Liam Boyce vying for place in Northern Ireland Euro squad
FIRST there was the `Fifa' computer game. Then the Northern Ireland Panini album. Now there are billboards of players in Belfast and beyond.
Liam Boyce is in all of those – but he knows what really matters is being in the Northern Ireland squad for Euro 2016 which will be named this Saturday.
The 25-year-old is realistic about his chances of inclusion, having only played 12 minutes during the qualification campaign, albeit in the home win over Greece that sealed the passage to France:
"I came in towards the end of the campaign, so I know it's going to be tight. People who've played the whole way through are obviously more likely to be going.
"For me, it was just about keeping my form going and trying to get back among the goals – thankfully I've done that.
"Obviously this is the biggest week, coming up to the squad being announced, so hopefully I can make a good impression this week in training and if I get on on Friday [in the friendly against Belarus] I can show what I can do in that match, because that's where you're going to be judged, how you're playing in the team in the games. Hopefully I can put in a good performance and force my way into the team."
As he says, he ended a scoring drought by netting in his club Ross County's last two games of the season, having been out with a broken hand bone earlier in the year:
"It took me a while to recover from it and then I had a wee scare with Northern Ireland when I broke it again – luckily the bone grew over the top of the one that was broken, sort of held it in place, so it's all good from there.
"I was sort of getting back my sharpness levels at the end of the season. I went straight to training on the Monday [after the end of the Scottish season] with Northern Ireland, we had a tough week, so it's all about ticking over and keeping yourself in the best condition you can.
"Of course, whether you're playing well or not, as a striker you're judged on scoring goals, so it was good to get that one against Motherwell. It was a scrappy goal, but they all count, and you're buzzing off it.
"That gave me the confidence to go out again and score against Aberdeen. Hopefully I can carry that through and, if I get on on Friday, hopefully I can continue the form I'm in."
That upsurge in form was matched in his ranking on the 'Fifa 16' computer game, as he recalls: "I was quite low at the start of the season then, after I scored a couple of hat-tricks, I got a better version of myself – I bought that too, so that was good. I pick myself up front, [Cristiano] Ronaldo is playing left wing!"
As a game-changer himself, it was tough for Boyce to break into Northern Ireland's side as Michael O'Neill's men were mostly in charge of games after their comeback victory in the campaign opener away to Hungary.
However, he's part of a collective effort for club and international sides, as he explains: "Obviously Northern Ireland weren't expected to do what they've done, going by previous qualifying campaigns. You have to buy into the team mentality and the tactics you're given – we have to do that at Ross County too.
"We're not expected to go out and beat Celtic and the other top teams, so you have to change your mentality, listen to what you're being told and what way to go about things, and work hard.
"Michael is up there with the best as a tactician, he's so meticulous about details. When you go on the pitch you know exactly what you have to do. You give everything you've got and, if the match isn't over, you'll be taken off and someone else will come in and do the same…
"You just have to stay focussed, play more as a team, focus on doing your own job. My job is to get into the box and if anything falls your way, try to score or make something happen. Every game is going to be tough – you just need to give everything you have and see where it takes you."
The former Cliftonville striking star is delighted to be involved, saying at the launch of the billboard campaign: "For me, it's crazy. Being on 'Fifa' was unbelievable, then being on the stickers that you used to collect as a kid.
"This is the next step, it's getting bigger and bigger, which shows you how great an achievement it has been for Northern Ireland, something to build on. Getting a billboard up in your local area, everyone seeing it, you're flying the flag for where you're from – you and your whole family will be proud."
Although he comes from Cullingtree Road in the Lower Falls, "bottom of Albert Street", Boyce insists he hasn't been slagged by mates about his involvement with the north rather than the Republic of Irleand:
"No, everybody's buzzing, they're so happy for me to be in the frame and to have played in the game in qualifying. It's made bigger in the media that sort of stuff – times have changed now.
"Some of my friends have been lifelong Northern Ireland fans, and at my secondary school. They've all just shown me nothing but support, they'll do anything for me to try to make my chances better.
"I've got so many texts, my friends and their families are coming over, so I had to put my order for match tickets in early. If I get into the squad hopefully I'll have a lot of support there with me."
Given Liam Boyce's genuine nature, you know he truly wants an injury-free week for everyone, including his rivals for a striker's slot in the squad, concluding: "Touch wood, everyone is all right and comes through training unscathed. Obviously you want to go there with everyone flying fit, so you have to be conscious of that in training and not go flying into tackles the way you would in games, try to take care of each other. Hopefully we can go with a full, firing squad and give it our best shot".