The Scottish Mail on Sunday
Boyce no longer the odd one out for Irish
MICHAEL O’NEILL let Liam Boyce down as gently as he could, but a summer’s worth of pain ensued for the Ross County striker as he watched Northern Ireland fulfil their Euro 2016 dream without him. Left out of the squad in favour of Wigan’s Will Grigg, Boyce knew his form hadn’t been good enough in the second half of last season and resolved to have a better campaign — one which his international boss could not ignore.
How he succeeded. Boyce’s 23 goals made him leading scorer in Scotland’s top league ahead of the likes of Moussa Dembele, Scott Sinclair and Leigh Griffiths, a feat all the more remarkable for the fact he was operating for an underperforming team in the wrong half of the Premiership.
He’s carried that momentum into the international arena. Handed a start in last week’s friendly against New Zealand, Boyce scored the game’s only goal — his first for his country — thereby earning himself a place in O’Neill’s starting line-up for yesterday’s World Cup qualifier win against Azerbaijan in Baku.
No longer the odd man out, he is now aiming for the World Cup.
‘When the manager told me I wasn’t going to France, he was quite honest — he told me I hadn’t had a good second half of the season,’ reflected Boyce, who modestly declines to reference the broken hand that threw him off kilter in January 2016. ‘I knew the score. I scored three after Christmas last season and Griggsy scored 20, so he was on fire.
‘I knew that I needed to be better for Ross County and that motivated me going into this season. I needed to prove it wasn’t a trend and I still had what it takes to score goals.
‘The manager assured me I was still in his plans and would be involved in the future but I wanted him to notice what I was doing.’
Boyce has long been renowned as a player of talent in his homeland but it has taken him until now, at the age of 26, to find a consistently high level of form.
He started out at Cliftonville and shone brightly enough to earn a trial at Celtic but, at 19, and used to a lax training regime he found himself physically ill-equipped for the challenge of earning a contract.
Werder Bremen saw enough potential to offer him a ticket to the Bundesliga but Boyce failed to make the grade and returned to Cliftonville without making a single top-flight appearance in Germany.
Boyce moved to the Highlands in 2014 and the arrival of Jim McIntyre as County manager later that year proved a watershed moment.
McIntyre marvelled at the potential but forced the striker on to a strict fitness programme that began to bear fruit before the conclusion of his first season in Scottish football.
Having spent much of his first year in Scotland getting lean he became a mean finisher, rattling in 17 goals by the turn of the year and ending the season on a total of 20 with a League Cup winner’s medal added for good measure.
If the past season has seen County’s level drop off, Boyce has excelled, delivering consistently in terms of both performances and goals.
‘We had a tough season and we weren’t happy about that,’ he acknowledged.
‘But we finished strong and had a good run at the end.
‘The way we play suits me. I know the ball is coming into the box and it’s just up to me to make the right movements to get on the end of things.
‘Towards the end of the season I’ve been in the form of my life. I won the Player of the Month award and then finished top scorer which all helped with my confidence.
‘You could say I’ve topped off a great year by scoring my first international goal but now I want to stay in the team and score even more important goals for my country.’
Having achieved so much over the past year, Boyce is inevitably being linked with a move out of Dingwall.
Hearts would love to lure him to Tynecastle, while Hibernian have also been credited with an interest but, under contract for another year, County would only consider letting him go in return for a chunky transfer fee.
Boyce knows the danger in thinking too far ahead.
‘We are back for pre-season on June 22 and I expect to be involved,’ he added. ‘I’ve been caught up in transfer speculation before.
‘People were talking about me because I was scoring a lot of goals at 19. You start to think you are better than you actually are.
‘I have enough experience now to know my job is to go out and score goals. I leave all that other stuff to my agent and the club.’