April 2022. Having defeated Hibs in the Scottish Cup semi-final, Heart of Midlothian had guaranteed themselves at least eight games in European football with a third-place finish in the Scottish Premiership already secured. 

It was also a campaign which finished with another landmark. The 30th in succession in which a player wearing the maroon-and-white had failed to hit the 30-goal mark. Liam Boyce scored a respectable 16 for the second season running. In the past Kyle Lafferty, Paul Hartley and Rudi Skacel had all gone close. Still, the wait went on for such a talisman, such a predator, such a goal scorer. That summer then Hearts boss Robbie Neilson knew what he wanted. Who he wanted. Someone he “really pushed hard” to make a Hearts player.

Enter Lawrence Shankland.

READ MORE: Breaking down Lawrence Shankland's winning Hearts goal

The striker arrived at Tynecastle Park with suspicion and doubt. To some he was nothing more than a goal scorer. To others he wasn’t a striker who would score goals in the Scottish Premiership, on account of his season with Dundee United in the top flight and then a tricky year in Belgium with Beerschot. 

Twenty-eight goals would follow. Against Aberdeen, against Celtic, against Rangers, in Europe. And, most importantly, in the Edinburgh derby. It was the highest return for a Hearts forward since John Robertson’s 31 in season 1987/88. 

He’s on course to become only the second Hearts striker - alongside Robbo, of course - in 40 years to hit 20 goals in back-to-back seasons. His recent double against Motherwell took him on to 10 for the campaign. A campaign where, owing to a run of eight games without a goal, fans were questioning if he needed to be dropped. It followed a summer where he had little time off due to international commitments and then was the subject of transfer speculation. Yet, he scored four in his first five games, including crucial strikes in Europe. More than that, he was and continues to be the club’s best player. The cub’s reference point. The club’s talisman. And, while Craig Gordon remains out, the club’s captain.

Now the view is almost unanimous. He must go to Euro 2024 as part of Steve Clarke’s plans. As the country’s best goal scorer. Aided by his headed goal against Georgia to earn a point having originally been left out the squad.

What follows is Shankland’s journey to Tynecastle Park. To all that came before and led to him being held in such vaunted status in Gorgie. In the view of this writer, Heart of Midlothian’s best striker since John Robertson…

Queen’s Park

Hearts fans will likely be familiar with an image of a young Lawrence Shankland. Kneeling down, hand on ball, sporting a bleached mohawk in a Hearts kit, aged nine years old. The Hearts top Mark De Vries wore when he hit four against Hibs, the one Phil Stamp wore when he produced his own derby heroics and the one the team wore when finishing third in back-to-back seasons. As a kid he spent time with Hearts and had a lengthy trial spell at Rangers. But he would eventually find a place to develop at Queen’s Park, when the club were still amateur.

He would progress through his teens, making his debut aged just 16 in the final game of the 2011/12 season, coming on as a second half sub in a defeat to Elgin City.

“First of all, the boy himself and his family were terrific to work with,” David McCallum told Hearts Standard.

Now holding a prominent role in the academy at Rangers, managing the team’s B side, back then McCallum was head of Queen’s Park’s academy. He encountered Shankland when the player was just about to enter his teens.

“He was a goal scorer back then,” he said. “I think that was his biggest weapon as a football player. It is good to see that has not changed.”

Shankland has spoken of being a “utility player”, playing in midfield and even defence, during his time with the Spiders. For McCallum, however, it was clear that he was destined to be a striker. 

“If you speak to him or his parents, they were all receptive to learning, to information,” he said. “I think it was pretty clear for the most part he played as a centre-forward, his natural instincts and natural attributes. When you find someone who is a goal scorer as Lawrence was and still is, you want to make sure he is exposed to as many of those moments and opportunities as you can.”

READ MORE: Steve Clarke hails Lawrence Shankland for his Scotland commitment

While at Queen’s Park Shankland worked at the McAlpine factory in Hillington, southwest Glasgow, “making items for the plumbing trade”. That gave him a grounding in the real world which some players higher up the food chain are not exposed to. McCallum was keen to stress the role of his parents. For the player himself, even from a young age he was someone who would take a deeper, more analytical view on his game and his role within the team.

