Lawrence Shankland has cut a frustrated figure in recent weeks, so there was a degree of personal relief following Sunday's match with Celtic. The Hearts captain saw his side lose 4-1 but managed to find the net for the first time in nine games. A very un-Shankland-like drought had finally come to an end.
The overall result and manner of goals conceded irked Shankland, his team-mates and the Tynecastle coaching staff. Celtic recorded a comfortable victory without really needing to reach top gear in Gorgie. Hearts were overly passive for much of the afternoon, conceding possession frequently and, in turn, cheap goals against ruthless opponents.
Shankland was grateful to reduce the deficit to 3-1 near the midway point of the second half. Service has been limited over the last couple of months and goalscoring opportunities consequently at a premium. Hearts have scored only eight goals in their nine Premiership fixtures this term. He admitted the situation left him slightly exasperated.
"Of course, as a striker. I think when you are on one of those wee runs, you second-guess runs you make in the box and sometimes it just feels like you are always making the wrong run or taking the wrong option. That can happen. I managed to get one on Sunday and hopefully I now go on a wee run," said the player.
"It was good to get back on the scoresheet. It’s been a wee bit of a drought and I’m glad that it’s over now. If there any positives to take personally, that can be one. I’ve gone through it before but, up until the same date last year, I’d only scored five goals as well so I’m on track for what I did last year.
"I can work with that going forward. Perspective is huge in football. Of course my game hasn't been brilliant at times this season. I’d say myself that I can improve. But, listen, it’s not through a lack of effort. I’m working hard and trying my best out there. Sometimes it doesn’t quite work out and you have a wee dip in form.
"Hopefully that goal can turn things and get me going in the right direction again. It comes through experience. You go through a lot in your career and you learn. There are spells when the goals just don’t flow and there are other when they fly in. Most of the time it’s about just getting that one again and you try and build from there. That happened on Sunday so hopefully I can now kick on."
Shankland struck 28 goals in 47 appearances during a record-breaking first season in maroon. Hearts will need him to replicate that form as they embark upon a difficult run of games. They travel to Glasgow play Rangers in the league this Sunday before facing Livingston at Tynecastle a week on Wednesday. Then it's the Viaplay Cup semi-final against Rangers at Hampden Park.
Shankland acknowledged the need for improvement ahead of the trip to Ibrox and admitted the Celtic match should act as a cautionary note. "We’ll definitely have to improve. When you play the Old Firm, you know they have got that quality," he said. "If you are not on the top of your game, they can are things really difficult for you.
"We need to take today as a wee warning, really. We can use it in the right way ahead of going to Ibrox. We need to go in confident. We can’t think about Sunday and think ‘that’s going to happen again’. We can’t do that. We move on. It’s a completely different game, a different team. It will be a tough ask but we’ll be looking to go there and get a result."
Whether he leads the attack on Sunday or plays that slightly withdrawn role remains to be seen. Kenneth Vargas was often running beyond the deep-lying Shankland against Celtic but that tactic did not quite have the desired effect. Liam Boyce, the Northern Irish forward, is also pushing to return to Hearts' starting line-up for this weekend.
"It was a slightly different dynamic on Sunday from what we’ve played normally. I dropped back one again," explained Shankland. "It’s just a role for the team that I have to play. I tried to help out overall in the system we wanted to play. The game probably worked out a bit different to what we thought. Overall, it was just our lack of quality and the way we defended as a team that cost us. Celtic punished us."
Hearts were unable to offer much resistance or interrupt the visitors' rhythm. After conceding inside three minutes, the game quickly got away from the home team. There was a notable ease with which Celtic plundered goals. "At times it felt like that," admitted Shankland. "Don’t get me wrong. At times, some of their one-touch play was really good and they were on it, to be honest. And when they’ve got that quality, it can cause you problems. There’s no shame in that. But when we look at ourselves, we need to be defensively more solid.
"It’s disappointing overall, obviously, the result. The goals that Celtic scored, from our point of view, it didn’t feel like they had to work too hard too score them. That’s disappointing for us. We came into the game late on but the scoreline still suited Celtic heavily. It’s done now and we have to move on to a big week."