Hearts fans have had time to get used to the absence of Callum Paterson. His lengthy injury was a pre-cursor to a permanent move away from Tynecastle with the full-back joining Cardiff City on a three-year deal.
Yet, when the season gets under way next month in the Betfred Cup, there will still be a longing for the rampaging, never-say-die, run-through-my-granny-to-get-the-ball qualities which the 22-year-old possesses. Ever since he went down clutching his left knee against Kilmarnock in December, his importance to the side was evident, and he will be extremely difficult to replace.
With more than 160 appearances for the club under his belt, in a variety of positions – plus 39 goals – he leaves with a burgeoning reputation and hatful of great memories and moments.
He was still shy of his 18th birthday by more than two months when he lined up for his competitive debut, a 2-0 defeat of St Johnstone under John McGlynn. The position opened up at full-back due to the manager’s preference for Ryan McGowan in an advanced midfield role - short-lived experiment.
However, many Hearts fans caught their first glimpse of the buccaneering right-back in a friendly win over Raith Rovers a month prior. Supporters turning up to Stark’s Park left with a positive impression of the two young full-backs. Kevin McHattie was a technically sound left-back who appeared to be reliable. But he was overshadowed by his team-mate. A roving right-back who looked much older than his 17 years. He displayed what was to come in terms of his attacking instincts by cutting inside and scoring
Positive, direct, wholehearted, committed and on occasion a bit rash. These would all be a feature of his game during his time at the club.
In the space of his first six league games Paterson moved from right-back to right-midfield and then to a centre forward position. In his seventh game against Dundee United he netted his first goal for the club before following it up with another.
Somewhat incongruously, his first goal wasn’t a powerful header, soaring through the air like Michael Jordan in his pomp, or a howitzer of a right-foot strike. Instead, Paterson showed a striking instinct which was the most potent at the club over his first two years. The ball broke loose in the United box and he swivelled and arrowed a left-foot shot into the bottom corner.
He followed it up with a much more simple finish. McGowan, who he shares a lot of similar qualities with, chased down Radoslaw Cierzniak; the Polish keeper fluffing his kick straight to Paterson before falling over to give the tiring ‘forward’ an open goal which he just about netted.
The 2013/2014 season was always going to be a testing one for the Hearts management of Gary Locke and Billy Brown, the players, the fans and those trying to save the club. Due to the financial uncertainty - to put it lightly - the club had a transfer embargo placed upon it. With both hands tied behind his back and around a drainpipe, Locke had to make do with a young and inexperienced squad which lacked any sort of firepower.
As a result Paterson, who had performed admirably in a forward position when required the prior season, was hoisted into attack. After all he was strong, quick and could win headers.
With a 15-point deduction the club had to get off to a flying start. That didn’t happen, going down 1-0 at St Johnstone on the first day of the season. But the team rebounded the only way they knew how, by beating Hibs.
The game itself, like most derbies since the mid-200s, was substandard. But Paterson provided the one moment to shout about. A fine cross from Dylan McGowan was met by Paterson. The converted striker got a run on the static Michael Nelson and thudded a header past Ben Williams into the roof of the net.
Later that very season Hibs came to Tynecastle with the chance of relegating Hearts once and for all only to be met by a resolute side. With Paterson at right-back the Gorgie side won 2-0 to stave of demotion for another week and prevent any party in the Roseburn Stand.
Less than four weeks later the rivals met once more, this time Hearts were relegated and it was Hibs fighting to avoid the play-off position. The only solace left for Hearts was to put more misery on the rivals at Easter Road.
In the 37th minute a Billy King corner was swung to the back post where Paterson got above Jordon Foster and not so much headed, as faced the ball into the ground where it bounced up into the net plus a scrum of bodies.
More was to come four minutes later. A Kevin McHattie free-kick from the other side allowed Hearts to load the box, but there was only one target. The in-swinging cross appeared to excite Danny Wilson whose eyes lit up as he sneaked in at the back post,only for Paterson to appear from nowhere, running off Foster and throwing himself at the ball to put Hearts 2-0 in front.
They would hold on to win 2-1.
Central Park, Cowdenbeath. It is not the backdrop you’d imagine for a great moment in a footballer’s career. Even one as fledgling as Paterson’s. However, on a cold December evening two days before Christmas he found himself back leading the attack.