“Lawrence is quite a humble lad,” McCallum said. “Within that humbleness there was also a belief in who he was as a football player. It is nice to get that balance because I think you can be both and he certainly ticks those boxes where he believes in himself and he knew what he could bring to the team.

“When you were sharing tactical information he was attentive. He was happy to get involved in conversation when it came to discussing the game and understanding what his role was and what the team needed to know. He was young at that time, he was a learner. The fact he is a captain now. Captaincy is given for different reasons, that can be because you are a leader but also because you understand what the coach or manager expects you to do. He wanted to know, wanted to learn but ultimately wanted to score goals. It was bringing that together. He was a joy to work with and I keep going back to his parents as well. I think they had a massive part to play.”

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At the start of the 2012/13 campaign, a day after he turned 17, he scored a double against East Stirlingshire, following it up with a strike against Partick Thistle in the Challenge Cup a few days later. He had been given an opportunity by Gardiner Spiers, the Queen’s Park manager, and he took it.

“When a young player’s journey is ready to get into the first-team it is not a one-size-fits-all,” McCallum said. “It is very much an individual journey. You don’t get opportunities because you are there. You have to earn them. When the opportunity did come Lawrence showed what he was capable of in what he was doing within the academy setting.

“You do see belief, you do see talent, you do see what people are capable of doing. But how that journey pans out, it is very difficult to say you would know that would be the case. What you knew was, Lawrence had the ability and the mindset. That gives you a chance. It’s a case of getting the opportunity. He’s now landed where he is now, a very prominent member of Hearts’ squad, had opportunities with Scotland. You look at Andy Robertson, Blair Spittal, you can never say that is how it is going to map out. But what you do know is they have talent and it is a case of finding the opportunity at the right club, a manager taking a moment to say this is the right time for him.”


A teenager scoring goals for Queen’s Park during a season which had the presence of Rangers in the fourth tier was always going to attract interest. He even netted off the bench against Ally McCoist’s men.

For Aberdeen and Derek McInnes it was a signing which ticked plenty of boxes and made sense.

“There was a conscious effort to try to look at the lower leagues in Scotland to look at some of the younger ones,” former Dons boss told Hearts Standard. “We wanted to find an avenue through to the first team, not just through our own academy at the time, maybe look at good young players playing in first teams and Lawrence was one of a few we looked at.

“Lawrence had a knack for scoring goals, a natural finisher and because it was Queen’s Park being an amateur team I made a phone call to Gardiner Spiers at the time and managed to quickly reach an agreement to get him up with us. Just to give him the chance of a full-time environment. The biggest attraction for us was that he was very calm in possession, looked after the ball and obviously a natural finisher.”

It started off well for Shankland in Aberdeen. A productive spell with the development team was followed by a loan spell to Dunfermline Athletic in his first season. The second saw him spend plenty of time with the club’s first team, while he netted 30 goals as Paul Sheerin led the club’s U20s Development League success, building a devastating partnership with Cammy Smith. He was named the club’s U20 player of the year and selected alongside the likes of Kieran Tierney, Liam Kelly, Harry Souttar and Stuart Findlay in the SPFL’s Development League team of the season.

READ MORE: Pundit questions lack of Scotland game time for Lawrence Shankland

While the goals flowed for the younger age group, Shankland was unable to find the net in 17 appearances for the first team, most of which were off the bench.

“When he was in the environment training with us, we always accelerated a lot of the younger ones,” McInnes, now Kilmarnock manager, said. “At Aberdeen it was Connor Barron, Calvin Ramsay, Dean Campbell, Ethan Ross, Scott McKenna. They were always training with the first team as soon as they were 16 because we always thought they were capable and good enough to train with the first team from an early age.

“Even though Lawrence was young, signed him from outwith the academy, we thought he had the capabilities. I loved him with his back to goal, he secured possession, linked the play well and was good in the air. The biggest thing for me is if you played enough pace around about him and you played with wingers, he would always be in the middle of the goals for crosses, he would get you goals. From a technical aspect he was good at looking after the ball, getting up the pitch. I just think maybe the belief from him could have been more to play in the first team. Listen, at that age it is a big ask to go from Queen’s Park, a part-time environment, to try to force yourself into the Aberdeen first team and play regularly.”

