CALLUM PATERSON will stroll into Scotland’s team hotel today ready to ignite his international career.
Eighteen months since his first call-up, the Hearts full-back is finally back in Gordon Strachan’s squad. He fully intends to make it count.
Upcoming friendlies against Italy and France are anything but low-key end-of-season affairs for Paterson. He has waited a year and a half to rejoin the Scotland squad after being drafted in against Republic of Ireland and England in November 2014. He didn’t play but the experience was enlightening and enthralling.
Now it’s for real. He is seen as the eventual successor to Strachan’s ageing right-backs Alan Hutton and Steven Whittaker. One of the biggest opportunities of his career awaits over the next two weeks.
“I’m looking forward to it. I can’t be nervous, I’ve got nothing to lose,” said the 21-year-old.
“I’m there to hopefully get an opportunity to impress and play how I can play. My first call-up was a bit different. There were a couple of injuries and thankfully I was drafted into the squad. This time it’s a bit more on merit.
“Even if I had a game next week, I wouldn’t give this up for anything.
“This is where I want to be. Throughout my whole career, I’ve always wanted to play here. The gaffer [Robbie Neilson] spoke to Gordon about it and it’s all fine.
“On paper, it’s a friendly but in my mind I’m playing for the national team. I’ll try my hardest in front of the nation. There are massive players in both squads, like Martial, Pogba, De Rossi and Balotelli. It’s a chance to enjoy it.”
Paterson was a key figure in Hearts’ remarkable first campaign back in Scotland’s top flight, which culminated in European qualification. Despite the demands placed on him throughout the season, he is delighted not to be getting much rest.
“We’ve had a long, hard season so I went away to Barcelona with my girlfriend and did some touristy stuff. I felt that was enough. Now it’s time to get back into fitness and training with Scotland,” he said.
“I found out just before our season finished that I was in the Scotland squad so it was good to know I wasn’t going to be sitting about my house all summer or going running on my own. It was good to know I was getting an opportunity to express myself for the senior team.”
Strachan decided last November that Paterson deserved promotion from the Scotland Under-21 squad. The national coach spent a few days with the young Scots ahead of their European Championship qualifier with Ukraine and liked what he saw from both the Hearts player and his Hibs counterpart, John McGinn.
“It was good to have somebody like that there,” recalled Paterson. “The national manager is somebody you want to impress. John McGinn has done well for Scotland and got man of the match in his first game. It’s good to see he was looking at young players. Thankfully, I’ve got my opportunity.
“I’m an attacking right-back. Everyone knows that. I’m not the best defender in the world, that’s something I’ve got to work on. I like playing right-back, it’s where I feel most comfortable and where I can be most beneficial to the team.”
It was actually a Scotland goalkeeper Paterson looked up to in his younger days. Craig Gordon came through Tynecastle Boys Club before joining Hearts and going on represent Scotland. Paterson has followed the same path and feels a degree of affinity with the Celtic No.1, who has been left out of this Scotland squad to rest before club duty in Europe this summer.
“I liked Craig Gordon. He came from my boys’ club and went to Hearts and then got a big move [to Sunderland]. He was one I looked up to. It was good to see people like that coming from nowhere.
“The club [Tynecastle] got money [£90,000] from his transfer to Sunderland. It helped us get new balls and kit, so it was great to have somebody like that around. We had Gary Mackay as a coach as well, who was a Scotland internationalist.”
Looking slightly further ahead, there is the prospect of both Edinburgh clubs playing in Europe together for the first time in 24 years. Hibs’ Scottish Cup success means they enter the Europa League second qualifying round in July, while Hearts are in a round earlier with a June 30 start.
“It’s massive. It’s a great achievement for both clubs,” said Paterson. “Hearts are definitely looking forward to playing in Europe. We’ve been there before recently and we like playing there.”
Will there be a rivalry to see who lasts longest in the competition? “It’s always a rivalry between Hearts and Hibs,” he smiled.
• Callum Paterson was speaking at the Tesco Bank Football Challenge National Festival at Hampden Park.