Keeping Lawrence Shankland can be Dundee United’s promotion insurance policy, according to assistant head coach Lee McCulloch.
The Championship leaders may be 17 points clear of second-placed Inverness Caley Thistle but no one at the club, including McCulloch, is taking the title for granted.
Star man Shankland scored a perfect hat-trick – header, right foot and left foot – in Saturday’s 4-1 hammering of Partick Thistle at Firhill to take his tally to 24 goals from as many games since he joined from Ayr United last summer.
That certainly ensures United’s William Hill Scottish Cup opponents Hibs will have the Scotland international well watched when the sides meet in the fourth round at Tannadice on Sunday afternoon.
Also keeping a close eye on Shankland, of course, are numerous scouts from potential buying clubs. That makes the January transfer window an anxious time for United supporters.
McCulloch insists the Tangerines’ frontman is even good enough to do a job for Celtic or Rangers but wants him to see out his current contract at Tannadice, which runs until 2022.
“It is important that we keep him,” he said.
“I would be staggered if bids don’t come in for him this month and even both halves of the Old Firm must be interested due to the goals return he has.
“Lawrence can play as a lone striker or one of two up front and you can see how good he is outside the box as well. His touch has improved and so has his movement.
“He has also shown resilience after things didn’t work out at Aberdeen, by joining Ayr United and then moving here.
“He works so hard and is in the gym before and after training every single day. He is grounded and he always wants to do extra, which is great to see.
“We want to keep him as long as possible.”
McCulloch also claims that Shankland should lead the line for Scotland in the Euro 2020 play-off semi-final against Israel in March and, hopefully, the final against either Norway or Serbia.
He argues that the striker’s experience earlier in the season, when he came on as a sub in the defeat against Russia in Moscow and then scored in his first start against San Marino, has made him even deadlier in front of goal.
“I think that gave him extra confidence,” said McCulloch.
“Every footballer in the world needs more confidence and, when he came back from those Scotland games, I wouldn’t say there was a swagger about him but there was added belief.
“Our other players took something from it, too, because they now have an international star as a teammate.
“So the experience was good all-round for everyone and great exposure for the club.”
Scots boss Steve Clarke has a shortlist of forwards to choose from but no one else is scoring at the same rate as Shankland and McCulloch reckons he should start against the Israelis at Hampden.
“Absolutely, as long as he has the right players round about him,” said the Tannadice coach.
“I think he would suit the system Steve Clarke wants to use with the national team.
“His form this season has been excellent and he also has one goal from two appearances so he deserves to be in the squad.
“Basically, any Scot who is scoring regularly should be included.
“I see Lawrence as offering something different from the others, anyway.
“Steven Naismith is fantastic but he has had injuries, Leigh Griffiths isn’t yet fully fit and Oli McBurnie’s been doing it for Sheffield United but Lawrence is something else again.
“He is a more natural goalscorer than McBurnie, thanks to his movement and his clinical finishing.
“He has also added workrate – it wasn’t always there a few years ago – to his game. Credit to him because he has wanted to improve.”
Lee McCulloch was speaking at a William Hill media event. William Hill is the proud sponsor of the Scottish Cup.