Shankland has spoken of missing a “sitter” against Celtic and Michael McGovern producing an excellent save to deny him a goal at Hamilton. In his first start, against Partick Thistle, he was presented with an early chance but didn’t take it. In future success, at Ayr United, Dundee United and Hearts, he always scored early in his career. In addition, the player didn’t lead the professional life off the field. A brutally honest individual, the striker admitted as much in an Open Goal interview. He wasn’t in the shape required to be a professional footballer at the top level. And certainly not one who was going to displace Adam Rooney, the Irish striker who scored 20 goals or more in three successive seasons at Pittodrie. McInnes was of the belief that he thought “it was the right thing for him and the club that he moved on at the time”.

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“It didn’t go as well as we hoped at Aberdeen,” he said. “I know Lawrence has spoken about it. There was a wee bit of a frustration that it didn’t work out. By the same token, as part of his development, I think he saw what needed to be done. After a couple of loan spells it took him a wee while to really find his feet. Not for the penny to drop because that’s a bit harsh on him - maybe for the realisation that it was more than just being a good goal scorer that is required.

“We felt, at the time, there were a lot of factors going in terms of bringing him in. Maybe if he had matured further down the line. He never managed to get into a strong Aberdeen side at the time and there is no shame in that.

“It is always a big ask for a young player to lead the line at a club like Aberdeen. To lead the line is a big ask for a young player at any level. We felt there was enough to Lawrence’s game, a strength about him, a confidence about him. I think Lawrence has admitted he needed to apply himself a bit better and maybe show a bit more confidence. I think he never really truly believed at the time he was good enough to shift the guys ahead of him, which is sometimes they just need to go back the way. I think it’s a good story of youngsters who find themselves just a bit short at a younger age, there is still time to develop and blossom elsewhere. Look at him now, a Scotland internationalist, a key player for Hearts. A real prominent figure in Scottish football. I couldn’t be more pleased because he is such a good kid that you just want good things to happen to him. It is no real surprise to me that he has done so well.”

Ayr United

What came next was an uncertain summer of 2017. Training on the grounds of a primary school during the school holidays, while considering jobs away from football. In a different life, Hearts’ No.9 could have been delivering Amazon packages. After three months without a club the next move was a surprising one. A bridge that the player may well have felt he had burned turned out to be the most important passage in his football career. 

Ian McCall had attempted to sign him earlier that year. In fact, he thought he had signed him, only to be stood up by Shankland, the striker opting to join Greenock Morton on loan from Aberdeen. 

“I got a call from Owen Coyle to say Lawrence is away down to sign for Morton, Lawrence never phoned me,” McCall explained to Hearts Standard. “At that point I was raging with him. Some things didn’t work out for him and I just bit the bullet and thought there is no point cutting my nose off to spite my face.

“I actually met his dad before he came and as soon as I met Lawrence, he’ll hate me saying it, but the first time I met him he was quite sheepish because he stood me up that day without phoning me. That was a good start for me as it got me off on the front foot.”

McCall, who has recently taken over at League Two Clyde, was building a squad for promotion from League One. They had been relegated from the Championship but were full-time, looking to return at the first time of asking. Craig Moore had suffered an injury and the Ayr boss was searching for a partner for Michael Moffat.

“I played against Lawrence several times, he was a younger lad, and he was always a handful because he was a big boy but he probably never had that confidence or consistency,” Chris Higgins, a team-mate of Shankland’s at Ayr, told Hearts Standard

“Lawrence came in and had a good group around him, albeit at League One - probably a level he didn’t want to play at - but it was probably the level he needed to get that confidence and then bang the goals in. When he first came in, he wasn’t quiet but he wasn’t as confident as he did grow into.

“Everyone, especially Ian, knew he was a good player. The manager was really good with him, he gave him confidence. The group around him was good for him as well. There was good experience in that group that maybe just gave him a bit of security, not going to get blasted for missing a chance.”

Not that he missed too many chances, 63 goals followed in 74 appearances across two seasons which brought a League One title and a Premiership promotion push. The first of those goals arrived, crucially perhaps, on his debut for the club, in a 2-1 loss to Raith Rovers.

