Interview: Callum Paterson on Cardiff and his debt to Hearts

No blues for Callum: Former Hearts defender is happy just to be back playing  and in the Scotland squad. Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
No blues for Callum: Former Hearts defender is happy just to be back playing  and in the Scotland squad. Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
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There was a twist on the footballer heading to the wrong dressing room on a first return to his former club for Callum Paterson this week.

Scotland duty brought the 23-year-old defender back to the Oriam training centre used by Hearts for the first time since he left the Tynecastle club and moved to Cardiff City in the summer. The fact he made that switch while six months into a ten-month rehabilitation from a cruciate ligament injury meant instinctively the treatment rooms at Oriam called to him on walking through the doors of the complex.

“I know where to go, eh? The lads had to pull me back,” said Paterson with a grin. It might be considered that this impish individual hasn’t had much to cheer since he snapped his cruciate against Kilmarnock last December but that is not how he frames his existence.

Paterson can point to being included in the Scotland squad for Thursday’s friendly against the Dutch – he did not feature in the 1-0 loss – despite having made only one full senior appearance for Cardiff, which came last weekend in a defeat to Bristol City. His career is firmly back on track but he concedes there were times across the past ten months he had fears for where it was going.

He sustained the injury when his departure from Hearts was a given after his refusal to sign a new contract. Indeed, it was expected he would move on in a seven-figure deal when the transfer window opened the following month. Then, when it was known he would be out for so long, it was considered he could have a rethink and sign an extension. That way he would not have to find a new club during rehab, and Hearts could receive a proper fee for him, instead of the £400,000 compensation figure they are believed to have collected.

Paterson, who had a sell-on fee for Hearts inserted in his contract, does not feel any guilt about the Tynecastle club requiring to provide his medical attention without then receiving any recompense. He does though feel gratitude.

“They’re a massive club and they were great with me,” he said.

“Even though they knew I was going, they kept me going through my rehab, the physios kept me going. But my head was a bit of a mess because I didn’t know what was happening. Everything got sorted out in the end though but they were still good enough to keep me on.

“But I’ve sacrificed a lot in the past for them so they obviously thought it was right for me to stay. It felt horrible [before Cardiff came in, in June]. I was obviously out of contract at Hearts, nothing was happening on that front, and I was kind of stagnating.”

Patterson says that “maybe at the start” of his time out attention from other clubs did start to drift, with a number of English Championship sides having expressed interest in the summer of 2016.

“It’s a mental injury as well as a physical one so you don’t want to start dwelling on the ‘what could have beens’ and ‘what ifs’. It’s more to do with what happens from there on and clearly at that moment it wasn’t my time to go anywhere. Thankfully Cardiff showed some faith in me.

“My job was just to get fit and get playing and that’s what I concentrated on – my agent looked after the rest of it. I’m quite a happy guy in general, I’m a big believer in what’s for you won’t go by you, so you have to maintain positive thoughts. Smile that you’re alive and healthy and worry about getting fit again.”

Even an irrepressibly upbeat character such as Paterson could not escape the worries over whether he would return to the all-action, adaptable performer who was such an integral player for the Tynecastle side, and who earned five caps for his country through being so.

“Of course, 100 per cent,” he said of fretting over whether he would be restored to the same player following the ACL, as he calls the anterior cruciate ligament injury he suffered. “When I did my meniscus before, I went to a surgeon in Leeds, Dr Bolan. You always go back to people you trust. I will always be thankful to him as he has rescued my career. The operation was massive and you are pretty doped up.

“It might be a long-term injury, 90 per cent, or maybe more of that, is in the mind. You need to keep your brain healthy and get the negative thoughts out. It’s not easy to do, especially when you’re stuck in a room for nine months but thankfully I’ve come through on the other side. I’m maybe lacking in sharpness but fitness is there and I want to kick on.

“I’ve had a lot of positive people around me in the rehab room. There was another guy who had an ACL, Rhys Healey, and we’ve become good friends and it’s easy to get on with it if you got somebody who is positive. My family are positive and I had my girlfriend with me the whole way through it.”

As Paterson began to take to the pitch again – his comeback including a hat-trick for the club’s under-23 side – the six footer realised that the bustle to his game that made him such a domineering figure in Scottish games wouldn’t survive his resettling in England’s second tier. It might be something to do with genetics…

“It’s physical, a lot more physical than I thought it would be,” Paterson said. “Everyone is bigger, faster and stronger. I’m fitting in so far and hopefully I can kick on. When you’re lining up at corners it’s a bit different as well, people are taller than me and better than me in the air. It’s a bit different but it’s good to welcome a new challenge.”

Neil Warnock’s Cardiff lie third in the Championship. Paterson feels good working for “a casual, calm and assertive” Scotophile manager who is “exactly what I need”.

For the defender a “massive “ draw in going to Wales was the club’s desire to be among the elite again. “Every footballer in the world wants to play in the Premier League. If they say they’re not then they are lying.” Paterson is not a man to take anything lying down.