What's in a goal(scorer)? - Lawrence Shankland
There exists some footage of the Scotland team practising a shooting drill in the Ullevaal Stadion, Norway, as part of their preparations for Euro '92. It's fair to say the standard is international class. Strikers Duncan Ferguson and Gordon Durie are joined by Stuart McCall and Gary McAllister, pinging shots from just outside the 18-yard-box after a one-two lay-off.
Ally McCoist, ever in conversation with the camera ('I've got to play with those mugs'), twinkles a wee look saying, 'watch this' before playing his pass. The coach's lay off is awkward and loops into the air, McCoist adjusts his stride, one, two - this is all instinct - before rattling the ball into the top corner on the full-volley, swerving away from Andy Goram, who knew better than to dive for it.
The crack of the strike and velocity of the little white blur as it lashed the net drew involuntary exclamations from everyone there, with the coach (Andy Roxburgh?) jumping into the air in unbridled joy like a little kid, good goals will do that to you. A ridiculous finish from arguably the most natural finisher Scotland has ever produced.
McCoist came back around to the camera clutching his Adidas Etrusco (surely the greatest ball ever?) and, in his effortlessly likeable way, quipped nonchalantly, 'I felt the keeper was a bit unlucky there.'
I know what you're thinking... the Daily Record advertises in Oslo?!
Hibernian vs. Dundee United - Scottish Cup, Fourth Round Replay
29th January, 2020, Easter Road Stadium.
From just inside the Hibs half, a diagonal pass is played up to a marked Lawrence Shankland, who, seeing the flight of the ball, immediately checks his run, stopping shorter and allowing him a yard or two that he'll use to great effect a second later. His marker, Adam Jackson, follows suit, but he's playing catch-up to a lost cause. Shankland is already square on to the still airborne pass and expectant.
Sure-footed, this enables him to take a cushioned first touch with his chest in the air, away from the flat-footed defender, and onto his right. The ball bounces perfectly and one, two measured strides are all he needs as he winds his left arm towards the top left corner he took register of a full 3 seconds earlier. As the ball drops, the Dundee United forward connects with such precision on the half-volley whilst swivelling on his left, that the net can only brace itself for an inevitably crisp impact - this is all instinct.
Marciano doesn't show Goram's respect and has the temerity to dive for it. There are audible gasps to accompany the distinctive roar of distant away fans as his teammates raise arms and turn heads in amazement. I felt the keeper was a bit unlucky there.
'Smack!' That... was a goal.
Lawrence Shankland may not have the patter of Coisty, or yet the international caps, goals and accolades, but you could make a case for the boy from Baillieston having the raw, natural finishing ability.
Spiders, Honest Men and Arabs aside, I know what you're thinking; how on earth can I compare a player, unproven at the highest domestic level, to Rangers' record goalscorer, Scotland's 5th highest goalscorer and two-time European Golden Boot winner? Simply put, I'm not, not really, Shankland has done nothing to deserve that millstone.
There is only one 'Super Ally', he loved Scotland and we loved him. His goal tally could have been much higher had it not been for that leg break against Portugal, or had Craig Brown been paying attention to the above goal and taken him to France '98 (something the elder regrets), or had Gary McAllister handed him the ball at Wembley, but I digress.
The point is; there are similarities which exist between all goalscorers, and that's what we're looking at in Lawrence Shankland, for, a goalscorer he most certainly is.
Before we start, however, it might be worth considering that McCoist didn't score his first international goal until the age of 25. Shankland is 24 and has one goal in one start. At a time when Scotland are in desperate need for some competition to Leigh Griffiths and Oli McBurnie, the Football Writer's Player of the Year Nominee could have arrived for just such a time as this.
'It's something you always dream of, to be involved in the international set-up at some point... Ian McCall always told me to keep believing it would happen, and I did...'
