The Scottish Mail on Sunday

Boyce no longer the odd one out for Ir­ish

- By Graeme Croser

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.’

 ??  ?? BET­TER LATE THAN NEVER: Stu­art Dal­las (right) cel­e­brates with Lee Hod­son af­ter his first North­ern Ire­land goal is a win­ner
BET­TER LATE THAN NEVER: Stu­art Dal­las (right) cel­e­brates with Lee Hod­son af­ter his first North­ern Ire­land goal is a win­ner
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