Friday’s 1-0 defeat to Costa Rica wasn’t exactly the perfect start to Alex McLeish’s return…
It’s been quite a year for Lawrence Shankland. After coming through the ranks at Queen’s Park alongside Andy Robertson, the young striker joined Aberdeen before being farmed out on loan to three different Scottish clubs over the next few years, with mixed results. During his final loan spell at Morton for the second half of the 2016/17 season, the decision was made at Pittodrie that Shankland wouldn’t get a new contract as they couldn’t envisage giving the youngster any serious game time. He would leave the club at the end of the season as a free agent, with the Dons wishing him all the best going forward.
Fast-forward a little over a year, however, and things look very different for the 22-year-old. Shankland got a six-month deal at Ayr United following his release from Aberdeen and hasn’t looked back since. The forward played a crucial role for the Honest Men and finished the campaign with 26 goals – making him the top scorer in League One last season – as Ayr went on to clinch the title by a single point.
It’s fair to say that Shankland’s form since dropping down the divisions has been turning heads and Ayr United have already knocked back a £150,000 bid from England’s AFC Fylde, with Dundee reportedly interested in securing the forward’s signature as well. With so much buzz around the young forward, we thought we’d take a look at what makes Shankland such an in-demand prospect and how he’s managed to get his career back on track.
Since moving to Ayrshire, Shankland has discovered an eye for goal and is showing no signs of slowing down, despite the club’s progression up the Scottish football pyramid. The Glaswegian has hit an incredible 36 goals in 37 appearances to date across all competitions – numbers that are incredibly rarely seen here in any division. This season has been no different and Shankland already has two hat-tricks under his belt, against Morton and Stenhousemuir, and a further three goals in two games against recently relegated Partick Thistle. Shankland has an eye for the spectacular too: one of his goals against the Jags was an early goal of the season contender, a looping effort struck no fewer than 45 yards from the opposition goal.
It hasn’t always been like this, however, with Shankland’s goal returns at various clubs inconsistent throughout his career. The 22-year-old finished as top scorer for Queen’s Park during the 2012/13 season and earned his move to Pittodrie off the back of it, but provided diminishing returns from then onwards. A decent spell at Dunfermline followed, before 18 months at St Mirren and a step up to a higher division. Shankland couldn’t find the net as regularly as he could at a lower level but still chipped in with 14 goals. A loan spell at the Buddies’ rivals Morton followed, where Shankland struggled to make a decisive impact. Then, after joining Ayr United, things fell into place for the young forward and the goals have been flying in.
Looking at Shankland’s current form, it’s easy to blame Derek McInnes for letting a goalscorer leave Aberdeen when it looks like they’ll struggle in the goals department this season. But the truth is that the Dons boss had seen little to suggest that Shankland was going to develop into a reliable and dependable striker. Nearly half of Shankland’s career goals so far have come in just over a year at Ayr United so it’s perhaps understandable that McInnes decided to let him go.
As impressive as Shankland’s goalscoring exploits at Somerset Park have been, it would be unfair to paint the striker simply as a goal machine. The forward’s all-around play has been instrumental in Ayr’s rise to the Championship and he has almost as much pedigree in laying on goals for other players. When it comes to fashioning opportunities for his teammates to score, Shankland again excels as the graphic below demonstrates.
Not content with merely averaging a goal a game, Shankland has also set up 18 goals for his teammates at Ayr – a goal every two games, in other words. To put that statistic into context, Daniel Candeias – who finished last season as the Premiership’s assist leader – finished the campaign with 10 assists, setting up a goal a little over every three matches. Shankland’s assist rate at Ayr actually trumps any player in Scotland’s top flight last season – of course, he’s playing at a lower level but it indicates the high level of performance he’s been putting in on a regular basis at Somerset Park. It’s very unusual for a player to be both a team’s principal goal threat and an influential creative outlet, yet Shankland is able to perform both roles admirably in Ian McCall’s side.
It’s worth pointing out that this aspect of Shankland’s game is a relatively recent development, however. Before joining Ayr United, the Honest Men striker had only 11 assists during his entire career so far, which isn’t particularly impressive. Having said that, it’s clearly an area of his game that he’s been working on over the last few years – Shankland’s assist rate improved during his time at St Mirren before ultimately skyrocketing in Ayrshire.
Clearly, Shankland has proven himself to be a cut above League One standard and how he performs in the Championship, where he has previously struggled, should provide some indication of how his development has progressed under McCall’s tutelage. The striker has hit the ground running and, should he stay at Somerset Park until the end of the season, could put any lingering doubts over his ability to rest with another successful campaign. McInnes will no doubt be kicking himself for letting the prospect leave Aberdeen for nothing in 2017 but if Shankland keeps up the good work, it might not be long before the pair’s paths cross again in the Scottish Premiership.