Lawrence Shankland: Knocking Hibs out of the Scottish Cup was priceless but Hearts fans need to trust us
Jeering from the Tynecastle Park stands vibrates through Hearts players’ ears and, as captain, Lawrence Shankland accepts fans’ frustrations. In an exclusive Evening News interview, he asks for patience and trust in both manager Robbie Neilson and the squad.
Not that there is any kind of crisis developing in Gorgie. Far from it. Hearts have lost only one of their last 12 matches and sit third in the Premiership preparing for Friday's Scottish Cup fifth-round visit to Hamilton. Their last two games against Rangers and Dundee United carried similar themes, however, with the team roundly booed off the pitch after sub-standard first-half displays.
Patience is certainly a virtue in football and Tynecastle is a prime example. Shankland has no wish to quell supporters’ high demands, he simply wants people to understand Hearts’ gameplan and keep faith with it. They trailed 1-0 with a pedestrian first-half display against United’s ten men on Saturday, leaving many fans audibly angry when the whistle sounded. Relentless probing, a change of formation and some inspired substitutions from Neilson effected a rousing turnaround in the second period.
Shankland claimed the equaliser and Alex Cochrane put the hosts 2-1 ahead before Stephen Humphrys’ raking 60-yard lob stole the show. From exasperation to exaltation, the home support seemed to experience a full spectrum of emotions.
“Patience is the big thing. You can feel the anxiousness around the place from the supporters,” said Shankland. “You can understand their frustration but they’re going to need to trust us on that one because that’s the way we want to play. We want to play football. We don’t want to just be lumping balls forward and turning teams all the time.
“I agree that, in the first half on Saturday, it was too slow. Our play overall was just slow. We were taking too long to move the ball from side to side and weren’t causing any problems, so I can understand the frustration there. However, we are a team that wants to play football. We want to knock the ball about.
“Of course, at times that means passing the ball backwards which isn’t always what people want to see. As a team, we know our plan and we know what we want to do. I would just ask them to trust us on it. Hopefully we keep getting results.”
Saturday’s transformation generates such trust and, in that respect, Neilson deserves a significant portion of the credit. He was widely criticised for team selection following the 3-0 loss to Rangers but influenced the victory over United with some decisive changes.
“The gaffer knows what he wants to do. We have a squad now with people coming on to impact games. That’s massive,” explained Shankland. “If you need a change or a spark, you have players who can come on and provide it. Maybe in recent times we haven’t had that as much but now we have such a big selection of quality to choose from. The gaffer saw what the game needed on Saturday and thankfully it paid off for us to get the win.”
Due to Humphrys’ audacious effort, the significance of Shankland’s goal went under the radar somewhat. His 21st of the season takes him beyond the 20 last achieved by John Robertson in 1992. “They were checking me for offside but the ball just fell to me. I managed to get it under control and it took a deflection but went in. It helped our momentum and gave us a bit more belief as well,” said Shankland.
“The big talk was always going to be when I equalled it [Robertson’s 20-goal haul]. Once that was done, it was just about trying to get more goals. I probably spent more time in the box in the second half on Saturday than I have in recent weeks because I was playing a bit higher up the pitch. It was good to be back in there sniffing about for chances.”
The chat now is whether he can reach the 30 mark. Last to achieve that feat was also Robertson, who managed 31 in 1987/88. “It doesn’t put pressure on me. It’s doable, I think. I’ll certainly try,” smiled Shankland. “I’m not going to stop scoring at any point because I’ve gone above Robbo’s record. It’s up to me. I’ve beaten it so now it’s about going above and beyond to see how far I can go. I want to see how many goals I can get for the team, and for myself to see what I can achieve.”
He won’t be rippling any rigging at Hamilton on Friday, unfortunately. A red card for two cautions against Hibs in the Scottish Cup’s previous round renders the striker suspended for this tie. He feels slightly harshly treated, although the 3-0 victory at Easter Road – in which he equalled that 20-goal Robertson’s tally – still provides plenty satisfaction.
“You want to play in every game. I’ve played a lot recently and I’m really enjoying it,” said Shankland. “When you get such a soft sending-off, it’s costly because you miss the next game. But putting Hibs out of the cup – priceless. Friday is a massive game with the chance to reach a Scottish Cup quarter-final. We will train hard this week, the boys will be ready to go and I’ll be cheering them on from the side.”
It is difficult not to pinpoint Humphrys as the obvious replacement after his extraordinary feat at the weekend. “If that’s who is selected to start, he will be going in with confidence after Saturday,” said Shankland. “It was a great result, firstly. We were hanging on at the end and then Humps produces a bit of brilliance. He missed about 40 chances from zero yards in training on Friday and we were all laughing. I said to him that we can trust him to score goals now after that. I’m delighted for him.”