“We always knew we had a chance of winning the game because Lawrence was at the top of his game,” Higgins said. “He was scoring goals, he was confident, some of the goals he scored were incredible. If we were drawing or getting beat with 15 minutes to go we knew Shanks could produce something, that was the confidence we had.”

Those goals provided confidence to Shankland as did the environment of a good dressing room and the manager. It was the perfect storm for a player in search of a home. 

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“Lawrence Shankland did far more for me than I did for him,” McCall explained. “I gave the boy an opportunity, he just needed confidence. I am able to give people confidence. I genuinely don’t know how I do it. There is no specific thing I said. A lot of these players, I’ve had a number of them over the years, are looking for faith in them and people to see all their attributes, that they are really, really good and not immediately to try and improve on some of the things they are not so good at. I think you accentuate everything they are good at and in time you maybe try to improve one or two things they are not good at.

“Lawrence is not rapid, you are not going to improve that, he’s a different type of player. At Ayr United it really helped that he played in a team who scored nearly 200 goals in two seasons. They played a certain way, it was pretty flamboyant stuff. He had a lot of good players around him at that level. As soon as he scored his first goal his confidence grew after that.

“I’ve never had a player like him. I’ve played with a few, McCoist for one. He just didn’t stop scoring in his time at Ayr United apart from when he got injured, which hurt us in the play-offs.”

During his time at Somerset Park there was plenty of interest. Partick Thistle were one club to have a bid turned down, while Rangers, under Steven Gerrard and Gary McAllister, were close to making a move for Shankland following discussions with McCall, who believes the player “is good enough to play in that kind of team, a team which creates so many chances”. Scotland manager Steve Clarke was another who was given the rundown on just how much of an impressive talent he is. 

READ MORE: Branimir Kostadinov: Why Hearts are still in his heart, Man City & Dumitru Copil

“There is way more to him than putting the ball in the net,” McCall said. “I had a conversation when Steve Clarke was at Kilmarnock and I was at Ayr when both teams were relatively overachieving at the time. I kept in touch and phoned him about Scotland and said to him, 'wait until you see the things he does in training'. He is a lot more than a finisher. He’s got great natural technique in terms of taking the ball and passing it, all types of finishing.”

Away from the pitch he grew, taking initial steps to becoming the leader he is now. McCall saw a “drive and ambition” and he was no “shrinking violet”. He “demanded standards” which led to regularly falling out with Sandy Stewart, Ayr’s assistant. Higgins described him as a “big daft, laddie” who had little issue acclimatising to a dressing room which had big characters, including Steven Bell, Mark Kerr, Andy Geggan, Michael Moffat and Ross Docherty.

He explained: “I can see where Robbie [Neilson] was coming from when he appointed him captain because he is a lot more experienced and has grown in stature in terms of becoming an established Premiership player, established No.9, going abroad, a bit more experience in life. Sometimes football can be very dishonest but he’s not a shy boy. To do what he did last year for Hearts, he looks like he is absolutely loving being the captain and he’s taken on the responsibility really well.”

Dundee United

An abiding memory for McCall was Shankland meeting a cross “full on with that huge big forehead” to score in a win over Raith Rovers at an atmospheric Somerset Park on their way to the League One title. Ask Ayr fans, however... a 5-0 win over Dundee United when the striker scored four.

It was a performance which stuck at Tannadice. 

“I played against him a few times when he was at different clubs,” former Dundee United defender Paul Watson told Hearts Standard. “It wasn’t until he went to Ayr and I was at Dundee United that he was scoring for fun.

“We had a struggling start to that season and we were coming in [after games], struggling to score goals, and you would check other scores and see that they had scored loads of goals and it was Shanks again. A few boys would say ‘imagine we had him in our team, we would romp this league comfortably’. Playing against him, he was a handful. Strong, physical boy and his finishing was top drawer.”

United would finish the season in second, behind Ross County, losing in the play-offs. Champions Ross County and Ayr United, who finished fourth, scored more goals than the Tannadice side. Robbie Neilson knew what he needed in the summer of 2019. He knew who he needed.

“We were in for pre-season the season after and he just turned up at the training ground one night,” Watson remembered. “He just gave everyone a huge lift when we saw he was signing.”