- Interview with What The Falk Podcast, May 2020
Over the last three seasons, Shankland has racked up the sort of numbers that means Jeff Stelling knows his name. What I mean by that is, when a player scores basically a-goal-a-game for as long as he has, they become as synonymous with the weekend as the noise of the car radio in a wet ASDA car-park whilst your dad does the big shop. Or the smell of Stan's Chinese takeaway on Springburn Rd. (the best in Glasgow), or Sportscene/Match of the Day after the obligatory family-watching of The Generation Game, Big Break, 999, Casualty and the 10 o'clock news ('look away now').
Saturday just isn't the same without a Lawrence Shankland goal.
Growing up, I recall feeling this way about Steve Bull, Wolves' record goalscorer, a player whom I had never seen but whose name was as congenial to my ears as the feel of Lego upon my fingertips on a Saturday afternoon.
So it was, that whilst erecting stadia for my Subbuteo more kaleidoscopic in appearance than the old 'all-seater' Ibrox, I'd hear goal updates on my single-deck Sony from whatever lower-division Wolves played in at the time; '...There's a goal at Molineux and that's another for Steve Bull - his 87th of the season...'. I became a fan.
The old Ibrox, before its 'blue sea' makeover
As lower-league football in England was hard to come by following Saint and Greavsie's demise, the 'Bully' features in the Shoot! Annuals or St.Michael's Soccer Yearbooks, whetted my appetite, prompting me to pause and look long and hard at this grizzly-looking goal-eater who seemed... no that can't be right... but yes, there it is right in front of me... he seems to have played for England... against Scotland!?
Isn't he a Division 3 (nowadays League One) player? Does that normally happen? Don't England have Gary Lineker!? Didn't they just reach the World Cup semi-finals!? What's going on!?!?
The simple explanation was, Steve Bull scored goals whoever the opposition. As he proved on his debut as a substitute against Scotland - challenging for the ball with Alex McLeish before turning and striking it effortlessly into the bottom corner. Or seeing as we're looking at volleys, his goal against Czechoslovakia when he took a lovely ball from Paul Gascoigne on his chest and rifled it home. This was all instinct.
And you thought Hampden's running track was massive
Staying in England for a moment with a quiz question; what do Arsenal's second-highest goalscorer and club legend Ian Wright, European Golden Boot Winner, another 'Super', Kevin Phillips; and perhaps more relevant to a today's audience, a certain record-breaking Jamie Vardy, have in common? (Answer after a typical Shankland swing of the peg)
That technique. You can't watch this goal less than four times. It's impossible.
Ready? None of them played a top flight-game before their 25th birthday.
So let's nullify that objection right from the off. As a lower-league goalscorer who has recently been capped by his country, Shankland is in good company, and, in mentioning this company, we can now properly get down to our main question; what's in a (goal)scorer anyway?
Shankland scores every conceivable type of goal. To help us capture just what is meant by that observation here's an inexhaustible, but accurate, list of his strikes over the last three seasons. Left foot, right foot, headers from free-play, headers from set-plays, volleys, half-volleys, skinning defenders, penalties, near-post runs, far-post drifters, free-kicks, rounding the keeper, cutting in the from wing, placed in the corner, smacked from distance, lobs, chips, runs in behind, playing off the shoulder, holding off his man, running the channel, arrowed into the corner and almost-halfway-line worldies.
G: Shanks... what's the key to scoring all these goals? What's the secret?
LS: [Shrugs] Just stay roundabout the goals... [laughs] so that when the ball comes to you you can kick it in, take all the glory!
- Grado, questioning Lawrence Shankland on the Football Daft Show, May 2020
Do you notice anything strange about that back-catalogue? (Bespoke terminology aside?) I certainly did in researching and was genuinely astounded, so after checking a couple of times more to make sure, I can share it with you. Despite having a reputation as somewhat of a poacher, even by his own self-effacing standards, Shankland scores remarkably few goals inside the 6-yard box. In fact, from the 27 of 29 captured goals he scored last season, I counted only five inside the smallest box, none of which were rebounds.
