Life has been nothing short of chaotic for Paul McCallum recently.
He completed a loan move from West Ham United to Hearts on the last day of the January transfer window, then came a League Cup semi-final debut 48 hours later, before a trip to the Highlands and a high-octane home debut against Celtic. And breathe.
The whirlwind of events is a new experience for a player yet to turn 21. Scottish football is known for its frantic and relentless pace, but the start to his Hearts career has left McCallum understandably slightly puffed out. Not that he is complaining. In fact, he is relishing the intensity.
Under-21 football in England pales in comparison to his current status as a top-flight player in Scotland. Previous loan spells at League Two clubs Torquay United, Aldershot Town and AFC Wimbledon honed his development but did little to prepare him for the Scottish Premiership. In fairness, not much equates to this unique and unforgiving environment.
McCallum was barged from pillar to post at the weekend as Celtic’s centre-back pairing of Virgil van Dijk and Efe Ambrose accorded him a physical home debut. Their resilience helped goalkeeper Fraser Forster break a league shutout record dating back to the 1970/71 season. Surprisingly, McCallum had already encountered two even more aggressive defenders in Scotland.
“Centre-backs are always aggressive. Comparing the Celtic game to the Inverness game, I thought Van Dijk and Ambrose were less aggressive than Meekings and Warren. Defenders are always going to play aggressively and it’s just up to me to match that,” he said in an exclusive Evening News interview.
“We set up to keep the goals down and defend against the best team in the country. When the ball came up to me, it’s obviously hard on your own against two big centre-backs. I had to make sure the ball stuck for the team to get up and support me. Like I said, we had to change our gameplan to keep the score to a minimum and I think we did well on the day.
“It was a brilliant atmosphere and credit to the fans for that. The touchline is close to the stands at Tynecastle so you hear everything. The supporters were like the 12th man for us. This is definitely the biggest stadium I’ve played in. League Two in England is nothing like this. They mostly have just one stand down one side of the pitch. It was a great experience for me on Saturday to play against a team that’s been in the Champions League.
“Celtic are obviously the best team in the league and it was a brilliant game to make my home debut in. The fans were unbelievable and it felt really good playing in front of them. During the game, I thought we might be able to snatch a point because we defended very well and had a couple of opportunities on the counter-attack. Celtic are top of the table for a reason and they probably only had one clear chance, which they took.”
The sight of McCallum isolated against the uncompromising Celtic defence went against the attacking approach normally favoured by the Hearts manager Gary Locke. The change from a 4-4-2 formation to 4-5-1 was necessary to resist the visitors’ advances and restrict space for players like Kris Commons and Anthony Stokes.
“I don’t mind which system I’m playing in,” stated McCallum. “I prefer 4-3-3, where I’m the man up there with the two wingers because I score goals with people getting the ball in the box with crosses. We were a bit defensive with the formation on Saturday so chances were hard to come by. Playing 4-4-2 is fine with me because that means someone can drop off into the hole for me. It’s just about getting the football and playing it.”
So far, McCallum has found moving to Scotland an uplifting experience despite being in a young Hearts team fighting relegation. “I’ve learned that age really means nothing,” he continued. “This is a very young team at Hearts and we’ve just played a team at the top of the league and done very well. It’s very physical up here, and the weather doesn’t help. There is a lot of wind. I’m still learning and hopefully I can go back to England with a few new tricks.
“There haven’t really been any surprises. This is just football for me, only it’s up in Scotland. It’s just the same. The only surprise to me was when I looked at the Hearts squad and saw how young they all were. That was a shock but this is a good club and I’m glad to be here. I’m actually one of the older ones and I’m only 20.”
He is battling injury ahead of this weekend’s trip to Fir Park to meet third-placed Motherwell. A fluid-filled lump on his heel forced him off shortly after half-time against Celtic and is causing genuine discomfort. The striker is ready to cut a hole in his boot to alleviate the symptoms and stop friction. With rest, he is expected to be fit to play.
“It’s a bursa on the back of my heel. It’s not like I’m struggling, it’s just that any sort of footwear on my foot makes it painful for me to move,” explained McCallum. “I’ve got a big lump on the back of my heel and my boot keeps rubbing so it’s very painful when I’m moving. Probably the best cure is to cut a hole in the back of my boot. I can get the fluid drained but that might leave me out for a couple of days. I’m going to try the hole in the back of the boot and see if that works.
“It’s not like one of those injuries where I’m not fit. There is just a lot of pain and discomfort. As soon as I relieve the pain and cut a hole in the boot, I think it will be fine. I didn’t have any padding round it in the first half against Celtic and I started to feel it. At half-time I got some padding round it but that made it ten times worse. We probably shouldn’t have done that because I then had to come off.”