There is a desire to present Lawrence Shankland as a striker who simply couldn’t put it together at Aberdeen, only to be transformed into a predator who has rarely put a foot wrong subsequent to being freed by the club. To the extent that, nine weeks ahead of the country’s most important fixture for more than a decade, the free-scoring Dundee United forward is arguably Scotland’s foremost contender to lead the line in the Euro 2020 play-off semi-final against Israel. It is a role the 24-year-old finds himself vying for just two-and-a-half years on from when Ian McCall, at Ayr United in the lowly ranks of Scotland’s third tier, began to rebuild a career that had seemed shattered as the result of Derek McInnes losing faith.
The rags-to-riches narrative with Shankland is one that should be resisted, though, according to Mark Reynolds. With his previous long posting at Aberdeen, the United captain is uniquely placed to assess the development of a natural goalscorer of whom great things were expected when he left Queen’s Park to go full-time with Aberdeen in 2013.
Shankland now delivers great things on a weekly basis. As a result he will command the attention in a Scottish Cup tie against Hibernian at Tannadice this afternoon that ought to be a feast for the eyeballs. Players who develop a Midas touch in front of goal tend to do that. And right now, with 24 goals in 26 outings for United this season, and 87 goals in his past 98 club games, Shankland is hotter than a furnace.
The clamour around Shankland will see the main stand chock-full of scouts seeking to prise away the forward whose efforts have underpinned the Tayside club’s inexorable and serene progress towards the Championship title that will return them to the Scottish Premiership. Representatives from Celtic and Rangers are set to be joined by Queens Park Rangers’ director of football, Les Ferdinand, among others.
Reynolds, pictured inset, believes it is simply a misrepresentation of Shankland’s career to see it in terms of famine at Aberdeen and feast thereafter, even if the forward never scored for McInnes’s side. That assessment would certainly overlook the seven goals in 14 appearances he netted on loan for Dunfermline in 2013-14, and the return of ten goals from the 32 outings he racked up during a temporary stint with St Mirren two seasons later. Numbers that declined, it must be said, when he had another loan spell with the Paisley club in 2016-17, before an even leaner spell in the following six months spent with Greenock Morton. To Reynolds, however, it also overlooks what Shankland produced every day in the periods he did train at Pittodrie, where he made 17 appearances – mostly from the bench – without netting in 2015-16.
“He’s still rubbish. He was rubbish then and he’s rubbish now…” joked the Tannadice defender.
“No, I said that to Shanks, I’m going to go in [and speak to the press] and they’re going to ask: ‘How good was Shanks at Aberdeen?’ I said: ‘I’m going to batter you.’
“No, Shanks was good at Aberdeen. Very good. It’s not like he’s just appeared from nowhere, but he was a young boy at Aberdeen. People forget, it was his first time living away from home. He’d never lived by himself, he’d never cooked for himself. He’d always been with his mum and dad.
“That lifestyle change is hard – to go up there and not have anybody, to have to rely on yourself to do everything and try to compete in a very, very strong Aberdeen team. He was trying to get Adam Rooney out of the team, who was the only Aberdeen striker to score 20 goals in three consecutive seasons.
“It was hard for him. He was getting in and out but he was never considered a real challenger to start. But in training he was good. He was strong, he could finish – exactly what he’s doing here. He just wasn’t the main man.
“But any time he trained with us you could see he had it. I remember saying to a few of the boys when Aberdeen let him go: ‘I think that could be a decision we could regret, because he’s got everything.’
“But sometimes with guys like Shanks you need to let them go and either ‘man up’ or chuck it. Lawrence has gone and realised, ‘OK, it never worked there, but I can still do something’.”
The fact it looks like he can do not just something but pretty much anything required of him in front of goal at the minute might be considered a turn of events to give McInnes sleepless nights. Reynolds doesn’t think that will be the case for a manager he knows well from having played under him for five years at Pittodrie.
“It’s one of those ones, hindsight’s 20/20,” said the 32-year-old. “But I don’t think he [McInnes] regrets it, because it’s not as if they never signed Shankland, then Aberdeen struggled or it was all downhill. Aberdeen are still a very good side.
“I think it’s that decision – to let him go – that was the making of him, and it’s credit to Shanks that he’s got his head down, worked hard and got fitter and stronger – as he still is doing. He went away, especially at Ayr, and took up the mantle of being the main man. It was almost like when he played, they played. He had that pressure on him every week and he has more than lived up to it.”
Reynolds has “no qualms” about stating that Shankland could live up to the pressure of being tasked with leading the country to a first major tournament in 22 years come March. The striker did not look out of place in his run-outs for Steve Clarke’s team in the November Euro 2020 qualifiers against Russia and San Marino, bagging his first international goal in the 6-0 win at Hampden against the latter. Moreover, Shankland’s case for being selected against Israel is enhanced because other potential options in the shape of Leigh Griffiths, Steven Naismith, Oli McBurnie and Oliver Burke have either not been fit or not been firing of late.
“He can only beat what’s put in front of him and he’s done that at every level he’s played so far,” said Reynolds. “It’s not as if he’d be going into these games as an unknown quantity.
“He’s scored for Scotland, but I think more than that, he’s been involved in that squad and, when you’re there training with those guys, you get found out very quickly.
“If you’re not up to it, not making the runs, not holding the ball up, the guys there will know and the manager will see it. With Lawrence, boys I’ve spoken to have said he fitted right in and didn’t look out of place, which is high praise coming from some of them.”