He scored on his debut, against Hearts in the League Cup. But it is his league debut which everyone remembers. Another four-goal haul, this time for United against Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Three were headers from crosses. He never looked back.

“The way that Robbie would play, we would have the majority of the ball, attacking football, get it wide and get it into the box,” Watson said. “Having as much of the ball as we did, the amount of crosses we would put into the box he was going to get on the end of a few of them. That’s what happened. He had a really good relationship with Nicky Clark. I played right back or centre back, the ball going forward would stick, you knew with them two. They linked so well and he just got on the end of most things. He was full of confidence and it gave us the lift we probably needed at that time. 

“His hold up play is really good. Touch to control it, whips it out wide and gets himself in the box. He works incredibly hard off the ball, hold-up play is brilliant and in the air, any crosses come into the box, he’s good with his head. Sometimes when he is up against big centre backs you don’t see it but he’s a big, strong guy.”

Having reignited his career, Shankland was on hand to help others, spending time trying to aid and assist the likes of Louis Appere and other United youngsters. He was a vocal, demanding presence in training but also low maintenance and without ego. Watson grew close to his team-mate, whether it was card games after training or a trip into town for a coffee.

“A genuinely nice guy, there is no ego there, there is no flamboyance,” he said. “Just a normal down-to-earth guy you can have a drink with and chat football with or about anything. A family guy. Just a normal guy and that’s probably why I’ve kept in touch with him. You don’t keep in touch with everyone you play with but he’s definitely one you do and you wish him well in everything he does.”

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It was towards the end of his time at Dundee United, before his 2021 switch to Belgian side Beerschot, when Shankland began working with John Johnstone, an elite performance mental skills coach whose business is Football Mindset and works with a wide range of professional football stars. This wasn’t a player experiencing difficulties with the mental side to his game, however, or struggles with confidence or dealing with opinions. Rather one who was looking to tap into something extra, striving for those extra gains, having read John’s book on mastering confidence as an elite footballer.

“When I first came across him he wasn’t someone that was massively struggling,” Johnstone told Hearts Standard. “There are quite often two brackets of players who will work with me. The first player is someone who has a struggle, whether it is a struggle with their confidence, their belief or struggling to deal with opinions. Then you have another group of players that will come to give themselves every opportunity in order to be the best that they can be. Lawrence never had massive mental struggles but thought the mental side of his game was an area he hadn’t tapped into and an area he felt could improve him.”

READ MORE: Branimir Kostadinov reveals why it didn't work at Hearts and career back home

For any player working with Johnstone the initial period is intense “in order to put the foundations in place for mental performance” depending on the area in which the player is trying to optimise. It coincided with moving to another country.

“He lived out there by himself for a bit,” he explained. “His family were going back and forth. It was a very, very intense period. It is still intense, the relationship I’ve got with him. I speak with Lawrence most days, whether it is the way to training or on the way back from training. But that’s not always work related. I’d class him as a right good mate now but when it comes to the performance, the actual Saturday for instance we’ll track during the week what his thoughts are for the game, how he can optimise his performance for that game and what we will do on the Saturday morning is I’ll send him an audio in relation to what we’ve spoken about in order to refine the mental side for the performance ahead.” 

That work perhaps explains Shankland’s ruthlessness from the penalty spot.

“One of the acid tests on a football pitch is hitting a penalty,” Johnstone said. “If you look at Lawrence’s calmness, his composure, his certainty in how he conducted himself in each penalty that he hit last season, I think without doubt there has been growth there.”

That growth has been aided by the player throwing himself into the mental side of his game, challenging himself and others as he has done throughout his career. One element of his game and personality which has been evident at each club he has been to is his honesty, with himself, others and the team as a collective.

“What I love about Lawrence, there is an element of the old school,” Johnstone said. “There are old-school values which are massive and have probably died from the game. There is a brutal honesty to Lawrence. If you spoke to him about what he is as a player, what he’s not as a player, he’ll tell you that. If you look at interviews he does after the game, if Lawrence hasn’t been great, he’ll tell you he hasn’t been great. If he doesn’t think the team as a collective have been great, he’ll come out and tell you that. 

