ahead of the new season.
Hearts are back in the Premiership and, as the newly-promoted team, could be viewed by the league’s bigger fish as an easy meal. It is most definitely sink or swim time for those at Tynecastle.
The thought must have crossed Paterson’s mind as his sizeable frame entered the freezing waters at North Queensferry yesterday. He agreed to dive with sand tiger sharks – some as heavy as 44st – alongside Hearts’ sports scientist John Hill. They were promoting a partnership between Deep Sea World and the club’s Junior Jambos programme. With pre-season training about to start, it was a metaphorical idea of what the new campaign might entail.
Swimming amongst killer creatures is what Hearts will do when the top flight kicks off in August.
Players report to Riccarton this Friday ahead of pre-season training and Paterson knows they will get eaten alive if preparations aren’t thorough. League champions Celtic, close challengers Aberdeen and Scottish Cup winners Inverness are just three of the prowling predators lying in wait at the foot of the Premiership ocean.
Despite their runaway title win in last year’s Championship, Hearts are effectively the minnows swimming amongst bigger fish. However, they very much intend attacking from below and catching others by surprise. Not only are they aiming for the top half of the table, Paterson believes a European place is possible come next May.
“You’ve got to be positive,” he said. “Even if we had won the league by one point last season, we’d have been pushing for top six and for Europe.
“The way we won the league, the style, is something we can hopefully take forward into the new season. The teams we play and the grounds we play at will be different. But I think we can keep the same mindset as last season and see what happens.
“Obviously there is a massive gap between the Premiership and Championship.
“We had a lot of good teams in the Championship last season who would have been safe in the Premiership. But there is different players and different ways of playing.
“It won’t be about as many massive tackles and as rough as it was in the Championship. It’s totally different, but hopefully we have the players and the coaching staff to help us through it.”
Paterson is one of a select few players who can recall Hearts’ last Premiership campaign, which ended in the disappointment of relegation just 13 months ago.
However, the sinking feeling quickly dissipated once the Championship campaign began and Hearts soared ahead at the top of the league. Much of that success was down to hard endeavour on the Riccarton training fields as head coach Robbie Neilson organised double and triple training sessions. There will be more of those during pre-season.
“I’ve kept myself ticking over to a point, but the triple sessions we do are there for a reason,” said Paterson, the shark swim being a more unusual type of workout. “They are there to get you fit and keep you fit. It prevailed last season with the results we had. Obviously, I’ve kept myself fit over the summer and haven’t been lying about the streets. But it was also a chance to relax and get a break away from football for a bit.
“Pre-season isn’t something you look forward to but it helps you in the long run. It’s never usually fun but it is done for a good cause and a good reason. You definitely feel fitter and better in yourself afterwards.”
So how does slipping into a shark pool feel in comparison? “It was great, I really enjoyed it. I love my fish and I love fishing. I’ve never caught one that size, although one did get away,” he smiled.
Most of Hearts’ players have stayed on from last season but there are some notable absentees. Adam Eckersley, Danny Wilson, Genero Zeefuik, Jason Holt, Brad McKay and Scott Robinson left Tynecastle and have yet to be replaced. “I’m surprised to see them leave but you can see them move onto bigger and better things or further their careers. Brad has moved onto St Johnstone and they have secured European football now. That’s something we won’t do this season, but hopefully next season. It’s maybe things that are better for their careers.
“This team is different from the last time we were in the Premiership.
“I had loads of friends in the last team who were released and moved, so I don’t have a bad word to say about that team. But it is different now. We have some younger talent and also some older, wiser heads to keep the boys going. Hopefully, we’ll also add a couple of new bodies before the start of the season and get going again.”
Whoever is on the pitch wearing maroon, they will be backed by a passionate home support which is increasing in size with each passing week.
Hearts have now sold more than 13,000 season tickets ahead of the new campaign and are headed for sellout crowds at every home game.
“Last year, we had sellouts for every game and it was just a massive boost for the players. The fans were right behind us and wanted to see us play good football. Hopefully, we can keep repaying them for all their sacrifices,” added Paterson.
“They watched us go down a couple of years ago and had a terrible season with everything. But we repaid them by coming back this season so hopefully we can move that on.”
Tynecastle’s hostility is likely to play a major part in any success during the coming season. It may well be as intimidating as any venue.
“It could be. You go to Celtic Park sometimes on a Tuesday night and it has 20,000 people in it. It is a massive stadium and intimidating in itself, but it is not great when you see it as empty as it can be.
“When you play at Tynecastle, it is not a massive venue, but it is always packed to the rafters with fans cheering the team on. It is different and players in other teams will be a bit scared of it. I hope we can make it a fortress.”