So it was with a first hat-trick of the season away from Tannadice as Robbie Neilson’s side opened a 17-point gap at the top of the Scottish Championship.
McCall was rueful not only over the potency of his striking project but that only his club’s third defeat in 11 followed a fine opening half-hour in which an injury-affected United looked more than off colour… only to head into the interval two up.
“For the first half an hour it was the best we’ve played at Firhill. We were terrific and should have been ahead [but] they have a forward that could play for any team in Scotland and he’s playing in the Championship. It was tough going in the second half for our fans,” said the Thistle manager after his team dropped down to the relegation play-off position.
In contrast, it was a raucous one for the 1,600-strong United travelling support, whose serenading of Shankland was ramped up a few decibels with every goal in a classic triple produced by head, right-foot and then left-foot.
His 38th-minute opener came when he peeled off his marker to connect with a Nicky Clark cross swept in from the left. He turned provider in setting up Declan Glass for a sliding effort that was nudged along the goalline for Adrian Sporle to bundle in from point-blank range, then turned the screw with two glorious second-half goals.
The first came from a run down the left wherein he glided past a succession of yellow jerseys before burying a fierce hit into the corner of Scott Fox’s net from the edge of the box. His hat-trick was another emphatic strike, the predator finding the top corner after exchanging passes with substitute Peter Pawlett.
United manager Neilson, who expressed concerns that Clark could be added to a lengthy casualty list in requiring an immediate hospital trip to assess a damaged ankle, appeared to make light-hearted reference to his stellar striker being “devastated” during the week at two straight blanks. Shankland himself then put a serious spin on his desperation to plunder in all appearances, a year now almost having passed since he failed to score in three straight games. He expressed satisfaction in the “perfect” nature of his third hat-trick this season – one of these converted into a quadruple.
“I knew I was due a couple of goals. I don’t think I’ve gone three games without scoring for a while,” said the 24-year-old. “ It was something I had been thinking about before today. I was hoping to get a goal and I’ve managed to make up for lost time. It’s always good getting a hat-trick but when it’s a perfect one it makes it that wee bit better. The first one was a great delivery from Clarky. The second was an individual effort and then me and Pete played the biggest 1-2 in the world for my third. I was just delighted to see them all go in.”
It may have been a tale of two strikers, Scotland past and Scotland future, with Kenny Miller bagging his first goal as a 40-something, and a first goal at Firhill since August, when he turned the ball in after keeper Benjamin Slegrist could only parry a thumping low drive by Reece Cole into his path. Any release taken from this moment from the 40-year-old would have been tempered by his missing a pinch by shooting straight at the United keeper from point-blank range when the encounter was goalless.
Miller was so long the go-to forward for Scotland. Now Shankland may, in part by default, have to become that for Steve Clarke, as the only striker regularly playing and finding the net of those from whom he will choose for the Nations League semi-final play-off at home to Israel in ten weeks’ time. Shankland’s timing, in every sense, may give him the opportunity to add to his one goal in national colours.
“Scotland isn’t in my mind constantly but I know that if I’m performing at my best and scoring goals then I’ll be in with a good shout of playing in those games,” he said. “I’ve been in the last two squads. All I can do is keep doing what I’m doing, scoring goals and putting in good performances. This was the best I’ve played since I came back from injury last month [that was sustained on Scotland duty in November]. Outwith the three goals I felt I was decent in my all-round game after being disappointed with my last two performances. It was just good to get back up running again. When the goals go in the way they did today you’ve got to be happy.”