Repeated outings at right wing-back left the striker dejected and disillusioned at former club Beerschot. He became frustrated in a defensive-minded side before relegation to the second tier. It isn’t surprising the opportunity to join Hearts was seized upon.
After arriving at Riccarton, Shankland instantly asked for the No.9 jersey and gratefully accepts whatever pressure that may bring. It is almost like he wanted to reinforce the fact he is a goalscoring centre-forward and nothing else, desperate to avoid any more wing-back shifts.
If wearing No.9 is something of a comfort blanket for a player needing rejuvenated, it is already working. Two goals in last week’s final pre-season friendly against Stoke City was an ideal way for Shankland to introduce himself to the Tynecastle support.
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A year in Belgium’s Pro League taught him a different perspective which might come in useful. Some of it he would rather forget, if the truth be told. “I know how to play right wing-back now,” he laughed. “It was obviously totally different to what this year is going to be. I was asked to play out of position and the team wasn’t going well at all.
“It was just about getting the boys together and trying to grind out results. To be honest, in terms of the football, it wasn’t enjoyable, so I’m looking forward to this season being different. I would imagine there will be a few situations I’ll face where I’ll probably have taken something from Belgium and I’ll realise when I face them here.”
Scottish fans familiar with his net-bulging exploits will find it strange thinking of him in that wing-back role. “Right, left everywhere. We were a pretty defensive team last year and I think the manager realised I would run about for him, so he just fired me in and gave me a game. Like I said, it wasn’t too enjoyable.”
Hearts manager Robbie Neilson previously signed Shankland and got a shedload of goals from him at Dundee United during the 2019/20 campaign. He knows that the player’s strengths are inside the penalty area, not out on the touchline tracking the run of an opposition winger.
It is doubtful whether he will play anywhere other than through the middle for his new club. “I was glad to get the opportunity to become Hearts’ No.9. When I heard the number was available, I wanted it,” said the 26-year-old. “That’s why I came here, to hopefully be successful. That’s the kind of pressure you have to accept as a striker.
“This is the biggest club that I have played for in my career so there is pressure and you know what the crowd expects. Tynecastle can be a hostile place, even for the home team at times if things aren't going well. I come here with that knowledge and the other players know that as well.
“That comes from being successful before. It’s probably a good thing and we need to thrive on that pressure and use it to our advantage. There are a lot of creative players and good players here.
“Being at the top end of the table means this is a good team and Hearts have the tendency to have a lot of the ball, especially at home, which suits me. So, there is pressure on me but that's a good thing. It’s something I’m looking forward to.”
He is one of six new recruits ahead of today's opening cinch Premiership fixture against Ross County. Tynecastle is sold out, anticipation is high, and Shankland is expected to deliver. He is asked whether last week’s double eases any pressure.
“No, it makes it worse. Now they’re expecting three,” he joked. “No, the pressure it going to be there, that’s just football. No matter where you go, you’ve got that. The biggest pressure will be for us to win the game, everybody knows that. If I can help the team do that by scoring or doing whatever I do, then I’ll be happy at the end of the day.”
There isn’t any hint that the 26-year-old feels burdened by it all. He arrived in Edinburgh with a detailed plan to resume goalscoring duties, enjoy a forthcoming European campaign and recapture the attention of Scotland coach Steve Clarke.
“In the last couple of years I’ve dropped out of the squad, but there’s always people who have got back in eventually,” he said. “First and foremost, I’ll look to come here and do well for the club and if I’m doing well here then that reward will always be there. I’ll just concentrate on Hearts and see where that takes me.
“When you come to a big club you have that expectation and if you can back that up with performances and results, that will stand me in good stead.
“I’ve had a year in European football. People ask me what’s different about it and I don’t really know, but it obviously is different. There are different types of players and people. I’ve got that experience behind me as well now.”
Clarke has never closed the door on Shankland since granting him four Scotland caps during 2019 and 2020. He remained on a list of squad possibles, with the Scottish FA regularly requesting his performance date from Beerschot last season.
“I imagine I would have been on a really long list last season, to be honest. Really, really long,” smiled the striker. “They have to ask a bigger squad of players than they pick in case there are injuries or whatever. So, they were still asking for data, etcetera.
“It wasn’t something I was getting too excited about, because I knew how the season had gone. I’m Scottish, so that helps! If I can keep myself round about it and do well here then it can always lead back to that.”