Boss Michael O’Neill has revealed 20-goal striker Liam Boyce understood his decision to omit him from Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 squad in favour of Will Grigg.
The biggest call O’Neill had to make ahead of France was whether to include Ross County forward Boyce or Wigan’s Grigg as the final option in a group of forwards also featuring Kyle Lafferty, Conor Washington and Josh Magennis.
At the turn of the year, Boyce’s 17 goals looked to have secured his place on the plane, but Grigg’s 20-goal tally since January compared to his rival’s return of three ultimately swayed O’Neill by the time he announced his 23-man squad on Saturday.
The Northern Irish manager also highlighted Boyce’s disappointing performance in his club’s Scottish League Cup final in March as evidence of why he came to his conclusion.
“Liam’s a really good lad, he’s a quiet lad and he said he couldn’t really have any complaints,” O’Neill said.
“He had a really good first half of the season and unfortunately the second half of the season he didn’t get to the levels he had done in the early part of the season.
“He had a hand injury which affected him and I went and saw him on a number of occasions. I watched him in the League Cup final for Ross County and, although they won on the day, he didn’t have one of his better days by his own admission. That’s where you’re wanting players to really step up.
“I’d watched Will Grigg fairly consistently in the second half of the season and he was scoring regularly. When you look at the two players, they are slightly different in the styles of play that they have, but Will Grigg’s a player that is now going into the Championship, has 28 goals behind him this season and is in a really good place.
“But Liam will come again. If I’m naming a 27-man squad for the first World Cup qualifier in Czech Republic, Liam will be in that squad.”
Boyce was not the only one to see his Euros dream extinguished as O’Neill also confirmed Daniel Lafferty, Michael Smith, Ben Reeves and Billy McKay would miss out, despite all four being called up for last Friday’s friendly with Belarus.
With regards Lafferty’s absence, O’Neill added: “He was a little bit unfortunate in that he was on loan at Oldham and the best chance you have of being involved is to be playing first-team football.
“He had played virtually no first-team football in the first half of the season at Burnley, he’d had a few injuries and then he got the chance to go out on loan, was doing well, but his club called him back as cover and he ended up then when he didn’t play. Again, he was in that situation where he wasn’t involved in first-team football.
“Lee (Hodson) took the decision to go to Kilmarnock, he pushed his manager to get out on loan and we had watched Lee consistently not only play at right-back, but also at left-back, so it was the versatility that we saw in Lee that got him the nod over Michael Smith or Daniel Lafferty.”