A new No.9 is in town in the shape of Lawrence Shankland, already a Scotland internationalist but perhaps a player with something to prove after a season in Belgium. Goals are his currency and Hearts are paying a tidy six-figure sum to bring his predatory instincts to Tynecastle Park.
At 26, he is far from the finished product as a footballer. The plan is for him to finish the product inside the penalty area and help Hearts become a more potent attacking force. Supporters in Gorgie know what to expect from a well-kent goal glutton who plundered for fun during previous spells at Ayr United and Dundee United.
Shankland is a touch more rounded now following experience of Belgium’s Pro League with Beerschot. He links play better and is more adept technically, however some defining raw attributes remain his core strengths: Footballing intelligence, bravery, plus an instinctive ability to position himself to finish goalscoring chances.
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A centre-forward who can combine all of the above should, in theory, enjoy success at Hearts. Kyle Lafferty and Mark de Vries both spring to mind. Andrius Velicka and the holy grail of Tynecastle strikers, John Robertson, share those same traits.
Shankland is probably more comparable to someone like Velicka in both stature and style. Pace and height are not major assets, therefore sensing when chances will arise and converting them become vital.
In the words of the Scotland national coach Steve Clarke, “he scores goals with his head, left foot, right foot – he’s a natural finisher”. Clarke capped Shankland four times during 2019 and 2020 despite his status as a second-division player with Dundee United at the time.
“Going to Dundee United [from Ayr] was part of the plan to try and get involved in the international set-up eventually,” said Shankland of his rapid elevation. “It probably came quicker than I was expecting. Playing in the Championship, it was quite unheard of.
“You go away with the squad and you don’t know what you’re going to get. I was flung in early in Russia, coming on at half-time. To get a start and a goal the following Wednesday [the fourth in a 6-0 win against San Marino at Hampden] was brilliant.”
Dropping out of the squad prior to Euro 2020 brought understandable frustration during his final season at Tannadice. The potential to rekindle that international career now hinges on how he leads the forward line at Tynecastle.
Ironically, it was there on his United debut that Shankland demonstrated why he is held in such high regard by Robbie Neilson. Scoring with his first touch for the club against Hearts in a League Cup tie back in July 2019 sparked a scoring spree which eventually brought that Scotland call-up.
Shankland stooped to head Sam Stanton’s cross beyond goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal after just nine minutes in the rain that night as if to show Hearts exactly what they were missing.
He had been available for free that summer after running down his Ayr contract, but the then-Tynecastle manager Craig Levein opted for Conor Washington as his new No.9.
Levein’s loss was Neilson’s gain. The striker lashed 28 goals in 33 games to secure United promotion after claiming 34 in 41 outings with Ayr the previous year. Neilson then moved to Hearts with Shankland eventually joining Beerschot in a £1m move after nine goals in 37 appearances across United’s first season back in the Premiership.
Therein lies the unproven part of a player who should now be approaching his peak years. Shankland will want to show he can be a prolific top-flight goalscorer following just five strikes in 26 games for Beerschot. It should be noted, though, that he was deployed out wide at times in Antwerp.
He will feel confident of rippling nets more frequently at Hearts where creative sorcerers like Barrie McKay, Liam Boyce and Jorge Grant reside. Then there’s his former Ayr team-mate, Alan Forrest.
“I’ve been a goalscorer up until now. If I’m scoring goals as a striker, my time will be successful. I like to think I bring more to the team than just goals and I can help out in other ways,” was how Shankland described himself after arriving at Beerschot.
“I’m not the quickest, I’ll admit that. In and about the box is where I come alive. That’s probably the strongest part of my game. I like to think in the box and that seems to get me goals.”
He thrives on service like any goalscorer. Many of his strikes at Ayr were provided by Forrest and Michael Moffat. The second season at Tannadice might not have been as rewarding as the first, but one 50-yard strike against St Johnstone captured nationwide attention.
“I’m sad that it was in front of an empty stadium and not a full one,” said Shankland of his spectacular lofted effort over goalkeeper Zander Clark. “That was probably my most enjoyable goal in terms of technique and the type of goal. Scoring for my country was definitely my proudest.”
So, overall, he harbours sufficient experience, instinct and talent to be a Hearts No.9. What does that mean for last season’s top scorer, Liam Boyce? Probably a slightly more withdrawn role whenever Neilson fields his strongest XI.
Boyce is a fine finisher who struck 16 times in 41 games last season but who also boasts many different attributes. Hold-up, linking with team-mates, intelligent movement, deft touches and close control are just some of them.
Inside the penalty area he often pauses to think whether to shoot, pass or create space. Shankland is generally more direct and will try to shoot quicker where possible, or anticipate a one-touch finish from a colleague’s delivery.
The new signing’s arrival doesn’t mean it’s a case of him or Boyce. Often it will be both.