ALTHOUGH surprised even to be involved in the Scotland Under-21 squad at the age of 18, Callum Paterson harbours even loftier ambitions.
He is one of six Hearts academy graduates travelling tothe Netherlands for tomorrow night’s European Under-21 Championship qualifier as the Edinburgh club dominate Scotland’s age-group teams due to the number of youngsters playing first-team football at Tynecastle.
Paterson is already eyeing full international honours for himself, Jason Holt, Kevin McHattie, Jamie Walker and the rest of the Riccarton gang. He is nothing if not bold, considering he only has one under-21 cap to his name. Paterson believes the generation of youngsters shouldering the burden of Hearts’ financial collapse can, given time, transcend to the Scotland senior side.
“The team we have just now with Scotland Under-21s is still quite a young team,” said Paterson, speaking exclusively to the Evening News.
“If you look at Holty and other boys like that, they are pushing and pushing.
“Hopefully, they could be up there next year or the year after. Everyone believes that can happen.
“If we all play the way we’ve been playing together and we gel as a unit, there are only bigger and better things to come. I’ve been playing with these boys in the Premiership every week so it’s great to be in the Scotland Under-21 squad with them.
“We all want to do well for our country. There were six of us in the last squad and six again this time, plus some of our younger players in the under-19s. To have Hearts represented by so many players at international level is unbelievable.”
The lack of players making the transition from Under-21s to Scotland full team has long been an issue, although one which is gradually being addressed within the corridors of Hampden Park.
Paterson admitted he is shocked simply to be part of Billy Stark’s group.
“I was in the squad for a friendly when I was 17 against Portugal,” he recalled.
“Looking back two years, I never thought I’d be playing for Scotland at any age level never mind the Under-21s.
“Playing in the first team every week at Hearts is just ridiculous to be honest with you but it’s a really good feeling.
“The coaching has helped a lot. Our last manager [John McGlynn] gave me a chance at the start of last season. I’ve worked myself off the field, working on my touch and going to the gym and it’s all been bundled together. I owe John McGlynn everything, really.”
There is a genuine threat of burnout as the season goes on, though. Hearts’ squad is young and lacking in depth, therefore manager Gary Locke must rely on the same individuals week after week. Those with experience in the game are rightly concerned about fatigue setting in midway through the campaign. Paterson is not unduly fussed.
“Of course it’s tiring,” he admitted. “It’s 90 minutes of football twice a week sometimes.
“The way I look at it, I’m still young and I’m trying to make a name for myself.
“This is what I’m willing to put myself through at the end of the day. I want to be tired because that means I’m involved.
“I don’t really worry about fatigue setting in. If I’m a bit tired, there will be plenty young boys at Hearts to replace me anyway. “They are all pushing through already so I’m not worried at all.
“I work in the gym a lot during the week and I look forward to getting into the heat of the battle. I battle my way through every game. It’s working out so far. Last year was just a blur. I was just focused on playing, keeping playing well and staying in the team. This year, I aim to relax, keep my focus and try to link up with the team.
“It’s a struggle to switch off from it. Because I was injured last season, I spent all of the close season trying to get fit.
“I didn’t really have time to switch off. I always go to the cinema with my girlfriend or watch a film at home to chill out. I’ll get Friday, Saturday and Sunday off this week because the [Hearts] manager has given the boys the weekend off. That will get our legs back together for the Celtic game next weekend.”
Before then, there is the matter of the Netherlands away, a crucial fixture for the Scotland Under-21s and a chance atone for the 6-0 drubbing by England in their last outing, a friendly at Bramall Lane in Sheffield.
“We won 3-0 in our last game [a U21 qualifier against Luxembourg] so we just need to prepare the same way we did for that game.
“We won’t focus on the England game too much, we’ll put that behind us. It was a big defeat, especially against England, but it was only a friendly at the end of the day. We’re trying to focus on the competitive games. We trained yesterday, did a little bit of video analysis and spoke briefly about the England game as well. There will be more video analysis to come and more training over in Holland.”
Whilst Locke may privately hope for minimal involvement for his players on international duty, Paterson is at the other end of the spectrum.
“I don’t really have much of an idea where I’ll play but hopefully it’s more of an attacking role. I’ll play anywhere, to be honest, but I like scoring goals and creating goals and I want to play as a forward.
“We’ve had John Robertson in working with the strikers at Hearts.
“I wanted to add another string to my bow, really. I’d played right-back and right midfield, now I’m playing up front. “It’s more ammo for me. If you want to play, you need to be able to play every position. If you’re in a team and they’ve got Ronaldo playing right midfield, then you’re not going to play right midfield are you? So you need to figure out somewhere else to play.”