Former Cliftonville striker Liam Boyce sets chins wagging in SPL
SITTING in a labour ward watching the Euro finals on an iPad wasn’t exactly how Liam Boyce had planned spending his summer.
The Ross County striker could easily have been lapping up the carnival atmosphere of the Allianz Riviera Stadium in Nice and nudging Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill for some game-time against the Poles.
It was the North’s first game at a major finals in 30 years.
Boyce was agonisingly close to making the squad – but injury in the second half of Ross County’s season effectively wrecked his chances.
For O’Neill, it was literally a toss-up between Will Grigg and Boyce for the last seat on the plane bound for France.
Grigg got the nod – while Boyce became a pub-quiz question. What was the name of the Northern Ireland striker left out of Euro 2016 for Will Grigg?
On the same day Northern Ireland were trying to resist Polish advances in the south of France, Boyce and his fiancée, Leoncha, were awaiting the birth of their first child.
Ask him would he change anything about June 12 2016?
Not a chance.
“I’d love to have got picked as it’s probably the best thing that will happen in your career,” says Boyce.
“When I look back now I’m sort of glad that I didn’t get picked because Scout was actually born on the day of Northern Ireland’s first match [against Poland].
“Obviously I wouldn’t have known that at the time but imagine if I’d got a phone call the day of the match, if I had been in France, what would you do?
“Would you be able to get home for the birth? I was obviously gutted missing the Euros but it was a blessing in disguise.”
Scout, named after the endearing character in Harper Lee’s timeless novel To Kill a Mocking Bird, is now six-and-a-half months.
Despite her first bout of teething, Scout is generally a good sleeper.
The full impact of fatherhood hits the 26-year-old footballer at different times.
“It’s changed me a wee bit,” Boyce says. “Sometimes I’d be looking at her and thinking: I’m responsible for this child. You don’t realise it all the time.
“But it’s been brilliant. I think we got lucky because she’s a good sleeper.”
Boyce had an inkling his Euro dream was on the rocks after he suffered a broken wrist at the turn of last year.
After battling back to full fitness, he broke the same wrist again after an innocuous collision with Northern Ireland team-mate Paddy McNair in training.
On the face of it, you wouldn’t imagine a broken wrist would have such devastating consequences.
“The way I play I always use my arms,” he says. “I put my left arm up when I strike the ball so it affected me.”
After a fantastic first half of the season Boyce was seemingly a shoo-in to make Northern Ireland’s Euro squad.
He’d hit double figures in the goal charts for Ross County, but added a meagre two more in the second half of the season.
“Coming up to the finals, I sensed it was 50-50, if not worse than that,” he recalls.
“And I obviously know why I wasn’t picked because of my performances in the second half of the season weren’t as good as my first half.
“I don’t think my ‘missus’ would have been in the house when I’d got back from France!”
In life, there are meaningful consolations. Boyce had at least made the sticker book.
In his childhood, he collected all the stickers of players ahead of World Cups and European Championships.
“My wee nephew has them and has me in the book,” smiles Boyce. “The actual picture of me is actually quite good because it looks like I have hair! So I might get one for myself.”
Now 26 and leading the scoring charts in the Scottish Premier League with 13 goals, Boyce has a good clear eye on the bigger picture and the road he’s travelled over the last few years.
“Three years ago I was at Cliftonville, just playing with my mates and then all of a sudden you’re playing international football.
“So just being able to say that means something… From where I’ve come from to playing international football is unreal because I never really got picked at underage level.
“We’re obviously trying to get to the World Cup now so hopefully I’ll get another chance.”
Now in his third season with Ross County, life couldn’t be better for the former Reds striker.
Having a winter break over Christmas was time well spent.
He returned home for a week with his fiancée and daughter and attended Cliftonville’s Irish Cup defeat to Ballymena United, alongside former Reds team-mates Georgie McMullan and Joe Gormley.
He took Leoncha and Scout to London for a few days where they visited Harry Potter Land.
Boyce admits being addicted to the world famous wizard.
Before Ross County returns to action this afternoon against Dundee United in the fourth round of the Scottish Cup, Boyce still pinches himself occasionally.
“It’s brilliant. Every day you get to go home at two o’clock, I get to walk the dog, simple stuff.
“It’s a dream come true. I could be at home working nine-to-five, go home and you’re getting ready for the next day.
“To have the chance to come home in the afternoon to see my daughter and my fiancée and have Wednesdays and Sundays off is just unbelievable. I probably won’t realise it fully until I have to go out and work for a living - hopefully when I’m 35.”
As he approaches a century of appearances with the Dingwall club, Boyce has scored over 40 goals. Naturally, there is much chatter about him netting a move to a bigger club.
He’s scored two more goals than Celtic’s Scott Sinclair this term and is four better off than Moussa Dembele
With 18 months left on his contract, Boyce’s singular focus is reaching 20 league goals by the end of the season and says he won’t have his head turned by flattering headlines.
“When I was younger and I went to Germany [Werder Bremen U21s], you would read the papers and think: ‘Great. I’m going to this club or that club…’
“But the older I’ve got you try and forget about that stuff, even when you’re playing well.
“You don’t know whether the stories are true or not. Some of them could be true, you never know.
“But that’s why I’ve got my agent and just leave it to him and focus on the football because if you start thinking about it, you can get too big for your boots. I’ll just try and keep doing what I’m doing.”
But it didn’t stop BT Sport pundits Chris Sutton and Michael Stewart arguing over Liam Boyce a few weeks ago as they selected their teams of the season so far.
Stewart included Boyce in his line-up – much to Sutton’s chagrin. The entertaining clip did the rounds on social media.
“One of my mates sent me the link,” laughs Boyce. “Sutton nearly had the whole Celtic team…I thought it was brilliant.
“Obviously everyone has their own opinion. My missus doesn’t even like football but she watches him on Friday nights when he’s commentating on the games just because they always end up fighting with each other."
Boyce adds: “I think Sutton does it just to wind people up. He’s to the point, he doesn’t hold anything back. If you’re not playing well he’ll say it. He’s different and it’s good that they’re not just bumming players up all the time.”
The fact that Boyce has played in a number of different positions and continues to score goals is testament to his ability and the canny tactics of Ross County manager Jim McIntrye this season.
He scored two goals in County’s 3-2 derby win over Inverness. The highlight of his season so far was his second of three goals against the same opposition earlier in the season.
“I loved it that goal. It was a long high ball [coming towards me] and I pretended to volley it and cut in and scored.”
His favourite ground is Celtic Park, although he loves playing at Tyncastle.
His toughest opponent has been Celtic defender Erik Sviatchenko.
His goals and a bit of local fame hasn't changed the clever artisan who enthralled Cliftonville fans for several blissful seasons.
He still has the same wry humour. Still the same swagger on the field and modest off it.
He's also two stone lighter than when he last wore a Cliftonville jersey.
“I feel I can turn sharper and I feel I can take someone on instead of just holding them off," he says.
"When you’re training every day you gradually get fitter. And you feel comfortable playing a full 90 minutes. I’d love to get 20 league goals this season.
"Last year I got 20 in all competitions, but to score 20 league goals in 38 league matches would be unbelievable."
Maybe then Chris Sutton will tip his cap to the brilliance of 'Boycie'...