Robbie Neilson admits it is only a matter of time before Hearts lose Callum Paterson to a richer English club.
The homegrown right-back has enjoyed a steady rise since breaking into the first team under John McGlynn three years ago and, with more than 100 appearances, 23 goals and a Scotland call-up to his name already, the 20-year-old is now considered one of the hottest young talents in the country.
Although hopeful of holding on to Paterson for a while longer, Neilson believes that the 6ft South Queensferry boy is already equipped to make an impact in one of the top two divisions of English football.
“Callum’s one of those players who could go down to England today and play because he has physicality and pace and footballing ability as well. Everybody loves a 6ft right-back, especially in England. Championship, Premiership down there they are 6ft, quick, strong, great in the air, good going forward, aggressive. I’m desperate to keep a hold of him, but whether it be this window or next, he is definitely a player that within a year or two will be playing in England.”
Neilson believes the youngster is getting better all the time as he matures and irons out any flaws in his game. “His mentality is coming on as well,” said Neilson. “He’s become more stable in his game. He’s great going forward but he is concentrating on being a good defender and a leader. He’s one of the main players in the team now. He’s not a kid anymore. He’s been involved in the Scotland squad. He’s starting to act like a full professional, a seasoned pro as opposed to a young kid coming through. This season, he has been one of the best players we’ve had.”
Paterson himself admits he has benefitted significantly from the guidance of both Neilson, a former Hearts right-back himself, and Craig Levein, the current director of football and former Hearts and Scotland centre-back. “I feel as if they’re improving me as a player,” he said. “Craig’s not involved as much as Robbie, but he’s always there to help me out. Robbie gives me pointers after every game and every training session. He takes me to the office and shows me what I can do better and what I’ve done well. He tells me how I can improve my game. It’s great to have them at close quarters.”
Paterson, who has had spells at both right midfield and centre-forward before settling at right-back, admits he needs to polish up on the defensive side of his game, and believes Neilson is the perfect man to learn from in that regard. “I am more of an attacking-minded player than Robbie, who was more defensive-minded. My natural instinct is to go forward – as you can see, it’s hard to keep me back. But I’m learning from Robbie about how to do the defensive side of the role. That’s something I need to get right in the Premiership. No disrespect to anybody in the Championship, but I’m up against better players in the Premiership so I’ve got to work more on my defensive side. I can’t just bomb forward whenever I want.”
Despite being one of the younger players at Hearts, Paterson – described as “naturally strong” by Neilson – is also one of the most physically imposing. However, after coming up against established English Premier League players in last month’s friendly against Everton, he knows there is still plenty room to enhance his physique further.
“It’s always about bettering yourself in other aspects, you can’t play football for 12 months a year,” he said. “You have got to look after yourself, work hard off the park and look at your eating habits and gym habits. Look at the players down in England, they are all 6ft3in and 100kg – they are monsters.
“Looking at [Romelu] Lukaku in the Everton game showed how far I have to go. Even Ross Barkley, who is my age, and John Stones, who is a year younger than me, they are massive. Those players are worth £20-30million. That’s what you have to aspire to. I think it is 90 per genetics to be fair – they obviously have big mums and dads and grandparents! But a lot of it is down to hard work. They are obviously working hard off the pitch. That’s something that I am focusing on doing.”