Neilson backs Hearts' Callum Paterson to star for Scotland

Callum Paterson did what he does well on Saturday and combined defensive duties with a vital goal at the other end of the pitch. While former Scotland striker Kris Boyd has courted controversy by claiming the full-back should not be anywhere near the national team, others who work closely with the 22-year-old disagree. He is, they say, head and shoulders above many players at set pieces and they mean literally as well as metaphorically.
St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright vents his frustration towards Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson. Picture: SNS.St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright vents his frustration towards Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson. Picture: SNS.
St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright vents his frustration towards Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson. Picture: SNS.

Against St Johnstone he made another timely contribution, heading home a corner with just three minutes to go. That not only salvaged a point but also prevented the Perth side overhauling them in the Premiership standings.

It led to his manager Robbie Neilson saying he would be the ideal man to feature in Gordon Strachan’s team to face England at Wembley this week, and he knows the worth of the full-back. He has refused to cash in on the player whose contract expires at the end of the season, and that choice has been vindicated. The defender is currently the club’s top goalscorer, weighing in with goals, from open play as well as set plays.

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“Everyone can see how good Callum is in the air and his goal threat,” said goalkeeper Jack Hamilton, who joins his club-mate in the Scotland squad for the crucial World Cup qualifier. “I think he’s scored six goals this season, which is excellent for a right-back. It would be nice if he could get one at Wembley now!

“He’s done really well and it just shows the quality he has got. But, coming through at youth level you saw he had something and it’s a pleasure to play alongside him.

“He’s got everything. He works hard on and off the park and eats the right things. He’s got experience now. The way he handles games, the things he does in games... the more games you play the better you’re going to get. He’s maybe played over 150 games now and that really shows. He’s a key player now.”

He was the difference between defeat and salvaging something from a game against St Johnstone that had been fiercely contested. Hearts had dominated for large spells in the first half, but failed to get just reward. They took the lead in the 24th minute when Prince Buaben got the nod from the assistant referee who said he had finally forced the ball over the line, after Bjorn Johnsen and Don Cowie had been denied. As the ball rattled about the danger zone, Brian Easton believed he had produced a goalline clearance to defy him as well but the officials were convinced the ball had crossed the line.

It gave Hearts the lead but it was one they failed to hold on to. By half-time, Saints were level again. As has been the case so often before St Johnstone were determined to show they were at least the equal of their hosts, if not better, while Danny Swanson, who had been released by Neilson last season, was keen to prompt regrets.

It made for a feisty, full-throttle contest. There was finesse to the Perth outfit’s equaliser. The lovely turn by Steven MacLean just inside Hearts’ half was followed up by a perfectly-weighted pass through to Swanson, who showed composure and drive to fend off John Souttar and send a right-foot shot past Hamilton.

If that was classy, the football produced in the second half was more basic and combative, with the will of one side matched by the character of the other.

St Johnstone looked to have done enough to win it in the 85th minute. Aggrieved that an earlier effort by Joe Shaughnessy had been denied due to an offside ruling, they were content to see the flag stay down when Chris Kane stroked his effort beyond Hamilton.

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The same could not be said of the Tynecastle men, who were enraged by the presence of MacLean in what they deemed an offside position. “When the shot was struck I thought the man was in front of me,” said Hamilton. “He stepped back and the ball rolled in. I’ve not been able to react until the ball has gone by him. Would that be interfering? I’d say so!”

Two minutes later, though, Paterson popped up to ensure a share of the spoils and underline his worth.