He's a bit of an oddity in this regard. Very much not a 'scrappy finisher', I find him, rather, to be the polar opposite of this. His goals make for aesthetically pleasant viewing of a surprisingly high standard, both at Dundee United and before that at Somerset Park. Why is this and how does he do it exactly?
Well, there is a certain elegance and composure to his play that gets too easily skipped over by the tag 'goalscorer' and certainly isn't any nearer the truth with 'poacher'. He might not let you know it, and Jeff Stelling might not pick it up from the 'reports coming in', but he is far, far more than any catchphrase [only one more hidden 90s reference to find].
His four-goal haul for Ayr at Tannadice in December 2018 helps us understand this. Two first-half headers and an early second-half penalty had ensured the match ball for the tall striker. However, it was his fourth that displayed just what United were missing out on; causing watching Sporting Director, Tony Asghar, to sign the marksman on a Free Transfer at the end of the season.
Running between the centre-halves, sensing his marker with his left-hand, another long 'diag' was played in between the goalkeeper and defenders closing in. Shankland, having about two yards in which to operate, did everything well. Without breaking stride, he controlled the ball on his right thigh perfectly and as it dropped, with his next touch, he struck the ball with such beautiful technique on the half-volley that it swerved away from the goalkeeper into the far corner. All instinct.
I realised in watching this goal repeatedly that I had committed an error I think everyone familiar with Lawrence Shankland is guilty of. I had underestimated him.
I mean... c'mon. At any level, this is beautiful.
That's the problem with being a 'finisher', 'poacher' or 'goalscorer'. It doesn't tell the whole story. The goals are dismissed as 'just another Shankland goal', disappearing amidst Lego bricks in some 10-year-old kid's bedroom, or mingled amongst the dripping condensation ruining numerous football badges drawn on steamy car windows in wet ASDA car parks. However, it's not just me who uses choice analogies to get at this;
G: You're a mythical creature I think. Do you know what I mean by that? For years it's been Lawrence Shankland has scored all these goals for Ayr... you're a mythical creature.
KT: See to be honest Grado, I can confirm that he does f###### actually exist. I'm looking at him.
- Grado and Kris Toal, ibid
As funny as it is, I know what Grado means, after all, I recently compared John McGinn to a meatball-kebab-wielding unicorn. What he's getting at, I think, is that esoteric something that we just can't grasp. Like that scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon's Will doesn't realise what a gift he has and burns his answers in front of the despairing Stellan Skarsgård. When the intricacy of the goal description disappears, so the individual ability is often swallowed up in the larger narrative that we all share with chuckles of disbelief alongside the commentators.
We're all culpable of hearing Lawrence Shankland and skipping to, 'how many is that for the season now?', rather than learning of the goal, or the goalscorer. We're all guilty of burning the paper.
You're right Lawrence. I can't understand how you score these goals. But you can...
It is perhaps why creative midfielders often get a bit more credit for sublime finishing than their striking counterparts. For example, can you imagine what the commentary would be if say Kevin De Bruyne hit a thirty-yarder into the top corner, as opposed to his teammate Sergio Agüero? I'm thinking along the lines, 'Genius from De Bruyne, just look at the technique! That's why he's the best player in the Premier League', versus, 'AgüeroOOOooo! That's what he does!'. Exactly the same goal, but with very different emphasis, commentary and reaction applied. Different stories.
I could be completely wrong of course, but it's interesting in speaking to folk about Shankland how quick they are to talk as if they've watched him play, read the book, when in fact they're only familiar with the blurb on the back.
In essence, they haven't seen his fourth goal against Dundee United, but they have seen his tap-in against San Marino - ironically the least Shankland-like goal; but perfect for the 'goalscorer' narrative. 'Lawrence Shankland! That's what he does!', only it's not really, he's much, much more than that.
Skip to 2:26 for Shankland's goal
There's no doubting that Lawrence will go onto a higher level, but we just need to enjoy him whilst he's here... the Scotland games coming up in March [playoffs] are very important to him and he wants to be part of that.
