Conor Shaughnessy sets the tone with excellent Hearts debut

Conor Shaughnessy marshalled Livingston forward Dolly Menga, pictured, during Hearts' Scottish Cup victory. Pic: SNS
Conor Shaughnessy marshalled Livingston forward Dolly Menga, pictured, during Hearts' Scottish Cup victory. Pic: SNS
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Galway lads tend to enjoy a physical challenge so it was no surprise Conor Shaughnessy excelled on his Hearts debut.

As Livingston shelled balls on top of the loanee centre-back during Sunday’s Scottish Cup tie, he responded by winning headers, tackles and passing forward imaginatively.

Attention focused mainly on Hearts’ other new recruit, the Czech forward David Vanecek, allowing Shaughnessy to quietly show why he was lured north from Leeds United as Jimmy Dunne’s replacement. Hearts identified him as soon as Dunne hinted at returning to parent club Burnley. Early evidence suggests the four-month loan deal is a sound move.

Any fixture against the modern-day Livingston guarantees a fair number of aerial duals, and the weekend cup tie at Tynecastle Park was no exception. Shaughnessy handled the bombardment with aplomb in a game where neither team produced much aesthetically pleasing football.

The 22-year-old showed good levels of aggression, pace when required, and good timing in challenges both in the air and on the ground. The physicality didn’t worry him, perhaps due to an upbringing on Ireland’s west coast in amongst brutal sports like hurling and gaelic football.

That and time in youth academies at Reading and Leeds moulded him into a capable and commanding defender – one who looks capable of endearing himself to Hearts fans.

“I thought it was a fantastic debut for a centre-back,” said Jon Daly, the Hearts first-team coach who is also a fellow Irishman. “Conor was aggressive, he won his headers and tackles, he was composed and picked passes through the lines, fed balls into the striker. Overall, as debuts go, I don’t think it could have gone much better for him.

“The defence got a clean sheet and I thought Conor was excellent. As a centre-back, first and foremost, you are looking at defending and getting clean sheets. Everything else Conor brought to the table was spot-on and really good to see.”

Dunne earned enormous respect from coaching staff, colleagues and supporters due to a series of consistent displays in maroon.

His five-month loan in Scotland captured attention down south, to the point where he headed back to Burnley knowing another loan move to Sunderland was awaiting his signature. Shaughnessy, to his credit, does not look fazed about stepping into the void left by his compatriot.

“Jimmy was fantastic for us and obviously got a loan move to Sunderland off the back of what he did here,” said Daly. “I think Jimmy would be the first to tell you that. His loan move here was very successful and it worked for him in that regard.

“This is a great club to come and play at. It obviously wasn’t a full house at the weekend but the majority of the time it is full, which gives you that atmosphere. Conor has come from Leeds United, which is a very similar club in terms of atmosphere and pressure to perform.

“Sunday was a cup game, Livingston were throwing balls forward and making him compete. I thought he dealt with that really well. He just took it in his stride. Games are coming thick and fast for him now and he needs to just maintain the level he set against Livingston.”

Hearts resume Premiership duties this week by hosting Dundee tomorrow night and St Johnstone on Saturday before a trip to Kilmarnock a week on Friday.

Shaughnessy is being asked to hit the ground running in a new environment. That will bring some different challenges for a player with only 15 senior appearances to his name in England. Hearts are prepared to put their faith in him, however.

“I think he is fit enough,” said Daly. “He’s been down at Leeds training and playing with their under-23s, so he is fit and has been playing matches. I think you could see on Sunday that he looked comfortable in terms of fitness. As a young player, he might find the games coming up difficult but these are the situations he needs to deal with. He has to learn and adapt to it.

“Down in England, they play Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday-Tuesday. I don’t think playing three games in a week should be a problem for him.”

Shaughnessy’s arrival also increases the Irish contingent within the Hearts dressing room once again. Daly aside, goalkeeper Colin Doyle, winger Jake Mulraney and recently-returned striker Aidan Keena all hail from the Emerald Isle.

Keena’s season-long loan at Dunfermline was cut short earlier this month and he is now back at Riccarton to compete for a first-team place.

He was an unused substitute against Livingston but has been promised an opportunity in the weeks ahead. As a former striker himself, Daly is looking forward to helping the teenager with his quest to establish himself at Hearts.

“They are all good lads, good honest boys who work hard,” explained Daly. “I’m delighted to see Keena back. He had a very successful loan at Dunfermline. I’m always talking to him about waiting for his opportunity and needing to be patient. It didn’t feel the right time to get him on against Livingston because of the way the game panned out.

“Ideally, we would have liked to get him on the park at some stage. He came back from Dunfermline last week and trained really well. The games are coming thick and fast and I’m sure he is going to get an opportunity. It’s down to him to make sure he takes it.”