Rangers. Celtic. Everton. Crystal Palace. Sheffield United. Middlesbrough. Southampton. Just a handful of the clubs that have been linked with a January move for Lawrence Shankland, and it is a list that is growing by the day. It is going to be a very long month for Heart of Midlothian supporters.

The man in maroon is no longer simply the talk of the toon; tales of his goal-scoring exploits are reaching far and wide of late. His name is no doubt being circulated around boardrooms as managers draw up their targets for the transfer window, and interest in the Hearts captain will surely only grow.

It isn’t hard to see why Shankland has been garnering so much attention. His winning goal in Hearts’ 2-1 win away to Livingston, the team’s final fixture before the winter break, was his 18th of the campaign in all competitions. It solidified his position as the Premiership’s top scorer, and it was the sixth time this season he has provided the match-winning goal in a league game. No other player in the top flight has scored more than four. Since returning to Scotland in the summer of 2022, he has out-scored every other player in the country.

Tynecastle, Hampden, Celtic Park, Ibrox, Easter Road, Pittodrie – whatever the venue, the game has finished with Shankland sticking the ball in the back of the net at one point or another. Those sorts of records don’t go unnoticed and with Shankland now 28 and entering the final 18 months of his deal, conventional wisdom would suggest that a big-money move is in the offing. Various figures have been bandied about in recent weeks as speculation surrounding the striker has ramped up – some insultingly low – but at this point, it’s difficult to pluck any number out of the air that would fairly compensate Hearts for the loss of their talisman.

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It's important to understand just how important Shankland is to this Hearts team. We’ll start with the obvious: his goals. The Scotland internationalist has provided more than half of the team’s goals in the league – no other club comes close to relying so heavily on one player – and across all competitions, Shankland has scored more than the rest of the team combined. Hearts’ next highest scorer is Kenneth Vargas, who is tied on own goals with three. A handful of players have two.

It's no surprise that Hearts’ sluggish start to the season coincided with an eight-game barren run for Shankland. If he is not in form and providing the finishing touches to attacking moves, it’s difficult to see where the goals will come from in Steven Naismith’s side. And then there’s his range – Shankland has scored all manner of finishes, from all sorts of opportunities. He really can do it all.

It’s not just his goals, either – from a tactical perspective, Shankland is absolutely fundamental to Hearts. His hold-up ability is crucial when building out from the back, and some of his best performances in a maroon jersey have come in the No.10 position when he drops deep to collect the ball. He is simultaneously the team’s best playmaker and its most potent threat in front of goal. Players like that don’t come around very often.

Talk to a Hearts fan these days and Shankland is starting to get mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Rudi Skacel and John Robertson. The comparisons are fair, too. Shankland has the best goals-to-game ratio of any Hearts player this century, he is well on track to become the first player to score 20 goals in back-to-back seasons since Robertson, and he is likely to become the quickest player to hit a half-century of goals for Hearts since the Second World War.

Shankland is a once-in-a-generation talent, and interested clubs must adjust their bids accordingly. A couple of million and a player on loan in return won’t cut it this time. His importance to the team on the park cannot be overstated, and Hearts are in a good financial position off of it. The high-heid yins at Tynecastle Park have no reason to sell, and every incentive to reject any offer that isn’t truly eye-watering.

So, how much are we talking then? What would it take? In my view, probably more than anyone else is willing to pay. With 18 months left on his contract and little likelihood of any future sell-on value down the line, clubs will understandably be reluctant to throw massive bags of cash around. In normal circumstances, such a player would probably fetch around £2-3million, perhaps a little more for poaching them mid-season. But this is not a case of business as usual.

You see, this Premiership season is special. It is the last one where the team that finishes third is guaranteed European group-stage football in the following campaign (assuming that either Celtic or Rangers win the Scottish Cup). It’s a huge incentive that provides game-changing income, with Hearts making upwards of £5m for their Europa Conference League involvement last season. And with the Premiership’s third-placed team entering the Europa League at the play-off round, there is an opportunity for further riches still.

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That £5m has to be the starting point for any negotiation, before his value to the team is even considered. The truth is that Hearts have done little to show that they would be able to shrug off the loss of their talisman and clinch third place nonetheless. If Shankland were to leave, he would take Hearts’ hopes of finishing third with him. 

A bid of around £7-8m is probably what it would take to make the deal worthwhile to Hearts, but it’s hard to find clubs willing to meet that valuation. Scott Brown’s £4.5m move from Hibs to Celtic remains the record transfer between two Scottish clubs, and that record would have to be smashed to pry Shankland away from Tynecastle Park. Moreover, the Old Firm don’t tend to pay that kind of money for any player, never mind one with little resale value.

Could a club struggling in the Premier League, where teams have more money than sense, be willing to stump up the cash? Probably, but it would be a big gamble for Shankland to take with the European Championships on the horizon. On current form, he could well be leading the line for Scotland as the tournament gets underway at Munich’s Allianz Arena. But if he were to move, struggle to adapt, fall out of the team? He might not even make it onto the plane to Germany.

Shankland’s value to Hearts at present is more than anyone is likely to pay, and only a jaw-dropping sum of money will be enough for the Gorgie club to be deprived of their prize asset. It might mean selling him for a vastly reduced price in the summer, or losing him for nothing at all the following year, but it would be worth it nonetheless. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Hearts’ season hinges on retaining Shankland – and it is difficult to put a price tag on that.