After spending the last three years on the move, Connor Shields is hoping Motherwell will be a place to call home in the long term.
The 24-year-old was the first new arrival in a summer that saw 12 new faces join the ranks at Fir Park. However, he would endure a frustrating start to life at the club as injury ruled him out of all four Premier Sports Cup fixtures and the Premiership opener against Hibernian.
A week later, Shields was handed his debut when he started against St Johnstone in a 1-1 draw at McDiarmid Park and in ‘Well’s next match, he played 66 minutes of the cup defeat at Dens Park, before having to play the waiting game.
Aside from a few substitute appearances, the striker had to watch from the sidelines as Motherwell made an impressive start to the campaign. During his time out of the team, he enquired about the possibility of going out on loan for some much-needed game time.
Steelmen boss Graham Alexander had other plans for the former Sunderland man, however, persuading him that he had an important part to play. Shields’ patience was rewarded when he netted his first goal for the club – smashing home the opener in the impressive 2-0 victory over Hearts earlier this month.
Now, after making his breakthrough, Shields‘ next target is holding down a starting berth amidst strong competition for a forward role in ML1.
“Obviously there was a bit of fortune in there with Kev being suspended, and I got brought in for the Hearts game,” he explained. “The manager has been brilliant, having arrived at the club in January he is also relatively new as well.
“This is the first time I have played in the Premiership, and he understands that. I’m thankful for the opportunity he has given me. Obviously at the start, it was unfortunate with my injuries, but I was given my chance against Hearts and hopefully I have shown what I can do.
“I wanted to get my first goal as soon as possible, and it was brilliant to score. I thought the team performed brilliantly against a good Hearts team who are right up there – it was a good day all round.”
Although it is not spoken about internally at Fir Park, the wait for a striker to score their first goal for the club often leads to supporters making comparisons to two strikers from the recent past.
Alex Fisher and Jordan White joined Motherwell from Scottish clubs and failed to break their duck before departing in a relatively swift fashion.
There was a mixture of joy and relief as Shields opened his scoring account against Hearts, and Jambos fans must now dread the sight of the Coatbridge-born forward – it was his first goal in eight months – and on that occasion, he also scored against Hearts – netting a double in Queen of the South’s shock 3-2 win at Tynecastle.
“It’s not really spoken about, though as a striker, you want to get a goal as soon as possible, especially when you go to a new club,” he added. “I’m glad it is out the way, and now I can focus on scoring more and playing more often.
“I wasn’t playing at the start, and I felt like I needed to play games like every player wants to do. I had a conversation with the manager, and he told me he wanted me to stay here and be coached by him.
“He explained he brought me to the club for a reason, and it would take a bit of time to settle. Hopefully, that’s behind me now. I know in terms of the strikers that I am one of the younger ones, it will take time, but hopefully I can play a few more games and cement my place in the starting XI.”
The Steelmen boss has plenty of attacking options at his disposal, with Kevin van Veen, Tony Watt and Kaiyne Woolery all having got among the goals during the first 16 games of the league campaign.
Shields is enjoying the chance to play alongside his fellow strikers and believes their experience and knowledge of the game is helping move his game to a higher level.
“It’s good competition,” he said. “There are a lot of forwards at the club, but having players that good in training every day is good for me as one of the younger players.
“I’m 24 and the other strikers are a few years older than me. It’s great to learn from them – the standards they set in training every day – it lets me know what I need to match and go above to get a chance.
“I need to prove myself at this level. Obviously, guys like Kev and Tony are proven at a high level, whereas this is my first time in this league. Last season I did not too bad and got my move to Motherwell, and that’s my next challenge – I got off to a rough start, but hopefully the Hearts game was a turning point.
“I speak to Kev quite a lot about his time at other clubs and as forwards, we do separate stuff in training. Tony has played at a high level too – they both pass on really good knowledge, as do Kaiyne and Robbo (Jordan Roberts) – it is good to learn from them and I take it all in my stride.”
Although this is his first season in the Scottish Premiership, Shields is no stranger to having to make a step up in his career.
In 2018, he swapped part-time football at Albion Rovers to join Sunderland in the English Championship.
The whirlwind transfer would see him go from mixing training and work to training five days a week at the Sunderland Academy, which produced the likes of Jordan Henderson, Jordan Pickford and Peter Hartley. After arriving in January 2018, he was a regular in the Black Cats’ Under 23 side.
