Exclusive: Lawrence Shankland speaks on his Scotland absence and his fitness for Hearts' European run-in
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Saturday’s Premiership trip to Aberdeen could potentially be pivotal to the race for third place and, as captain, Shankland is one of Hearts’ most influential players. He is fit again after a hamstring injury precluded him from two fixtures against Celtic last week.
Club business is the priority and he isn't of a mind to become distracted. National coach Clarke selected Lyndon Dykes, Ché Adams, Jacob Brown and Ryan Christie as forwards for Scotland’s opening European Championship qualifiers against Cyprus and Spain. Shankland is the league’s second-top scorer behind Celtic’s Kyogo Furuhashi, but that isn’t enough for an international recall after an absence exceeding two years.
“Ach, it’s one of those things. It’s the manager’s decision and it’s one I respect,” said the player, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “He has a lot of good players to pick from that he has worked with before. I’ve got no complaints at all about it. I will just keep working hard here, keep looking to score goals, and by the time the next one [squad] comes round I’ll be ready again.
“I don’t think there is anything massive to prove. Obviously, I was involved in the squad before so I proved I was good enough to be there at that point. Things change and I’ve drifted out of it over the last two and a bit years. I just need to knuckle down here. I believe I’m doing everything I can and that’s all you can do. I won’t get too caught up in it.”
Ten games remain for Hearts to secure third place and a return to European competition. They hold a five-point advantage over fourth-placed Hibs, who visit Celtic Park on Saturday, and sit seven ahead of Aberdeen prior to the match at Pittodrie. In his own words, Shankland is “ready to go” following the hamstring issue.
“I’m feeling good. I did a lot this week to test it out and I was back fully training yesterday. We’re coming towards what people refer to as the business end of the season. It’s a big one for us this weekend. We ran out 5-0 winners against Aberdeen last time but I think they were going through a bit of a tough time. Now they’ve had a change of manager and it will be tough, but it’s a game we are all looking forward to. Hopefully we take three points.”
Rather than become burdened by pressure during what is likely to be an intense run-in, Shankland intends to revel in it. “It’s a natural pressure when you are at this club and it’s an enjoyable one,” he said. “There are much worse pressures to have, like when you're down the bottom end of a table and trying to void relegation at this time of year. It’s a pressure we need to thrive on and keep pushing to secure third place.
“I’ll take it on my shoulders [as captain] if it helps everybody else. We all need to deal with it together. When you join Hearts, you know where the club expects to be up the top end. It’s up to us to achieve that. A win at the weekend puts us in an even better position.”
Josh Ginnelly’s recent scoring record of six goals in nine games will mean Shankland continuing in the deep-lying forward role he has performed of late. Is he better as a penalty-box striker. “Some would say aye, some would say no,” he smiled. “That’s the system the manager wants to play and whatever role I’m asked to fill, I’m happy to adapt my game if it suits the team and makes us successful. It has recently, to be fair. I’ve got no complaints about it. I’ll play whatever role I’m asked and give it my all.”
Barry Robson’s interim managerial tenure has brought Aberdeen three wins in five games since Jim Goodwin’s dismissal in January. Players are eager to prove themselves to the man who may, in time, become their permanent boss. It is a situation Shankland feels Hearts must be wary of.
“You know you are going to face a team full of energy,” he explained. “Naturally, that’s what happens. We went to Motherwell a few weeks back and we got caught out by it, to be honest. Motherwell were the better team on the day and that’s something we can’t allow. We can’t go to Pittodrie and let that happen. We need to be the team on the front foot and take the game to Aberdeen.”
Hearts no longer have any additional responsibilities besides the league. Last week’s Scottish Cup quarter-final exit against Celtic removes a direct route to guaranteed European group-stage football for a second successive season. To achieve that, they must finish third and hope Celtic or Rangers lift the cup at Hampden Park on Saturday, June 3.
“The cup is outwith our control now but if we finish third then we give ourselves that possibility of group stages,” said Shankland. “We were there this season and it was thoroughly enjoyable getting the European trips. Of course, there were a couple of tough lessons in there and that’s what we will all learn from.
“It was our first experience of it and we will know about it if we get back into it. We did get caught unaware at times, just through lack of experience. We’ve been there and done it now so it’s up to us to give ourselves the best chance of getting back into the groups.”