WHEN your job is to be a target man and head the ball on for your shorter fellow-striker to run on to, what do you do when your team-mate has been taken off and you are left alone up front? Head it on to yourself, of course.
Or at least, that was the option Hearts’ Callum Paterson took against Cowdenbeath on Tuesday night. With James Keatings having gone off minutes earlier, Paterson initially seemed to be caught in two minds when a long diagonal from Miguel Pallardo reached him. But there was nothing indecisive about his actions once he realised he was still closer than anyone else to his initial header, as he cushioned the ball on his chest and then unleashed a ferocious volley to score his team’s second goal in the 2-0 win that increased their lead in the Championship to 12 points.
Although he mainly played in an advanced position during his first season and a half in the first team at Tynecastle, Paterson was in the striker’s role for the first time this season in the game at Central Park. Both the player himself and head coach Robbie Neilson are convinced his future is at his now-customary position of right-back, but in this case the positional switch worked well.
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“We’d worked on him knocking it down to someone else, but he took it a step further when he knocked it down to himself and finished it,” Neilson said of the second-half goal, which followed a first-half effort from Keatings. “Callum has fantastic technique and I believe he is destined for the top. He has great physicality and he has the pace and the power to get himself there.
“He just needs to keep working, but I can’t ask any more from him. He’s desperate to do well.
“I thought Callum gave us a bit more focus. He played there [up front] last year and although he’s a right-back he gives us a real aerial threat up there. It’s a very narrow pitch and we couldn’t get the wide men into the areas we would have liked to. And it worked for us.”
Invariably genial and modest when discussing his own game, Paterson admitted that his goal had been the result of an initial mishap. “I’ve been working on that the whole week, flicking the ball on to myself and then hitting shots,” he joked. “No, just kidding – I was lucky.
“I tried to flick it on and it went up in the air. I was angry at that, so I just thought I’d shoot and it went in. I was pleased with the finish. I’ve not hit one like that in a while, even in training. It hit my shin pads, but it counts.”
If the 20-year-old had any remaining doubts about settling down as a right-back, they surely vanished when he won his first call-up to the senior Scotland squad earlier this season. But, while happier now than when he was primarily played up front, he remains willing to switch positions when the occasion demands.
“I’m a full-back. I’ve always been a full-back. But I’m a utility player as well. [Central Park is] a small pitch: everyone expected a hectic game and once in a while we had to go long and you can’t do that with a smaller striker. It worked well. I enjoyed it, being up there and running about doing things I don’t usually do.
“That’s two in two for me as well. It’s not bad.”
It is also two out of two for Keatings, as the pair were both on the mark in their club’s 2-0 win over Alloa four days earlier. And it is six wins out of their last six games for Hearts, who have taken maximum points every time since drawing at Easter Road back at the end of October.
The Edinburgh club are the only unbeaten team in senior British football, a record they have held since Chelsea lost at Newcastle at the start of this month. With their lead now into double figures there is a growing presumption that they are sure to end the season as champions, but Paterson warned that no-one within the Tynecastle dressing room is taking anything for granted. “You can’t really say that,” he replied when asked if the title was sure to end up in Gorgie. “We’re not even halfway through the season. Who’s to say we won’t go on a bad run sometime?
“That would let the teams behind us catch up and it could go down to the wire. But we’re in a comfortable position now and I hope we stay there. [The unbeaten run is] always going to have to come to an end. Who’s to say it will be this season? Who’s to say it will be next season? But we are prepared for a loss.
“But we want to win as many games as we can by as much as we can. And so far we’re doing that. If we keep playing the way we are it’s going to be tough to beat us – at Tynecastle with those fans at our back, or away, with the support we bring and the form we’re in.”
Hearts visit Livingston on tomorrow knowing that, as at Cowdenbeath, the bulk of the support will be on their side. With Hibernian and Rangers meeting at Easter Road earlier in the day, Neilson’s team will know by kick-off whether a win would take them 15 points clear of the Ibrox team.
Still, while some Hearts fans may find themselves in the unusual position of hoping for a Hibs win on Saturday, Paterson prefers to concentrate on his own team’s matches and not worry about what the chasing pack are doing. “It’s a massive game for both teams – they’re both fighting to catch us up. I’ll be a neutral when it comes to that game.”
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