Hearts' Lawrence Shankland has settled one debate - now for the next one: Should he start for Scotland?
He’s just a penalty box finisher. Doesn't do enough outside the box. Not quick enough.
Two good finishes against Airdrieonians, both firmly inside the box right enough, meant Lawrence Shankland’s Scotland ambitions are top of the agenda once more as he continues silencing any remaining naysayers.
Any perceived shortcomings are irrelevant as well as demonstrably untrue, certainly in the case of the specific criticism about his lack of contribution outside the penalty area. Shankland's cute backheel near the halfway line was a vital element in the run-up to his first goal in Hearts' 4-1 Scottish Cup win over Airdrie at the Excelsior stadium on Sunday.
It’s not whether the striker should be on the plane to Germany. That was put to bed long ago. Maybe as long ago as November, when he stepped off the Scotland bench in Tbilisi to head in that late equaliser against Georgia. He has scored another 14 goals since then, making it 25 in total for the season, 24 for Hearts.
Last midweek he became the fastest to 50 goals for Hearts since Willie Bauld in 1950, surpassing even the great John Robertson, who reached the half century in his 102nd competitive game. Shankland took just 79 matches in 1985. The debate has moved on. No longer is it about whether Shankland is worth a place in Steve Clarke’s Euro 2024 squad or not, but is he worth a place in the first XI? Fitness permitting, it’s almost certain he will hit 30 goals in this campaign.
Former Hearts and Scotland winger Neil McCann witnessed his latest two, against Airdrie, from the co-commentator’s chair for BBC Scotland. Is Shankland starting against Germany in Munich this summer realistic? “I think he could, in short,” says McCann. “There’s things Lawrence does not have that Lyndon (Dykes) and Che (Adams) have. But there's no substitute for goals.”
McCann is in a unique position when it comes to having a view on this conundrum since he is involved with the agency which represents all three strikers. “If we have the full quota of players, we have lots of legs,” he adds. “Scott McTominay in the middle of the park. Callum McGregor can get around. Stuart Armstrong can go beyond and of course there's John McGinn. There are so many players who can offer athletic ability behind but few who offer the natural goal threat that Lawrence Shankland does."
McCann disagrees with those who claim Shankland is not rapid enough. "He does not have a big high knee drive when he's running away from people, but he's not slow," he says.
Now 28, Shankland has improved as well as adapted. He might have to adapt further. McCann adds: “He needs to ask himself, never mind what gets me on the plane – because I think that’s a given – but what gets me one step nearer and puts me into Stevie Clarke’s centre-forward position against Germany? Can I be more athletic, a more physical presence? He has three, four months to do that. No one can touch him on goalscoring form.”
Shankland's stats compare well with his rivals for the No 9 shirt, although a large asterisk is required. Shankland is playing in the Scottish top flight. Adams and Dykes operate in the Championship in England. Despite the physical demands, Adams has six in ten games for in-form Southampton under former Scotland defender Russell Martin.
In actual fact, it is nine and-a-half games for Adams. He was subbed at half-time in Saturday’s 5-3 victory over Huddersfield Town, the kind of bullet of news Clarke dreads each weekend and midweek as the Euros hove into view. All is well, apparently. It was just a little calf problem and Martin was considering a tactical change in any case.
Adams should be available for Tuesday night’s clash against Bristol City, which is a fixture of great interest for Clarke since Tommy Conway, another contender for a striking berth this summer, will likely feature for the opposition. Conway has not scored since a high-profile winner in the FA against West Ham United As for Dykes, he has struck twice this year, though hasn't scored for four games and was a late substitute in Queens Park Rangers' 2-2 draw against Norwich on Saturday.
All these striker candidates – Luton Town’s Jacob Brown is another – will be alert to the weekly, sometimes bi-weekly, goal tally updates from north of the Border. Shankland has failed to score only once in his last 11 appearances to surely cement his Euro 2024 place. No less a goalscoring authority than John Robertson is adamant. “It would be a national disgrace if Lawrence Shankland did not make the squad,” he says.
There are, of course, no guarantees. Robertson himself can vouch for that. The Hearts striker was top domestic goalscorer in 1989-90 but could not force his way into then Scotland manager Andy Roxburgh’s Italia 90 squad. “I still had not been capped and I was thinking, at least give me a chance,” he says. “Just one game in the warm-ups. It did not happen.” Robertson made a belated debut in the Autumn. Shankland is already well-established having won his first Scotland cap as long ago as 2019. He has started just once, however. Against San Marino the same year.
"You cannot ignore Lawrence," says Robertson. "You just can't. Lawrence has come and blown me away. I have been on the end of it – he scored four for Dundee United against Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the first game of the (2019-20) season, all brilliant finishes. And you were thinking, this guy is more than Championship-level."
Robertson maintains he is now major-finals level, capable, even, of occupying the role just behind the main striker, in Clarke’s favoured 5-3-1-1 formation. "But in a tournament I would far prefer playing two strikers," he says. "You need to win games. It is not as if you are going for a long haul over 8-10 games. You have to hit the ground running. Lawrence playing alongside someone like Lyndon Dykes or Che Adams, with their pace to stretch the game … either way, he’s good enough to start."