IF HEARTS are to overcome their 15-point penalty and escape relegation, they may well need some inadvertent help from their rivals – sustained difficulties on the pitch, perhaps, or financial troubles behind the scenes.
But before they are in a position to benefit from the misfortune of others, the Tynecastle club will first need to get the very best out of their small and inexperienced squad.
The senior players such as Jamie Hamill and Ryan Stevenson will have to show leadership, but there are simply not enough of them to make a difference on their own. Everyone will have to play their part, and one of the biggest roles will be handed to Callum Paterson. The teenage striker made an explosive start to his senior career last year, impressing in the Europa League tie against Liverpool and displaying a robust physicality unusual in one so young. But his season was cut short in January by injury, and he is only now returning to full fitness.
Paterson has done a lot more, however, than work hard to get back to the shape he was in last autumn. After some coaching clinics with Hearts’ former striker and manager John Robertson, he is confident he has a far better grasp of how to play up front.
“He’s taught me a lot in the last couple of weeks,” Paterson said. “The experience he’s got has helped me a lot.
“His finishing and movement, all that’s ridiculous. So I just need to learn from him. He’s unbelievable. The way he describes things, how he can make you relax in front of goal, how he teaches you technique and running off the ball and stuff.
“He’s one of the best strikers that’s ever played in Scotland, so I can only take good things from him. You can’t take anything bad from him.”
Taller, rangier and faster than Robertson was, Paterson has so far been a very different type of player from the club legend. Indeed, for much of his career so far, the 18-year-old has not even been an out-and-out striker, having played in defence, or more often in an advanced wide-right position.
Paterson’s dynamic running was one of the most impressive features of his game last year, but he reckons now that a lot of it was misplaced energy. Robertson has taught him how to read the game better, and thus move about the pitch more economically, to the extent that playing as a striker is now his preferred position.
“It is now that Robbo’s been in and taught me how to do things,” Paterson conceded. “Last year was a bit tedious for me – I was running about like an idiot. But now I know what I’m doing.
“I just need to relax a lot more. There was a lot of pressure last year, but now I’m used to it.
“Playing as a single striker last year, I just had to run in the channels. I didn’t understand, really. I was just running about. But now he’s taught me and given me an insight into what to do, it’s a lot easier this year.”
Although he is sure that he has made considerable progress in his reading of the game, Paterson is just as certain that he still has an awful lot to learn.
That was evident in a couple of pre-season games, when he was through on the goalkeeper on three or four occasions but failed to score.
“To be honest, I just kind of blasted them,” he admitted. They were on my left foot and I tried to smash them in. But he’s taught me to relax and try and caress it in.”
Asked if his tutor was still banging in the goals in training himself, Paterson laughed. “Of course he is. He’s better than me, man.”
Alas, no matter how good he still is, Robertson is no longer available as a player to Hearts, who cannot register any new over-21 players until the start of February 2014.
That means the squad who begin the league campaign against St Johnstone tomorrow will have to do it all on their own, without the benefit of reinforcements. It is a lot of responsibility to bear for such a young, untested group, but Paterson is sure they are up to the task.
“There’s a lot [of responsibility] on everyone’s shoulders, to be fair. But at the end of the day we’re all working as a team, so we’re always going to try as hard together as we can and hopefully get points.
“So we should be fine. We just need to try and focus on the games ahead, try and put the past behind us, really.
“Try and get the points and goals and results that we need.
“Nine out of the 11 players that are playing week in week out never even played last year, so there’s a chance for them to take now.
“If they play the way they’ve been playing, the team will be unbelievable.
“If we get a result on Sunday it’s going to get us off to a flier. Then we’ll hopefully carry on from there.”
And even if they do not get a result, Paterson is sure that morale will not be affected. “I’m not really that bothered. If we get a result we get a result, but at the end of the day it’s not a sprint it’s a marathon.
“Game by game, just try and get the result. Then if we don’t get the result, put it to bed and move on to the next game.
“All the boys are young anyway. We want to try and get as much experience as we can, and try and get the result and play as well as we can.”