Despite scoring the opening goal in Tuesday’s 4-0 victory over Kilmarnock – or perhaps because of it – Callum Paterson went charging into a challenge with Kilmarnock attacker Nathan Tyson. The right-back put his body across his opponent, which cruelly backfired when Tyson collided with the side of Paterson’s left knee. It forced the joint inward at an unnatural angle, rupturing a ligament and leaving one of Scotland’s bright young talents facing an uncertain future.
As you’ve probably already heard, Paterson is out of contract at the end of the current campaign. The 22-year-old has told the club he has no interest in signing a new deal at Tynecastle. He wants to move to England. He wants to test himself further and see if he can make it to the Premier League.
There’s little doubt he has the raw ability. As an attacking right-back there is no better player in Scotland. With ten goals this season, he’s Hearts’ joint top goalscorer. He has power, pace, strength, great finishing and aerial prowess. He’s also capable enough running with the football and crossing, both of which can be improved further (for instance, he’s a better crosser now than he was two years ago).
His weakness as a defender in one-on-one situations with opposing wingers, where his positioning and decision making need a bit of work, likely scared off potential suitors in the English top flight, but a host of lower league clubs were credited with an interest, including Derby County, who were said to be considering a bid in January.
Why would a player with so much going for him throw himself into the type of challenge witnessed on Tuesday? Because that’s who Paterson is. It would have been better for him to coast this season, but it’s not his style. He’s full-blooded: fiercely competitive and, when skill or finesse isn’t an option, simply overpowers opponents by charging through them.
Such competitiveness could now be his worst enemy. We cannot write off his career prospects just yet. It’s not the 1980s any more. Players can come back just as strong from a serious injury. Ruud van Nistelrooy, Robert Pires and Alessandro Del Piero are three noted stars to have recovered. Unfortunately, the list of players who have had their career arcs flattened by the long rehab is of greater length.
What happens next depends on the length of his recovery. The timescale has been estimated from six to ten months, depending on who you believe. If it’s six months, he’ll return in time for pre-season. While the injury will put off some sides, at a cost of £450,000 in compensation to free him from Hearts, he’ll still be a risk worth taking for Championship clubs down south. If the prognosis is ten months, then things start to get a little gloomier. While it’s certainly been done before, nobody wants to sign an injured player. And a reconstructed knee with four months left to heal is a much scarier prospect for a potential buyer than your run of the mill hamstring problem. It means Hearts could get the player to sign a new deal. How much of a goodwill gesture such an offer would be is up to them. They could give him a one-year deal and basically say, “forget about 2017, let’s pick things up again next December” as club and player would go right back into the same situation.
Paterson will turn 23 in October, but because he will be under 23 when the next season starts, Hearts would still be entitled to compensation. However, they may wish to test Paterson’s sense of loyalty with a longer deal, given they would be sticking by the player while he was crocked.
Fans always bleat about loyalty from players. But what about the clubs? If Paterson was about to sign a five-year deal with Hearts and then sustained the injury, would the club still happily give him the contract with all the trimmings? The same question applies if Paterson was a bit-part squad player. Would they hand him a deal out of loyalty? It’s highly doubtful. In football, both parties are looking to do what’s best for themselves. Players are painted as villains if they try to instigate a move when under contract, but they’re only trying to maximise a lucrative career with a limited shelf-life. We as supporters sit back in righteous indignation and judge them for such behaviour, when we’d probably do the exact same thing. It’s a career, after all.
Paterson didn’t try to push through a move before the end of his deal, at least publicly. However, if he had done, and if another player does so in future, we shouldn’t be so quick to judge. There are no guarantees in this life and you need to make the most of the moment.
What is guaranteed is that 2017 is a very different prospect for Paterson than it was a couple of days ago.