Lawrence Shankland nears a Hearts goalscoring record after watching Jambos whilst bored in Belgium
It’s all he’s heard for weeks now. “Robbo’s record, you’re nearly there.” The pressure mounts. “Just a few goals from history, Shanks.” Now it’s within touching distance. “One more goal and you’re a Hearts legend.”
Lawrence Shankland is probably made to handle the expectation. A goal against Hibs on Sunday would be his 20th of the season, a feat not achieved by any Hearts striker since John Robertson in 1991/92. Shankland is verging on proper Tynecaste royalty, yet doesn’t look remotely flustered.
His persona is that of someone not distracted by outside influences. Which is rather handy just now as his ears burn amid all the Robbo chat. Fans, media, coaches and everyone else have banged on about it for long enough. After stroking his 19th goal of the campaign past Aberdeen’s Joe Lewis on Wednesday, Shankland is ready to bang in another at the next opportunity.
A Scottish Cup Edinburgh derby at Easter Road would be the ideal setting. “It is what it is. It's not for me to get excited about, to be honest. If I get 20 goals it is good for me personally and my season, but I didn't come here thinking I want to beat Robbo's record,” he says. “I wanted to come here and be a successful Hearts striker and by doing that I could maybe set my own record. Of course it will be a good thing for me but I'm not getting too caught up in it.”
Just a few months since a transfer from the Belgian club Beerschot, he is now Hearts captain and top goalscorer. He enjoys proving there is more to his game than simply penalty-box predatoriness and is thriving in a slightly withdrawn attacking role at the moment. Goals remain his currency, however.
“People have got a tendency to think I am just a poacher. I think it's not until they watch me week in and week out live. The same happened at Ayr and Dundee United, I changed the perception of people when I was there as well. It's good if people are taking notice of that. I do think I've got more to my game than just goals. I'm happy to drop into different roles to help the team out as well.
“Being around the box is brilliant. People whipping balls in left, right and centre. But if the system changes and you are playing without wingers, maybe you do have to adapt your game a bit and play a different role. It's something I am happy to do. It's proved to be pretty successful going on our last results. Don't change what is broken.”
Josh Ginnely is leading the Hearts attack right now with Shankland and Barrie McKay supporting from behind. “When you have got clever players it doesn't matter what system you drop into. If you have an idea of the game you can make it work,” explains Shankland. “We found a system which is working for us just now and Gino has got frightening pace. That is something that isn't my strength, I've not got that. Maybe that gives us something a wee bit different higher up the pitch and make it work. We're enjoying it at the minute, long may it continue.”
It is fair to say Shankland’s Hearts career has gone even better than most would have initially expected. Craig Gordon’s unfortunate leg break led to him being named captain, a move which coincided with the team’s impressive run of form. They head to Easter Road unbeaten in the last eight matches.
The striker’s thoughts occasionally drift back to last season’s down time in Belgium, which he filled in a somewhat prophetic way. “The captaincy, the way it has worked out isn't ideal for big Craigy. I'm happy and privileged to stand in and be the captain of this club. I'm loving it and the results are going well as well so that always helps,” says Shankland.
“In terms of the football and goalscoring, it is kind of what I expected. I knew the team I was coming to, I did look into it a wee bit before I came. I knew a lot of the players. I actually watched Hearts a wee bit last year by chance when I was bored in Belgium. I was firing games on and Hearts were involved in a few of them. I had a good understanding of what I was coming into and it has gone how I wanted to do.”
That begs the question of why he picked Hearts to watch when looking to pass the time? “They just happened to be playing Dundee United or playing in a bigger game than the rest of them. I had a tendency [to watch them], by accident or maybe something was telling me to watch them! Funnily enough those were the games I would watch.”
Footballers will often imagine themselves in another team if taken by style or panache. In Shankland’s case, he wasn’t necessarily thinking along those lines as he only joined Beerschot the previous summer. The move back to Scotland brought him back into a familiar environment and he didn’t take long to rediscover peak scoring form.
“If a team is good, you can watch thinking: 'I wouldn't mind playing there.' At the time it was last January, so I was only a few months into a deal at a new club in a new country. It wasn't something I was thinking about. It obviously did help when it came to decision time that I would maybe move on that I had a rough idea having watched them a few times. It was ideal.”