It was a far cry from Cliftonhill, and although he did not manage to make a first-team appearance, Shields holds no regrets over the move.
During his time with the Wearside club, he had a loan spell at Alloa before joining Aldershot in the National League – making 22 appearances and scoring once. His time in England ended after a short spell with Billericay Town, and he would return to Scotland to sign for Queen of the South in the summer of 2020.
“At the time, it was brilliant. I couldn’t really turn down the opportunity to go full-time from part-time,” he recalled. “It was a massive jump. Obviously it was a big standard – I don’t regret moving away and going down there and trying it.
“You learn a lot from going elsewhere and trying things at different levels, it didn’t work, and I came back to Scotland.
“I was pleased to get the opportunity in the Championship with Queen of the South – I felt I had to prove myself, and I knew I could do better.”
Shields proved to be a hit at Palmerston last season, scoring 11 times and winning the Championship ‘Player of the Month’ award for January.
As the season ended, many clubs expressed an interest in signing the powerful forward, including this evening’s opponents Dundee United. In the end, it was a positive meeting with Alexander that sold Shields on a move to North Lanarkshire, and he put pen to paper on a three-year deal.
As well as Shields, ‘Well have signed Sondre Solholm, Liam Kelly, Callum Slattery and Kaiyne Woolery on deals until 2024, demonstrating the Fir Park boss’ long-term vision for the club.
“I spoke to all the managers interested, and when I spoke to the gaffer, he showed me about the club and told me what he expects of his teams and the way he wants to play,” he explained. “There’s a real feel-good factor about the club, it felt like Motherwell were the club that suited me, and it’s proving to be the right decision. Hopefully I can repay them.
“For the last few years, I was in England and then Dumfries. I only live 15/20 minutes away from Fir Park, so it suits me in that respect. I have a long contract – I do my talking on the pitch, and hopefully I can perform well enough to get settled for even longer.
“I was the first one to arrive in the summer, but there have been a lot of boys who have two or three-year deals. That has been good to see. I know managers come and go, but for the manager to put that level of faith in us for that length of time, that shows he’s wanting to stay here, do well and get us right back up the table.”
Before his move to ‘Well, most of Shields’ experience of Scottish football has been played in front of small crowds and, in the case of last season, behind closed doors.
In the aftermath of the victory over Hearts, the players embarked on their now traditional lap of honour, allowing the players to mix and soak up the adulation of the fans.
Shields feels there is a real bond between the players and the fans and believes that connection can grow stronger if he and his teammates can continue to produce the goods on the park.
“Especially with fans not being there last season due to Covid, it is brilliant to have them back – especially at home games,” said the former Sunderland man. “I think because of those circumstances, it has brought the players much closer to the fans.
“We are engaging much more with the supporters. We want to give them good results and good performances – there is a strong connection between us just now, and the more we can win games, then I’m sure that’ll only get better.”
Tonight’s fixture at Fir Park begins a run of seven matches in just over a month for Motherwell – a crucial period that will play a big part in determining the direction of the remainder of this season.
After recovering from a difficult run of results, Well recorded back-to-back wins against Aberdeen and Hearts, victories that have helped build a gap over teams outside the top half of the table.
With little separating the sides in third to fifth place, fans could be forgiven for beginning to turn their minds to challenging for a European spot, and Shields believes that on their day, the Steelmen can prove to be a match for anyone in the Premiership.
“We definitely have belief in ourselves that we can do well,” added Connor. “If you look back on the first 16 games of the season, we have made a really good start. The games at home to Celtic and Rangers aside, we have given the rest of the teams a strong challenge. There’s no reason we can’t finish in the top six. That is the ambition for a club of our size.
“We have to keep up the standards that we have produced recently, and hopefully that’ll help us finish as high up the league as possible – we can now look up the table rather than looking over our shoulders.
“The fact the games come around fast at this time of year is good. The more you play, the more you can build your confidence.
“If I can bag a few goals and get some wins, it will help with my aim to stay in the side. Obviously it’s up to the manager, there might be times where I come out for different personnel or rest, but if I’m put back in, I’ll make sure I’m ready to go again and hopefully deliver a good performance.”