Hearts captain Lawrence Shankland is Scotland's most prolific striker and deserves a seat on Euro 2024 plane
Tynecastle man's worth is clear after his equaliser in Georgia
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Pushing 11pm in the wide open bowl of Tbilisi's Boris Paitchadze Dinamo Arena, Lawrence Shankland reached a potentially career-changing moment. As Stuart Armstrong's cross dropped six yards from goal, the Hearts captain rose above Georgia's substitute defender Aleksandre Kalandadze to head Scotland's equaliser beyond the flailing hand of goalkeeper Giorgi Mamardashvili.
Shankland became a national hero in the third minute of stoppage-time and earned a 2-2 draw merely seven minutes after replacing Lyndon Dykes. Not included in the original Scotland squad last week, has his predatory instinct secured a seat on the Euro 2024 plane to Germany? Possibly. He is the in-form Scottish striker and most natural goalscorer. Should he continue regularly bulging nets for Hearts this season, he will be a difficult man to ignore come next June.
At 28, Shankland is now in the peak of his career. He was always a prolific goalscorer at previous clubs like Ayr United and Dundee United. Experience and endeavour have added extra qualities to his game. Hold-up play is improved, physicality is better and positional sense has gone from good to exceptional. He is also the only striker in Steve Clarke's squad scoring regularly for a top-flight club.
Shankland lashed 28 goals in 47 appearances for Hearts last season, and 11 in 20 outings for club and country so far this term. The header in Georgia was the sixth strike in six games for a player in white-hot form. Compare those statistics to Scotland's other regular strikers and the Tynecastle man's worth is underlined.
Ché Adams' withdrawal through injury prompted Shankland's late call-up last week. Adams managed 11 goals in 35 appearances for Southampton as they suffered relegation from England's Premier League last season, but he did not find the net in five international fixtures. So far this term he has three goals from 17 appearances for club and country.
Lyndon Dykes also finished 2022/23 with 11 goals after 40 games for Queens Park Rangers. Added to that tally were three strikes in nine Scotland outings. He has one goal from 16 matches in all competitions in the current campaign.
Luton Town's Jacob Brown is now playing regularly in the Premier League after moving from Stoke City in August. He struck nine goals in 42 games for the English Championship side last term and has claimed one in 13 matches for his new club this season. He has yet to score after winning seven Scotland caps, all as a substitute. Former Hibs striker Kevin Nisbet is now at Millwall but did not make this month's international squad. He has two goals in 14 games so far this season.
There is significant pride at Hearts after Shankland's contribution in Tbilisi. Head coach Steven Naismith does not intend telling Clarke who should go to Germany having worked within the national manager's backroom team last year, but he is acutely aware of his centre-forward's unique attributes.
"For me, it's not as straightforward as saying: 'He is scoring the most goals, he is the most in-form striker.' At international level, you need more than just a goal-poacher - I'm not saying that's all Shanks is - just like you need more than just somebody who can hold the ball up and not be a goal threat. What I do think is: There is nobody like Shanks with that natural goalscoring ability.
"The manager is quite fortunate in that he has a lot of variety. I don't think Shanks is like Dykesy, I don't think Dykesy is like Ché, and I don't think Jacob is like any of them either. They will all have their own angle to push to say: 'I should be in the squad.' I don't think the manager will take the decision easily.
"It's a hard call but I think Shanks has done all he can. It's down to him to prove from now until the summer that he is good enough to be there. Thursday night was the perfect time to give him that big moment to show he is here and scoring goals and can be a valuable part. There is a long time from now until the summer with another camp to come. Shanks has given himself a great opportunity."
Critics can point to a lack of pace and Shankland himself admits he has never been the speediest footballer. Dykes and Adams are not exactly lightning quick, either. Both have won significantly more international caps despite Shankland's superior goals-to-games ratio at club level. The Hearts player is now eager to add to his two strikes from six Scotland appearances.
Talks took place between Shankland and Clarke last month after the forward was left out of the national squad for matches against Spain and France. Those discussions may ultimately prove to be as pivotal as Thursday night's header. "When Shanks wasn't in the squad last month, we had a conversation and I spoke to Steve about him," revealed Naismith. "I think Shanks will look back now and say: 'That's probably a big moment where I've made the right decision. I've been honest in the bigger picture of getting a rest.'
"The manager spoke to him and, as a player, when the manager is trying to ask you how you are feeling, it's easy to selfishly think: 'No, I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine.' Then you go away and maybe don't do yourself justice. Shanks didn't make the last camp. He had a conversation with the manager. It falls on to us [Hearts], we give him a break and he goes away. He has come back brilliantly in terms of performances and scoring goals. He has kicked right on since that international break.
"I think he will have been disappointed not to be in the squad this month because of his club form, but it shows you the competition that is there. All he can do is turn up and train. I was watching Thursday's game thinking: 'This is set up for Shanks.' Scotland started to get full control, Georgia seemed to accept they would try and hang on to 2-1. Arguably, you don't have a better goalscorer within the squad.
"It was all ideal. He comes on and he was always in the right place. I don't think he did himself justice in his [post-match] TV interview because he was saying he was fortunate to be there. Yet, if you watch his movement, it's pure and instinctive striker play.
"He knows where Georgia are vulnerable, he knows where he gains full control with the defender in front of him so he can see him. That isn't just luck. It's down to his instinct of being in the right place at the right time over many years. The composure with the header is really good. He understands he needs a bit of power and has to hit the target, and he does so well getting on the end of it."
The work of a master craftsman, you might say. Fast forward a few months and picture the dying seconds in Dortmund's Signal Iduna Park or Munich's Allianz Arena. Scotland need a goal to progress to the Euro 2024 knockout stage. Do they call on Shankland? Or might he even be a first-choice starter by that point? Either way, it would be a foolish not prioritise his seat on that plane to Germany.