Taking the quality and size of the pitch into account, Neilson opted for Paterson’s height and physicality. Football would be an afterthought. The win was all that was required.
Hearts were leading 1-0 when Miguel Pallardo spotted Paterson on the far side. His cross-field pass was headed into the air by Paterson and as everyone stood and watched the ball come back down, with snow on it, Paterson controlled it with his chest before unleashing an unstoppable volley into the top corner, the ball only touching the ground when it had hit the net.
Centre of defence
On his return to the top-flight Paterson made sure he was in peak physical condition. Even prior to pre-season of the 2015/2016 season it was clear this was a player who worked hard on his physique, was the ultimate professional and embraced the conditioning side of the game which is often neglected by Scottish players.
His power, pace, strength and aerial ability combined to suggest that his long-term future lay at centre-back. Something which is still very possible, especially with the nation’s paucity of such players.
He proved his capabilities in the position at home to Ross County in October 2015. Captain Blazej Augustyn was sent-off just after the break and Paterson would slot into the middle of defence alongside Igor Rossi with the captain’s armband.
What followed was a captain’s performance. Commanding and dominant. Communicative and assertive. He repelled everything that was thrown at him. A Rossi-Paterson duo is as fearsome as they come. But what stood out was just how natural he made it look, how confident he was and how he kept his position so well.
At the time Hearts were leading 1-0 through, you guessed it, a Paterson goal and would add another.
Downing the Dons
One of the highlights of the club’s return to the top tier was the Scottish Cup fourth-round encounter with Aberdeen at a packed and atmospheric Tynecastle for a Saturday evening kick-off.
It was a game you could file under ‘proper cup tie’. It was bruising, it was fast and it was tense. Aberdeen didn’t enjoy the battles with Hearts that season. The Tynecastle side’s approach was there to see in the first three minutes when they loaded the box with Alim Ozturk, Igor Rossi, Blazej Augustyn and Paterson.
The Turkish centre-back won a header at the back post and Paterson was quickest to react, heading what proved to be the winner past Danny Ward from within the six-yard box.
He’d later be booked for a thumping challenge on Jonny Hayes which is remembered as fondly as the goal by some fans.
Football is fun. Football is entertainment. Football is funny. Many people in the game could do with remembering such a fact. Paterson never looked happier than when celebrating a goal, and he had plenty of opportunities to do so.
Surprising really, when for much of the game, he moaned at opposition players, team-mates, referees and, on occasion fans. But when he scored nobody knew what to expect next. There was among others:
Surfing (following a fine solo effort v Partick Thistle)
An Ian Wright flop
A strange robotic dance
A pair of goggles
What appeared to be an stag doing the can-can
A perfectly executed knee-slide
When you look around Scotland at players who’d be capable of handling themselves in England and on the international level when it comes to the physical demanded required, Paterson was the obvious candidate.
With the country’s lack of right-back and centre halves it was only a matter of time before Paterson would be called up.
He was called up as early as November 2014, but would have to wait more than 18 months for his first taste of action. Gordon Strachan faced criticism for the pre-European Championship friendlies in 2016 since Scotland weren’t involved. But Paterson would not be complaining. He was awarded 45 minutes against Italy.
He would go on to perform well against Malta, nearly score against Lithuania before struggling as part of a poor team performance in defeat to Slovakia and a cameo at Wembley.
The final act
The 20-year-old’s last memorable act as a Hearts player came at Fir Park on a Friday night in front of the BT Sport cameras. Fans travelled with little expectation. Fir Park had become an unhappy destination for the club, whether it against Motherwell, Gretna or St Mirren in the League Cup semi-final. Plus, away wins for Hearts are something to be cherished.
A nondescript first half had one thing of note, a deflected Sam Nicholson goal. Paterson had a below-par 45 minutes. But that would change after the break.
It appeared he was doing suicides for the whole half. Back and forth. And enjoying it. He was a constant menace for the Steelmen, a driving force. He could quite easily have ended the game with a hat-trick as he simultaneously played right-back, right-midfield and striker, which in a way was quite fitting.
His second half performance deserved a goal and what a goal it was. A loose ball broke free at the edge of the box. Paterson’s scent was up. Despite being closed down by Keith Lasley, Ryan Bowman and Jamie Walker, who eventually knew what was best for him and got out the way, Paterson rifled into the top corner, past the most redundant attempt by Craig Samson to stop it.