The first time I saw Callum Paterson play football I was taken aback. It was the first game of the season and Cardiff were away to Bournemouth. The press box at Dean Court offers one of the best views in the country, it’s close, shallow, and affords a real perspective on the play. One of the great advantages of live football, besides allowing a view of all 22 players and the whole pitch, is that you get a genuine sense for a game’s structure: its speed, its shape, and the physical size of its participants.
That day, Paterson played in deep midfield, protecting Neil Warnock’s back-three and lumbering up and back for set-pieces. Cardiff were yet to find their Premier League rhythm and they offered relatively little in a 2-0 defeat. He was mesmerising, though. Not because of anything he did, but rather because he looked too big to be playing professional football; he has the body shape of an MMA fighter or rugby forward, in the mixed zone it’s like watching a moderately-sized vending machine trundle past. On that day, when the corners and set-pieces were shelling the Bournemouth box, the ground seemed to shake any time he attacked the ball.
That was four months ago now. In the meantime, Cardiff have found their legs, have now won three games at home in a row, and Paterson has become one of the unlikely emblems of their success. Perceptions of both have changed. On that first day, Warnock’s side appeared as advertised and it was easy to assume that this would be them for the rest of the season. Lots of crosses, lots of physicality, lots of aggression around the second ball. As for Paterson, he just looked like a lump: an obelisk to position in the penalty box who, over the course of the year, would cause plenty of inconvenience and a few useful ricochets.
Over time though, his dimensions have revealed themselves. The headline point is that he has been reassigned as a forward and with no little success. His goal against Southampton at the weekend was his fourth of his season and, at the time of writing, he is his club’s top-scorer. The latest, which saw him gobble up a Jannick Vestergaard mistake, barge the monolithic Dane to the floor, and chop a bobbled finish into the net, was symbolic of the impact he’s made – not just because of the strength shown, or the slightly uncouth aesthetic, but because it showed the complete range of what he brings to his side. It was a moment of raw desire. Vestergaard was hassled into that error and Paterson was willing to run an extra yard to chase that chance.
He capitalised, he scored, and he danced in front of his own fans; it was as ugly a goal as you could ever see, but it was all rather charming. How can it not be? As far back as 2012, Hearts manager John McGlynn was predicting that Paterson’s future lay at centre-forward and he was also Cardiff’s leading-scorer last season, but pretend otherwise and you’re left with the endearing visual of a player who will do anything and play anywhere he’s asked. He’s the eleventh man picked on a Sunday morning.
So that first impression of him was misleading. Time has proven him to be highly adaptable and, at closer inspection, he’s also an incredibly industrious and surprisingly mobile player. Warnock speaks about that often; he evidently adores Paterson, talking about him with almost paternal affection. In a sense, that’s hardly a surprise, because the throw-back qualities he embodies tally neatly with his manager’s old school reputation. But it goes beyond that, it’s based on more than just an abstract symmetry. Paterson is a very honest player. That shows in his work rate, of course, but also in his attitude.
He’s a try-hard. At the very top of the league, there’s very little desperation now. Most teams in the division are decorated with stars who know that if it doesn’t work out for them at one club, there will always be another large contract somewhere else. Paterson doesn’t have that luxury. Had he not been promoted with Cardiff, it’s unlikely that any side at this level would have signed him; without this recent testament, there would have been no reason to believe that he could have an effect. That’s not unreasonable and it isn’t necessary indicative of any snobbery. Newly-promoted sides and those at risk of relegation like to deal in certainty and, when they have money to spend, would always prefer to deal in experience.
The league in which they’re competing is also ruled by speed and athleticism and, at first glance, Paterson doesn’t pass the eye test. It’s long been said that scouts can assess a player after two or three touches, Peter Taylor used to be famously quick (and right) in his assessments, and so it’s to imagine someone like him being dismissed out of hand.
But he’s here now and the league’s better for that. It feels like this player emerges every few years: he’s the underdog grateful for an opportunity, who will do anything to grasp that chance and remain at this level. A bit like Jimmy Bullard before he became self-aware, Paterson has that everyman blend of excitement and eagerness which endears him even to neutrals.
It leads to moment like this, too. A fan does that; you or I would try it if we ever got the chance.
Why did Callum Paterson two-foot the ball after Hoilett's winner?! 😭🤣 pic.twitter.com/OEX9cEFEfa
— Soccer AM (@SoccerAM) December 1, 2018
That spirit is important. When a player is seen as physical and when he’s a Scot who comes replete with a Begbie moustache, it’s tempting to make assumptions – to see him as dour and unfeeling, as an automaton goon with a default setting of hostility. But try to find an interview with him in which he’s not laughing or giggling, or when his eyes aren’t dancing. In fact, if you have children you could do worse than to tell them to watch him. Look how he celebrates his goals, look how much fun he has on the pitch; in an age of ultra seriousness, it’s a powerful antidote to find someone like that so close to football’s summit.