As he walked past the press at Hearts' Riccarton training ground, Marius Zaliukas asked who was about to be interviewed.

After hearing it was Danny Wilson, the defender replied, "he'll be on the bench". The remark was delivered with a smile, but from Wilson's perspective it would have carried a cruel edge.

Now 21, he has seen his career reach a point of acclaim, but also stall. Having left Ibrox for Liverpool three years ago, a return to Scotland might have seemed improbable for a time, yet it has become essential to his future. Wilson's contract at Anfield ends in the summer and there is no prospect of it being extended. By moving to Hearts on loan, he has taken the opportunity to prove himself over again.

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It is not galling for Wilson, since he is still at an early age in his career. He felt he could not turn down the move to Liverpool, even though he had established himself in the Rangers first team and was developing impressively alongside David Weir. There is little point surrendering to notions of what might have happened if he had stayed at Ibrox – not least because of what has happened at the club since – but Wilson also takes solace from the progress that he feels he has made by working alongside elite players at Anfield.

"I still feel that I'm a better player for the experience," he said yesterday. "I went down there with the sole intention of becoming better and I feel that I've achieved that. Now, I need to put what I've learned into practice. I was just unable to break into the team. The two first-choice central defenders are [Daniel] Agger and [Martin] Skrtel. On top of that, you've got Jamie Carragher, who is a Liverpool legend, and Sebastian Coates, who has already won the Copa America at 22. It's difficult, but better players than me have gone to Liverpool and found the same, so it's nothing to be ashamed of."

Decisions can be mulled over, but they cannot be undone. Training alongside the likes of Agger and Skrtel, Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez was an education for Wilson, and the only cost has been the early years of his career. His breakthrough at Rangers came at such an early age that he broke records. A full narrative, from achievement to disappointment, has been crammed into four years, but the majority of Wilson's time in the game still lies ahead.

He believes he did not lose anything, beyond his rate of progress, in moving to Liverpool. There were Europa League games, cup ties, even a couple of Barclays Premier League appearances, as well as loan moves to Blackpool and Bristol City. That might not have been the sum of his ambitions, but his career can still be salvaged.

"It is unfair [to talk about lost years]," he said. "Because of how early I broke into the Rangers team, a lot of people are confused about how old I am. I've still got time on my side, still got plenty of years ahead of me – it's not as if I'm coming to the end of my career. As I see it, this is just the beginning. I didn't really have any low points [at Liverpool]. I was training with quality players and played in some big games. I don't have a bad word to say about anything to do with Liverpool. I have no regrets. You make decisions in your life and you have to stand by them."

Obscurity was never able to claim Wilson. Even when he was limited to performing in the Liverpool reserves, Craig Levein used to namecheck him and Grant Hanley as Scotland's future centre-back pairing. An elegant defender who looks assured and competent in possession of the ball will always seem remarkable, but Wilson has to also grapple with the rigours of the game. The centre-backs ahead of him at Anfield are all tall and powerful, as well as being technically proficient. At Rangers, Weir was a shrewd partner at the back, but Wilson can still develop into an elite player. Hearts might deploy him at left-back to keep Marius Zaliukas, the captain, in the team, but Wilson needs to take the opportunity to re-establish himself.

"I trained every day with the first team and I was training at a good level," he said, "but you can train as much as you want – you still want to be playing games and that's why I've come here. You train all week and you want to play on a Saturday, and you can get in a bit of a routine you don't want to be in knowing that you won't be in the first-team squad. That is all in the past and I need to kick on now."

On Saturday, he could feature against Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Scottish Communities League Cup semi-final. His last appearance in the competition was in the final, when Rangers defeated St Mirren 1-0 despite Wilson and Kevin Thomson being sent off, with the defender having served his ban in England and so being eligible to play. "It was eventful," he smiled of the final. "But these things happen."

For now, that seems an apt way of putting the way that his career has progressed into context.