A disconsolate Lawrence Shankland is not a pretty sight. The Hearts captain was visibly dejected following Sunday’s insipid defeat at Dundee, although there is no time for moping. Thursday’s European Conference League play-off second leg away to PAOK Salonika is looming and there are multiple lessons needing learned quickly.
Shankland speaks of his team’s “naivety” in the 1-0 loss at Dens Park, which followed last week’s 2-1 first-leg reverse against PAOK at Tynecastle Park. Cheap goals were conceded in the previous European tie against Rosenborg as well as last week’s encounter with PAOK. Dundee’s winner from Luke McCowan was a calamity from Hearts’ perspective and the captain is not happy.
“Naivety is the word that sums it up. We give away a cheap goal and throw away the points,” said Shankland. “At the start of the second half the momentum was totally with us, we created a couple of openings and looked like the team more likely to score. Then we give them that goal out of nothing.
“We’ve discussed it plenty times before, it’s just pure naivety. Obviously young Aidan Denholm makes a mistake, but there are three senior pros around him who could have told him just to go long. It’s so frustrating. I’ve said exactly these things in the dressing room, that it’s just daft, that we’re experienced boys who can’t be making mistakes like these. We all know when we’re playing well and when we’re not, when to try things and when not to.
“At the goal, Zander [Clarke] is well out of his goals and we try a couple of passes and next thing they’ve basically got an open goal. If we’ve gone up to Dundee, not played well but come away with a point, I’d be saying that’s fair enough. We need to be a team who knows that if we don’t play well, we still don’t lose. Too many times last season and again now, especially on the road, when we don’t play well we lose.”
There is no debating the fact Hearts expended considerable energy against PAOK three days before the trip to Tayside. Dundee had their feet up and looked more sprightly, but Shankland is not using midweek European ties as an excuse for a sub-standard domestic display.
“There shouldn’t have been a hangover from the PAOK game on Thursday. We rotated the squad enough that no one should be tired. Its just that the performance wasn’t up to scratch,” he explained. “We got lucky in the first half with a goal against us that got chalked off, so we got in at half-time and knew we could start again. The gaffer made changes and for 15 minutes or so we looked good, but you can’t account for what happened after that.
“It felt like we were hugely in control. Every time they cleared the ball we picked it up and came back at them. But when you give teams a goal like that in this league, they’ll hold onto it. Apart from the goal Zander’s only had one real save to make, but fair play to Dundee. They’ve done enough to win in the end. We couldn’t break them down. We need to move on.”
And quickly. If Hearts are to progress to the Conference League group phase, a colossal result is needed in Thessaloniki on Thursday. PAOK’s home ground, the Toumba Stadium, is notoriously hot and hostile and a victory there would represent one of the best European results in Tynecastle history.
Confidence can be derived from spells of the first leg when the Greeks were pinned back and looked defensively vulnerable. Hearts therefore know they have the capability to cause problems when they have possession. Getting it might be the issue given PAOK’s fast-paced technical style in front of a passionate home support likely to exceed 20,000 people.
Shankland believes last season’s Conference League group stage experience should prepare Hearts for the demands of high-octane games every three to four days. “We have experience of the Thursday-Sunday schedule from last season and we know the important thing is that everyone gets themselves up for the league games. We need to pick ourselves up and go again, just as we need to pick ourselves up and go again for Europe this week,” he stated.
“We’re still in this tie. Last week was a bit of a missed opportunity with the way we had a goal chalked off at 1-1 then they went up the other end and scored. It’s the sod’s law of football. So it’s a big task now but we know we can do it. We also know what a big prize there is to play for because we were in the group stages last year and enjoyed it.
“What we can never forget is that league games are our bread and butter. In a game like Sunday, no one’s mind should already be on Thursday because there’s no guarantee that anyone will play over in Greece. You need to go out and prove yourself at the weekend.”
Any hope of Hearts salvaging this tie will rest largely on the shoulders of people like Shankland, fellow forward Liam Boyce and goalkeeper Zander Clark. Those with years of footballing experience must guide younger colleagues through a daunting task in an intimidating environment.
“When we need fresh legs, the boys who come in need to be ready to make an impact,” said Shankland. “We also need to be aware that new boys are coming in. That’s why those of us who’ve been here and have the experience need to set the standards.”