STANDING on the verge of the Scotland senior squad, Callum Paterson faces a huge few days under Gordon Strachan’s watchful eye.
The national coach is observing Scotland Under-21s at close quarters this week hoping players impress him. Paterson knows he is a prime candidate for promotion. He is effectively outside the Hampden Park dressing-room with an ear pressed against the door, awaiting the call to enter.
Strachan sat in the Tynecastle directors’ box on Saturday watching Hearts beat Hamilton 2-0. Paterson’s display at right-back contributed to a fourth successive clean sheet for his club, with Jordan McGhee impressing at left-back and winger Sam Nicholson also heavily involved. All three joined the Scotland Under-21 squad yesterday alongside Hearts team-mates Jack Hamilton and Billy King.
Friday night’s European Under-21 Championship qualifier against Ukraine becomes bigger than most games at that level due to Strachan’s presence. Scotland’s failure to reach Euro 2016 means fresh blood is needed in his senior squad. His existing right-backs, Alan Hutton and Steven Whittaker, are both on the wrong side of 30, and the wily 58-year-old is already planning for the future by joining Ricky Sbragia’s coaching staff for this week.
Paterson, of course, was called up by Strachan a year ago to train with the full squad. He even sat on the substitutes’ bench in the friendly defeat against England at Celtic Park. He is acutely aware this is his chance to cement a permanent place at that level.
“Callum will be a big player for Scotland one day,” said his Hearts team-mate Neil Alexander in the wake of Saturday’s match. As a former Scotland internationalist, the goalkeeper is well placed to judge. Paterson is eager to prove him correct.
“If you go there and play your game well, then you’ll impress,” the defender told the Evening News. “There’s obviously, not a pressure, but an added bonus that the national coach is taking a massive interest and coming to have a look at us. It will be great for the Under-21 boys.
“It’s all down to what you do on the pitch and off the pitch. I focus on myself and, if a call-up comes, it’s a bonus. I want it to come but it only comes with playing well and playing a lot of games. You need to keep your feet on the ground. I’m not there, I’ve not played there, although I trained with the full squad last year and that was a great experience. I want to get myself back there eventually.
“The experience last year made me hungry but it also made me humble. The fact that somebody watched me and picked me to go and train with the Scotland squad was great. I was thankful for that at the time. Now I want to get there again. I’ve only just turned 21. Hearts is a massive club. I’ve played a lot of games here and scored a few goals. You never know what happens in the future. If I stay, I can build on that in the future, score more and play more.”
Strachan slipped in and out of Gorgie at the weekend without Paterson knowing. His presence is unavoidable this week as he watches over Scotland Under-21 training sessions.
“I didn’t know he was there but I would certainly have taken notice if I did,” continued the right-back. “You always have to play your game and try to impress whoever you can. I’m glad he was there to see us keep a clean sheet and pick up three points.”
The national coach will have noted the improvement in Paterson since Hearts returned to the Premiership. The club’s position in second place is no accident, hence five of their players in the Scotland Under-21 squad. Their young right-back has gone from strength to strength after apparently being stung by past criticism over his defensive attributes.
“I came under criticism a couple of years ago. ‘Not a great defender, only attack-minded,’ that sort of thing,” said Paterson. “I think I’ve worked on the defensive side of my game and I feel I’m improving a lot. Of course, you need someone having a wee go at you from time to time because it spurs you on, but it has to come from the right people. You take notice of certain people and there’s certain others you don’t take notice of. If it’s someone who matters, you listen and you let it sink in.”
Whilst beginning to sound like Chelsea’s John Terry, Paterson laughs when asked who his detractors were: “A lot of people, really. The gaffer [Robbie Neilson] takes me into his office and gives me constructive criticism. He shows me what I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong. It helps a lot to have somebody like that who shows you want you can improve on and isn’t afraid to tell you where you’re going wrong.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for the manager, I listen to what he says and take everything on board. He had a great career as a right-back with Hearts. It’s great to have somebody like that coaching you, someone who you can’t back-chat to. You just need to take what he’s giving you and build on it. The Premiership is a massive step up for me. No disrespect to anybody but the standard of the teams is maybe just a bit better [than the Championship]. To come into the Premiership, start doing well and score a couple of goals is alright. I want to carry that form on and improve if I can.” His ambition is clear and his appetite relentless. Most of his Hearts colleagues get a chance to rest during international break, but Paterson will be a key player for Scotland Under-21s in Paisley on Friday.
“It’s good to keep playing, especially when you’re so young. A couple of people are coming along this week that you want to impress so it’s good to play. You can get a rest once the game is played. That’s when you get your rewards.”
That kind of burning desire makes Paterson a firm favourite to achieve his promotion and join the Scotland senior squad next year.