Conor Shaughnessy survived Millwall away with Leeds United. He emerged unscathed from trips to Leicester City, Birmingham City and Burnley. Ibrox will be the biggest arena he has encountered but the on-loan Hearts defender is determined to relish the challenge.
He regained a starting place in Craig Levein’s team on Saturday after five weeks without competitive action. A solid performance in a 2-1 home win leaves Shaughnessy hoping to retain his slot for this evening’s visit to Rangers.
Playing on the left side of a back three was new to the predominantly right-footed centre-back, yet he coped well. Hearts defended confidently after the break to overhaul a 1-0 deficit and earn three vital points. Shaughnessy is delighted to be back playing again and wants to continue momentum in front of a 50,000 crowd in Glasgow.
“I haven’t played in a stadium that size before. Obviously it’s a big game but I played in big games with Leeds down south. I love playing in front of big crowds so I can’t wait to get going tonight,” he told the Evening News.
“Leeds against Millwall is always a big one and I enjoyed playing in that. I played away at Leicester and Burnley in the cup, which were decent occasions. You have to be prepared for what comes your way in big games like that and I think we showed on Saturday that we are ready for that.”
Hearts will need to defend well to take anything away from Ibrox. A slow start saw them 2-0 down inside 13 minutes on their previous visit there last October and they cannot afford any such repeat. Shaughnessy, alongside Christophe Berra and John Souttar, will be eager to blunt a Rangers attack without the predatory Alfredo Morelos through suspension.
“He is a good player and he will be a loss for them. We will be focused on ourselves. We know we can do the job no matter who we come up against,” said the 22-year-old.
Shaughnessy is better equipped for this timely return with Hearts thanks to some pep talks with manager Levein and the club’s coaching staff. He spent time reflecting whilst out of the side and received plenty encouragement from those in charge.
“We spoke a couple of times and we worked on little things defensively in training. I kept my fitness up playing in a couple of reserve games,” said the player. “The conversations with the manager and the coaching staff were good. They told me just to keep training well, which I felt I was doing. Things can change quickly in football and thankfully I got my chance again.
“It was just a matter of having patience and eventually getting my chance to come back in. It was good that the gaffer trusted me to come back in for such a big game like Aberdeen. We put on a good performance and got a result, which was the main thing.
“Hopefully I’ve done enough to keep my place for tonight. We went in at half-time knowing a couple of changes we had to make throughout the team and I can’t remember Aberdeen really troubling us in the second half. We were very happy with that.
“It was new playing on the left. I’m okay on my left foot, I don’t find it too difficult on that side. It was something different but I felt quite comfortable there.”
As things stand, Shaughnessy will return to Elland Road this summer when his loan agreement expires. There has been no suggestion of him staying on in Edinburgh for now, although a possible loan return in future cannot not be entirely discounted.
“There hasn’t been any chat so far, no. I’m just focused on these last few games before and after the split, plus the Scottish Cup semi-final as well. There are massive games coming up at Hearts and I’m looking forward to them. We will see where we go from there in the summer. I’ve got two years left on my contract at Leeds, so I’ll be focusing on that once the campaign is over.”
Since completing a temporary move to Hearts in January, he has gleaned sufficient knowledge to make his time in Scotland a success. What he wants long-term is to establish himself in the team at Leeds, so every challenge is a chance to showcase his capabilities and aptitude.
“Every game has presented something new here,” he explained. “I’ve come up against different players and different types of teams each time I’ve been involved. I’ve been learning a lot, definitely. The skipper [Berra] in beside me has helped, as have other senior players like Steven Naismith. They talk you through the games.
“I’m really happy with the amount I’ve learned, although I would obviously have liked to play a few more games. It’s good to get back into the team just now. Hopefully we can finish strongly between now and the end of the season.”
The stage is set for an intriguing few weeks for Hearts and their supporters. They’ve beaten Aberdeen, now it’s Rangers tonight with Hibs visiting Tynecastle on Saturday. The Scottish Cup semi-final against Inverness offers a priceless opportunity to reach a cup final and with it the potential to lift silverware.
The run of fixtures is intense and Shaughnessy knows he is back in the frame at precisely the right juncture.
“We have a massive game tonight, a massive game on Saturday and then another in the cup the following week. Then we have another five games after the league splits. All of them will be against really good times. There isn’t a better way to finish the season than with games like that.”