- Robbie Neilson, Press Conference, January 2020
At 6' 1", Shankland is excellent in the air. He is also quick, agile and athletic - but he's not merely a target man. This is revealed in the subtleties of the way he shows the ball to a defender before skipping by them. His close control and dribbling might actually be his best-hidden quality as it never seems flamboyant, but rather, silky.
Alongside the previous goal against United, two more examples stand out for the Arabs that can help us to better appreciate this aspect of his game.
Firstly, against Inverness Caledonian Thistle, a ball is played into Shankland with three defenders around him, and a fourth on the way back. He has no right to do what he does next, but via three elegant touches, the ball will make its way into the net.
He lets the first defender dive in and kills the ball beautifully on his right foot, setting it for a shot on his left, only he feints back onto his right via a roll of the studs. This takes two defenders out the play, and away from the third, allowing him to strike the ball low and hard into the corner just as the fourth defender attempts a block.
Secondly, against Partick Thistle, Shankland picks up the ball on the far left-hand side of the pitch and immediately begins to run at the backpedalling defenders. Surrounded again, his touch is perfect and he uses it often, dribbling close to his toes but far from his opponent, chest over the ball but moving at pace with head up, he's an elegant carrier of the ball.
The defender, perhaps aware of Shankland's ability to go either way (see above the goals against Greenock Morton and Dundee), shows him inside, thinking there is safety in numbers. However, always in control, Shankland skips by him and his colleague in the same movement, before delaying his shot further via another feint, buying time and space to slot it into the near-post corner, catching the goalkeeper off-balance. It reminds me of Robbie Fowler's goal in the 2001 UEFA Cup Final, albeit at Firhill, but with the same kind of instinct.
This is what is meant by that Football Manager attribute 'composure'. Lawrence Shankland might play instinctively, but it is with a huge amount of awareness and intelligence. He doesn't rush. This excellence of execution is something that requires a huge amount of self-belief to carry out. Had he missed either chance, the criticism could have been levelled, 'he needs to get his shot off earlier', except it's the very thing that sets him apart as the best natural finisher in Scotland. He plays the game on his terms. He doesn't 'snatch'.
Obviously he's going to come into the group with a lot of confidence. He scores goals with his head, left foot, right foot. He's a natural finisher, and that's something that we maybe haven't had recently. Hopefully this will address that.
- Steve Clarke, October 2019
What then is in a goal(scorer)? What constitutes the buzz around Lawrence Shankland? By considering the sheer variety of his goals, we've hopefully helped to uncover the flexibility of his game, rounding it out a little more than the excerpt suggests. In plumbing the depths of a few of them, we've examined the finer points of his ability, and in doing so, we've learned that he is so much more any singular term. By analysing some of his lower-league strikes we were able to piece together fragments that reveal a larger story, presenting consistent themes for us to consider and be surprised by. We've learned, for example, that he is an elegant player, who is very sure of his touch, and so we can attach a huge amount of self-belief to go with his humility - it takes bravery to play so boldly.
Furthermore, we've discovered in hunting the goalscorer, perhaps expecting to find a mythical creature, that there is in fact no magical qualities or legend attached. Rather than this be disappointing, however, we've found that the man we've come across is far more interesting to look at than the preconceived picture we'd drawn out in our heads on a Saturday afternoon. Let's end by listening to the man himself, describing how he feels within the Scotland squad.
Obviously, you're [aware that you're] training with Premier League standard players... but I didn't feel out of place, it was weird... As soon as I went in and started playing it went away, it felt the norm.
- Shankland, What the Falk Podcast, May 2020
We can leave encouraged, for what is Shankland's 'norm'? What comes most intuitively to him? Goals, because he's a silky, composed, intuitive goalscorer and I'm sure I'll feel a little bit sorry for a few more goalkeepers before his career is out. This is all instinct.
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