Sitting at Hampden Park with bagpipes ringing in his ears, Callum Paterson seemed like a glutton for punishment. A torn shoulder ligament denied him his Scotland international debut against Denmark last month. Nonetheless, he still attended the midweek friendly, determined not to be downbeat over a cruel twist of misfortune.
The Hearts defender would have joined Celtic’s Kieran Tierney and John McGinn of Hibs in Gordon Strachan’s experimental squad had injury not struck at the end of February. Having been called up for experience by the national coach in November 2014, this could have been his breakthrough moment. He remains philosophical that it wasn’t.
More than that, Paterson is driven to force his way into the Scotland reckoning for friendlies against Italy and France in a month’s time. Looking on from the stand at Hampden, he saw Tierney and McGinn impress in the dark blue shirt he so desperately wants to don. He firmly believes his time will come after returning from injury against Inverness last week.
“Missing out on Scotland was a bit frustrating. Certain things happen in life and you’ve just got to deal with it. It can only make you stronger,” said the 21-year-old. “I went to the game and watched Tierney and McGinn playing. It was a great atmosphere. That’s where I want to see myself in the next few years. I’ll be trying to get into the squad next time.”
Hearts’ ongoing resurgence can only help his cause. His first appearance at club level in six weeks coincided with the team securing European football for next season – less than two years since they were relegated from Scotland’s top flight. “Playing in Europe is a major factor,” said Paterson. “Gordon Strachan will be looking at us sitting third and possibly finishing even higher after coming up from the Championship. It’s a big positive and this is a massive club which can only stand you in good stead [for international level].”
Paterson is no stranger to continental competition. He can vividly recall playing at Anfield as a skinny 17-year-old against world-renowned superstars like Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard. He admits he struggled to take in the magnitude of that Europa League play-off tie with Liverpool in 2012. Record books show he played in both legs – only his fourth and sixth competitive games for Hearts respectively.
The year before, he watched his club get overrun by Gareth Bale and Tottenham Hotspur at Tynecastle. His appetite for this summer’s tournament is as strong as his hunger for full international recognition. He would prefer a more gentle introduction this time, though.
“I hope we don’t get Liverpool and Tottenham again,” he laughed. “I hope we get a so-called lesser team. It’s always great to play against teams like that. Some of the players we’ve played against in Europe is brilliant. It’s a great opportunity to put yourself on the main stage and do well.
“I was 17, playing against Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard. I was probably just star-struck the whole time I was on the park. Now I’m a bit older and a bit wiser, I’ll probably take that experience into this European campaign and hopefully do better. Some of us have been in Europe with the club before and know how it feels. We want to be back there again. It’s also a big incentive for a player looking to join a club. Hearts are a massive club and will be playing in Europe next year, that’s a big positive.”
There is a feeling in and around Gorgie that Hearts are finally back where they belong, sitting third in the Premiership and preparing for European football. “In the last few years, we’ve been slipping up,” admitted Paterson. “The team won the Scottish Cup in 2012 and got into Europe that way, but we haven’t finished high enough in the league in recent years. We’re looking to try and get back to where we belong. We want finishes like this as often as we can get them.”
There is still work to be done this season, however. An eight-point gap between Hearts and second-placed Aberdeen is not regarded insurmountable by anyone at Riccarton, despite only five league games remaining. New players will arrive during the brief summer break before a likely European first leg on June 30.
“If you’d said to us a year ago that we’d finish third in the Premiership after coming up from the Championship, we’d have bitten your hand off,” said Paterson. “Now we’re sitting in this position and there might be a chance of us getting second place. That’s a massive incentive in itself. To show everybody we’re capable of doing that would be great.
“New people coming in only spurs you on even more. It’s more competition. I’ve been sitting watching Smithy [Liam Smith] while I was injured and he’s done everything right, not made a single mistake. I felt like I’d have to work hard to try and get back into the team. Thankfully, things went my way in Inverness and hopefully I can keep my place.
“It was a big positive coming back in and playing, keeping a clean sheet and getting a couple of shots and crosses in. I was just getting back up to the game tempo. That’s us secured Europe now so that’s the main positive at the moment. It wasn’t the best game in Inverness but I was just glad to be involved and happy to be back.
“I spoke to the gaffer and I was definitely going to get some game time up there. I got on earlier than expected when Miguel [Pallardo] came off but I was happy with that. It gets me some minutes under my belt. It’s been a while since I played, six or seven weeks. I missed a few games and a few big wins and I was gutted sitting them out. I’m back now and hopefully we can try to chase down second place.”