Exclusive: John Robertson labels Hearts talisman Lawrence Shankland a goalscoring 'assassin' with another record to fall
Shankland is the first Hearts player to score 20 in a season since the legendary Robertson in 1991/92. Indeed, the current No.9 is only the third ever to score in his first three competitive Edinburgh derbies. Davie Baird (1895-96) and Jock White (1922-23) are the others.
Robbo watched willing it to happen against Hibs in a fixture he owned during his 1980s and 90s zenith. Having seen Shankland reach the 20 mark, he is backing the striker to score more than 30 this term. The last Tynecastle employee to achieve that feat was, of course, John Robertson with 31 in 1987/88.
“Shankland has been incredible,” said Robertson, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “He was unlucky not to get the 20th goal against Aberdeen last week and you are thinking: ‘Is it set up for the derby?’ There is romance in football at times. Lawrence got his first goal against Hibs and his 20th against them.
“And, by the way, what a finish. He muscled his way past a couple of defenders but then the absolute assassin comes out in him. He’s completely drilled that ball past David Marshall and everybody knew what it meant. It’s fabulous for him.
“For Lawrence to hit the 20 mark before the end of January is fantastic. I honestly believe he will get 30-plus in his first season with the club. I hope all my records are broken because it’s not something I’m precious about. Some players are just a perfect fit for a club and he is just that for Hearts. He slots into that position but he has adapted his play. His link-up play is good, he’s a handful and he moves defenders about.”
The ruthless, merciless side to Shankland often brings a wry smile to Robertson’s face. As does Hearts’ current run of nine games unbeaten against Hibs. “I still believe strikers are born, not made. You are born with this natural instinct to score goals,” he explained. “You can become a better finisher with practice, but you can’t teach someone the natural instinct. Lawrence has that instinct of how to score goals. When a striker gets into that mode, it’s a different mindset.
“Look at the Edinburgh derby. Hearts have this mentality which was drilled into us way back by Alex MacDonald in the 1980s. He expected us to win the derby. Not hope to win it, expect to win it. You can use the same analogy with Shankland. He expects to score every time he plays. You think to yourself: ‘Nothing is going to stop me today.’
“He will come off the pitch raging if he hasn’t scored. He won’t tell you that because he’ll say the team comes first, and that’s right. But as a striker he’ll be raging at not scoring. That’s the fire you need to have in your heart and it needs to burn deep. If you don’t have that, you won’t be a top-class striker.”
Naysayers point to the fact that 11 of Shankland’s 20 goals were penalties but Robertson is quick to stress that is a key part of a striker’s game. He was rather adept from the spot himself and is only surprised it took so long for a Hearts player to reach such a landmark.
“I just felt delighted for the lad when the ball hit the net. A couple of guys came close – Kyle Lafferty got to 19 for Hearts and I genuinely thought Liam Boyce would get to 20 last year before his injury. For a club of Hearts’ standing in Scottish football, it really shouldn’t have taken that length of time for somebody to break the 20-goal barrier.
“It isn’t as easy as people think. I’ve heard people say: ‘Ach, a lot of them are penalties.’ So what? You still need to hit the net. It’s like a golf scorecard. It doesn’t tell you how many good or bad shots you hit, your tally is your tally. Wikipedia doesn’t tell you how many penalties were scored, just how many goals.”
Shankland’s late red card for two cautions was the only downside to a memorable Sunday afternoon for Hearts. Assessing the wider picture, Robertson believes Hibs should be concerned as their city rivals push towards new levels of accomplishment.
“I didn’t think any of Lawrence’s two challenges were worth a yellow card, especially the second one. It was nonsense,” said Robertson. “However, both he and Hearts will survive that. The worrying thing for Hibs is that Hearts weren’t anywhere near their best on Sunday and they look like they are only going to get stronger.
“I know Aberdeen and Hibs have been put to the sword this week but somebody could take a real doing. Remember they’re without Craig Gordon, Craig Halkett, Peter Haring, Beni Baningime and Liam Boyce. And still there’s the prospect of adding Callum Paterson. Soon it will be a battle for players just to get on the bench.
“There seems to be a real feelgood factor at Tynecastle right from the top. Ann Budge has run the club superbly, James Anderson joined the board, games are selling out, Robbie Neilson has shown tremendous ability as a coach and they’ve brought in some good players. European money has helped. If they qualify again next year then that’s more again which lets them maintain that quality of player.
“You see the way the fans are on board, celebrating with the players. It’s really exciting times going forward. Hearts reached three of the last four Scottish Cup finals so they want to try and win it, which is a sensible target. The league target is to start closing the gap to Celtic and Rangers above them. Their aim will be to finish third and try to get closer. This is as strong a squad as I’ve seen at Tynecastle for a long time and Lawrence Shankland is right at the heart of it.”