“If you look at his journey, starting at Queen’s Park, going to Aberdeen, loan spells - some worked, some never. If you went back to any point in his career and asked him about it he will tell you the truth, he will tell you how he felt he got on, how he performed. He won’t try sugar coat anything. As for story, as for journey, being resilient and relentless, just not going away, without a doubt he can be pinned up there and used [for inspiration]. Scored for his country, represented his country. He’s gone from the fourth tier to representing his country.”

READ MORE: Life on the road: Why Lewis Neilson left Hearts on loan to further his development

Speak to people who have worked and played with Shankland and there may be differing views on his move to Belgium. But it was another challenge in his career which he has benefited from in the future, just like that moment where he left Aberdeen and was without a club. Beerschot knew exactly what he was capable of. They had tracked him for a while, first making contact early in summer 2021. Dundee United didn’t want to lose him but the Belgians pushed for his signing, especially Sander Van Praet who was the club’s technical manager at the time, a role similar to a sporting director. Not only had they watched the player a number of times; they sought out information from Frederic Frans, who played for Beerschot, had been a team-mate of Shankland at Tannadice and had also played against him.

“It was our second year in the first division, we understood we would face a difficult season and when you can have such a goal scorer in the team it is a plus for everyone,” Van Praet told Hearts Standard before boarding a flight.

“We knew that he was also keen to have a transfer outside of Scotland, he wanted to have let’s call it an adventure. So bringing everything together that’s how he ended up with us. Obviously the season turned out completely different to what we hoped for and expected.”

Beerschot were relegated with two different managers and two different caretakers taking charge during the campaign. Shankland was fielded in different roles, including at wing-back, and would score five goals. The teams he netted against - Genk, Anderlecht and Club Brugge - said something about him as a player for big games and moments. His influence away from the pitch was pinpointed by Van Praet and his role in helping a certain Chelsea midfielder, signed this summer for £115million.

“The energy he is bringing to the game, the willingness to work, his commitment,” he said. “These are things I would like to point out. With us he scored five goals that season. Our team was struggling, we played less dominant than we intended to so he was not in his natural habitat, close to goal, in the box and ready to score. But even then he was always 100 per cent into the team. A great mentality. 

“I also found him quite empathetic. I wouldn’t say we had a young squad but we had some youngsters in the team and he was taking care of the guys, of our younger players. Femi Seriki on loan from Sheffield United, a fellow English-speaking guy, Moises Caicedo as well from September to January. It doesn’t surprise me that he is the captain now.”

While his Belgian sojourn wasn’t as successful as he hoped, it was clear that season helped with his growth and development as a player and team-mate. He has spoken about enjoying the culture living abroad, while he has become more understanding of players moving to a new country, a new club and what the likes of Argentinian Adrian Sporle went through when he moved to Dundee United.

“Looking back, there were lads in the changing room who never spoke the language,” Johnstone said. “Lawrence said until he moved he never had a clue what they were going through. That experience in Beerschot has made him appreciate what other players in the changing room are going through because he’s experienced them himself.”

Heart of Midlothian

That empathy doesn’t stop at team-mates. In the win over Rosenborg at Tynecastle Park earlier this season in the Conference League qualifiers, the Norwegian press asked to speak to Shankland after he consoled the effervescent Sverre Nypan on the pitch. The 16-year-old was distraught after seeing his team eliminated. He told the teenager he would have plenty of more big moments in his career.

That was a player who continues to grew into the role of not just being Hearts’ No.9, the club’s talisman but also the captain and leader in Craig Gordon’s absence. Johnstone believes Hearts have “the full package”.

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“Being the No.9 at Hearts, without doubt it has its perks, its great moments, but also being No.9 at Hearts there’s expectations and scrutiny,” Johnstone said. “These things are big, they are massive. I remember going to the Stoke friendly at Tynecastle and I met a few guys I know, they go home and away, and they asked me what he is like as a player.

“It’s funny, I’ve always felt that, I’m not sure if it is the right word to use, but his goals almost do him a disservice. People look at Lawrence and the goals he scored and think he is just a goal scorer. So I think the goals do a disservice in perception from others and perception from fans. He’s a massive part of the glue which brings the whole structure together.

“One of the lads said ‘he needs to score goals and he needs to start early or we’ll be on his back, the crowd will be on his back’. Two goals that day and he’s never looked back.”