Northern Ireland: Liam Boyce backing Irish League next generation to follow his professional path

Liam Boyce. Pic by Pacemaker.
Liam Boyce. Pic by Pacemaker.

Liam Boyce has built a career based on the benefits of his ability to master time and space within the dimensions of a football field.

An elegant talent, his skill to maintain composure within the maelstrom of any match situation took Boyce from the Irish League to the international stage via club life in Scotland and England.

However, as he prepares for his latest opportunity to showcase that talent in a Northern Ireland jersey with this weekend’s friendly against South Korea, the former Cliftonville forward admits the clock came close to running down on his chance at full-time football.

For once, time did not appear on his side.

Lessons from the learning experience in 2014 of standing on the edge of the professional game with what he considered one final glimpse at long-term gains forced Boyce to evaluate and, following an internal audit, take the serious steps required to maximise his natural ability.

Having had to wait until 23 years old to achieve his dream, Boyce took full advantage to finish as the Scottish Premiership’s leading goalscorer last season thanks to 23 goals in 34 appearances for Ross County.

A summer switch to Burton Albion as the Championship club’s record signing signalled the next stage.

Boyce’s welcome return to the international fold following a recovery from cruciate damage in England offered the striker a chance this week at a joint dinner between the senior squad and under 21s to reflect on his past path and hopes for future progress - as an individual plus for other Irish League graduates.

“At the dinner it was great to have everyone mixing together,” said Boyce. “I watch the Irish League highlights every week to see who is doing well and it’s looking promising to see good players coming through.

“You’ve Gavin Whyte scoring all sorts of goals with Crusaders and Mark Sykes has been great at Glenavon.

“Coleraine have some young players too in the under 21s.

“I’m sure if they continue doing what they’ve been doing they will get a chance.

“They’ve probably got more of a chance than I do of making it in full-time football.

“When I came back to Cliftonville (from Germany) then left (for Ross County) I was 23 years old.

“That was my last chance as a player, out of contract and people taking me on a free as a gamble.

“These other guys are young and doing unbelievably against men so clubs will look and ask can they take the next step up.

“Going into full-time training will make them physically dominant and fitter again by doing it every day.

“I think you need to be doing something every day, I never really until coming towards the end of my Cliftonville contract when it dawned on me I only have one more chance at full-time football.

“I got a personal trainer and started doing runs or something every single day.

“I thought I was fit but even when I went over after doing that it took me six months at Ross County, they put me on more training to get to the same point as the rest of the boys.

“You don’t think the gap is that big in terms of full-time fitness but when I first went over it was ridiculous.”

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill handed Boyce his opportunity as a senior international and the playmaker is confident others can capitalise on that same support.

“Keeping Michael O’Neill is probably the best thing that could have happened for Northern Ireland,” said Boyce. “Even for the boys in the Irish League, as that’s the way I was, coming to the end of my contract at Cliftonville when Michael picked me to go to South America.

“That gave me the chance and Michael is going to help the boys in any way and try and get them a move.

“You can see how well the boys are doing playing against grown men so that shows they’ve talent and just need someone to take a chance.

“Michael will give them that chance to try and push themselves even further.”

Boyce also extends his praise towards club manager Nigel Clough, a former playmaker and creative forward. If similar styles suggest harmony between player and manager, Boyce admits a desire to soak up help from any and every striker source since grabbing his shot.

“He’s been brilliant and when out injured would come over and give you a wee boost to keep you going, telling me how I would have scored from chances we created in a game, just ways to keep me involved,” said Boyce. “Then when I was first out running all the lads were clapping, so there’s a good buzz to keep you going.

“He’s all about the players and wants to look after you.

“I was laughing on my first game after injury for Burton because obviously in pre-season you don’t have names on the back of a shirt.

“That first match back I went in and took a picture as I’d not worn 27 on a shirt since Cliftonville and it’s my favourite number.

“Just to see it for the first time on a Burton top was brilliant.

“I’ve been lucky as at Ross County I had Jim McIntyre as a big target man helping me to back into defenders, then Billy Dodds, who never left the six-yard box.

“Now Nigel gets on the ball and can make stuff happen.

“So you try to listen and pick up something from everyone that can help you along the way.”

When Boyce walks out this weekend at the National Stadium at Windsor Park it will mark a crucial stepping stone on his road to recovery from the pre-season injury pain and post-operation recuperation.

“I wouldn’t say I’m 100 per cent back at Burton,” said Boyce, who used Northern Ireland’s potential World Cup qualification as motivation in his fight for fitness. “I’ve started some games and Nigel has taken me off after 70 so just gradually been building up.

“So I’m gradually, slowly getting my fitness back up, I need to get my match sharpness as well, I don’t feel the sharpest but am just trying to help the team as much as I can.

“The injury was heartbreaking, to be honest, as I was in such great form, I thought anything I hit was going to go in at that time.

“Having to sit and watch the boys knowing you can’t do anything was probably the toughest thing I’ve experienced in my career.

“When I came back I scored right away, it fell to me in the box and thankfully I took it, my first chance in the Championship.

“Our physio was trying to keep me optimistic and said to me ‘six months’ – when I came back he said ‘I actually thought you were going to be eight or nine months’.

“I went in every day. I was gutted when I found out the news but as soon as I went into training I just had to get my head down – I did leg weights for about five months!

“I looked forward to the next thing – ‘You’re starting to run in two weeks’ – and then it went past quick, it didn’t feel as long as it actually was, it sort of flew by.

“I watched both World Cup play-off games against Switzerland in the house in Derby.

“The second leg we were unlucky, I was going mental, I thought we were going to score.

“I know how good we are as I team and I really believed we were going to get there.

“I was thinking the whole way up to the final whistle, when they cleared that one off the line, that I was going to get the (World Cup) chance.

“I still would have had to come back and play well, but just to play a couple of games and get my name in the hat again was my main motivation.

“Those were such big games (against Switzerland), the whole campaign was building up to that, and to not be involved was gutting.

“Obviously I missed the European Championships as well, a big chance to play at a major tournament and then to miss the chance to help us get to another one was tough.

“I love coming here to train, seeing everyone, hearing how things are going at their clubs, how they work compared to ours, just getting different training.”