Lawrence Shankland poised for Hearts debut as coach Lee McCulloch explains plan for new signing
The ink is barely dry on the three-year contract signed on Tuesday following his arrival from Beerschot in a six-figure transfer. The Edinburgh club’s new No.9 has had a few days to settle in but, of course, is already well versed with several of his new work-mates.
Hearts manager Robbie Neilson and his assistants Lee McCulloch and Gordon Forrest brought Shankland to Dundee United from Ayr United in 2019. His scintillating goalscoring form helped the Tayside club earn promotion that season.
He knows Lewis Neilson from their time together at Tannadice Park and Craig Gordon is a previous international colleague. Adjusting to life at Hearts should not be too difficult, although he is ever so slightly behind the first-team squad in terms of fitness.
A run-out in Gary Locke’s testimonial match today at Tynecastle would help hugely ahead of the cinch Premiership kick-off next weekend against Ross County. It would also give supporters a sight of their new goalscorer and what he might offer over the coming weeks and months.
Shankland turns 27 next month and joins Hearts approaching what should be the peak years of his career. Having worked with him in Dundee, McCulloch is convinced the forward can overcome a difficult spell in Belgium last season to recapture prolific scoring form and thrive in maroon.
“He definitely has it in him, it might take him a little bit of time to settle because it’s a new club. I’m more than confident he’ll come in and do well for the team,” explained the Riccarton coach.
“In my opinion, Shanks brings more than just goals to a team and that’s what the manager will be asking of him. You can’t forget we’ve still got Liam Boyce, who I thought was tremendous against Preston during the week. I thought he was one of our better players and more than capable of scoring goals.
“I think the competition for places is there now. If it’s two of them playing or just the one – that’s the manager's call – they’ll both be ready to go. Boycie can play in a different positions as well so it’s not as if it’s two of them for one position. They’ll both be desperate to play, although Shanks is just a bit behind fitness-wise.”
McCulloch can recall first-hand experience of Shankland’s ability having man-marked him. As centre-back and captain of Rangers, McCulloch came up against a teenage Shankland during season 2013/14 as the striker tried to establish himself on loan at Dunfermline from Aberdeen.
He didn’t get much joy against the Ibrox side, losing 4-0 in the Scottish Cup and 2-0 in League One before injury cut short his five-month loan. He has earned a reputation for rippling rigging throughout his career, although McCulloch sees more than purely goals.
“He’s been capped for Scotland, he scored as well. He’s a natural goalscorer but he’s a really good football player, which a lot of people get away from because of his goals and that’s all everybody talks about. He’ll come in when called upon and I’m more than confident he will do well.
“I’m delighted to be working with Lawrence again, we worked with him before for a long period of time. He proved himself at Ayr United and then at Dundee United. It’s brilliant to have him at the club.
“He’s a fantastic guy in the dressing room. He’s grounded, hard working and hopefully he’ll come in and I'm more than confident he will do the business on the pitch.”
Shankland is also a more rounded footballer and a more mature individual than he was a few years back. Starting a family has brought extra responsibility off the field, while on it he learned a different style of play in Belgium’s Pro League.
Beerschot used him in a wider role at times, contributing to the fact he ended the campaign with only five goals from 26 appearances for the club. Hearts’ offer to revitalise his career back home was one the player could not refuse.
“I think he is more developed, he recently had a kid as well so that helps people grow up a bit quicker,” said McCulloch. It’s good he’s experienced different football, a real good standard of football abroad in Belgium.
“He’ll come back more experienced, definitely. Having spoken to him, he’s hungry to get on the pitch and help the team.”
Scoring goals regularly for a successful Hearts side could also enable Shankland to revive his international career with Scotland. The last of his four caps came in a 1-0 Nations League defeat in Slovakia back in November 2020.
With that in mind, he will be eager to make his mark against Stoke today and build momentum before entering competitive action. Hearts left him out of Wednesday’s 2-1 defeat in Preston with the intention of fielding him this afternoon.
“We’re progressing along very nicely in terms of where we want to be,” said McCulloch. “That was a good test for us against Preston. I thought the boys did great. We maybe could have come away with the draw.
“We need to build on that again on Saturday as that’s the last game before the real ball comes out. We’ll be looking to bring a bit of a competitive edge to it, especially going into the Ross County game the following week.”