Lawrence Shankland and Liam Boyce to pair up for Hearts as Ross County league opener approaches
A training camp in Spain, multiple double and triple sessions, plus eight friendlies including trips to Birkenhead and Preston. Hearts’ pre-season programme is done and competitive action is imminent.
Readying players for domestic and European commitments inside six weeks is never easy. Preparations at Riccarton have been exhausting this summer but that is merely a portent of things to come as a result of group stage football on the Continent.
Enough of that for now. Saturday brings Ross County to Tynecastle Park for the cinch Premiership’s opening weekend. Six new Hearts signings are in place and may all feature at some stage of the first match. Alan Forrest, Kye Rowles, Lewis Neilson, Alex Cochrane, Jorge Grant and Lawrence Shankland weren’t recruited as shirt-fillers.
Hopes are high for them all, with Shankland regarded as the marquee signing of the bunch. He arrived last week to shoulder immediate goalscoring responsibilities as the club’s new No.9. He will also be expected to dovetail with the existing No.10.
Liam Boyce, last season’s top goalscorer in maroon, remains a key component of the side and a considerable scoring threat himself. The pair enjoyed the final 30 minutes together in Saturday’s final pre-season friendly as Shankland's double earned a 2-1 win over Stoke City.
That half hour produced signs of an embryonic rapport between the Scotsman and Northern Irishman. Manager Robbie Neilson must now decide whether to harness it by starting both forwards together against County. It would be a brave man who left either out on the opening day.
“We've got a way of playing, a formation we can tweak a wee bit to get the two of them in the team when need be,” Neilson told the Evening News. “We started 3-4-3 against Stoke and went to 3-5-2. That got the two of them up there with Barrie McKay in behind, so there will be options to change it.
“One of them will play as the main striker. I see Shanks more as the No.9 and Boycie can compete for that position as well, but Boycie can also play a bit deeper.”
Hearts’ pursuit of Shankland started before players even reported back to Riccarton for pre-season assessments last month. Eventually, a six-figure deal with Beerschot was agreed the weekend before last. Neilson is confident that the 26-year-old in top form can recapture the attention of Scotland coach Steve Clarke.
“I had him at Dundee United and he is a natural goalscorer. I think he’ll add massively to the club. We create chances and we need guys to put the ball in the net,” said Neilson.
“I’ve always kept my eye on him. We had a great relationship with Lawrence. We worked with him at Dundee United and he scored 25 goals and won us the Championship. We always kept an eye on him and kept in contact with him as well. We’ve been working for a long time to try and get him here and I’m just delighted he’s here.
“We watched his games over there and you can see he has developed as a player over there, playing in a different style and different culture. He’s a couple of years older now and more experienced.
“Our job now is to get him into good positions and create chances for him, get him scoring goals for Hearts and getting him back into the international team. We’ve got 26 games before the international break and we need depth. I’m sure he’ll score goals.”
Neilson isn’t a huge fan of pre-season generally and finds it difficult to become overly excited by friendly matches. “I'm pleased with how it’s gone but it doesn't mean anything. That first competitive game is the most important thing. We just need to get the players as close to real top-level fitness as we can. That's why we played those games,” he said.
“We knew going to Preston it would be physical and they would compete at home because they want to try to win the game. Stoke City on Saturday were only a week away from starting their league campaign, so they had to be at it.
“It's great to get the result and performance but these games are false. Stoke travelled up on Friday, didn't get here until late on Friday night because they had travel problems, they were changing players, so it can give you a false impression of what they are.
“We were really at it and got the result against them, but pre-season for me doesn't mean a lot. It's all about the first game of the season.
“We are up against Ross County and then Hibs in our first two league games. They have been playing competitive games in the Premier Sports Cup so they will be ready, and we have to be ready.
“County have had a big turnaround of players but they will play a similar style to last season: Two wide men, use width and get balls in the box with energy and pressing. We know what it's going to be like so we are just looking at some of their different individual players.”
If Hearts can replicate the controlled passing and ball retention shown against Stoke, County could find life difficult in Edinburgh. “I certainly hope so. That's what we are pushing for and what we tried to do all through pre-season and last season,” explained Neilson.
“When that ball comes out and there are 20,000 fans here with the pressure of winning games, that's when you need to keep doing it. Even if you make a mistake, you need to keep doing it and doing it. We could probably have played more against Stoke as they were a wee bit direct but overall it was pleasing.”