Liam Boyce aims to make an impact with Burton Albion after injury woes
LIAM Boyce was watching the screen and shaking his head in disbelief.
After undergoing knee surgery he was able to watch his entire operation on TV.
What surgeons can do these days.
If they were footballers they’d be playmakers.
When Boyce was told he needed a cruciate ligament operation he was presented with three choices: take a thin slice of his hamstring or a similar piece from his quad muscle and have it grafted into his knee.
The third choice was to take the required slice of muscle from a dead person. That option was promptly ruled out as it can often be rejected by the recipient.
Boyce opted taking a slice of his hamstring.
“If you’re a quick player they can take it from your quad rather than your hamstring as hamstrings are important to players with pace,” the Burton Albion striker explains. “I’m not that quick and that’s why I got it from my hamstring.”
Boyce describes the removal of a thin slice of hamstring as like using “a potato peeler”.
“They then fold it over loads of times until it’s whatever size the cruciate is. They stitch that together and then put it in through your knee. I was watching it on screen after they’d done it. It’s nuts.
“You can see them drilling into your knee and then pulling the bit of hamstring like a bit of rope and you can see it pop in.
“There are four pieces to your hamstring and they take the inside one. Afterwards, because of all the running I was doing to get fit, it got a bit tight. But, touch wood, it’s been good.”
Boyce couldn’t have been happier with the surgery and his recovery.
Exactly 184 days from the moment he heard his cruciate “pop” – diagnosed as an anterior cruciate rupture - during a pre-season friendly, the former Cliftonville striker was named among Burton Albion’s substitutes for Tuesday night’s Championship clash with Reading.
He didn’t enter the fray. In truth, he was never likely to as he’s still a few weeks away from competitive action.
Still, the posted Twitter photograph of Boycie’s number 27 jersey hanging up in the ‘Brewers’ home changing room before the game was a welcome boost to the player and Nigel Clough’s first team who are currently languishing at the foot of the Championship.
After finishing top scorer in the Scottish Premier League with 23 goals in 34 league outings for Ross County last season, Burton Albion signed up the Northern Ireland international.
He was flying in pre-season and was destined to start in Burton’s first league game against Cardiff City the following week.
But disaster struck for the talented striker after what turned out to be a feisty pre-season friendly with Shrewsbury.
Boyce recalls: “One of their players almost broke one of our player’s legs – he didn’t even get a card because it was a friendly. Our player got him back and he got sent off.
“There were tackles flying in everywhere. I just remember our goalkeeper hit the ball up to me and I backed into the defender to hold him off and to take it down. When I pushed back into him, my knee twisted inwards and I felt it popping. With all those tackles flying in, I got hurt by trying to hold someone off.”
The fact he “wasn’t in agony” Boyce hoped that he'd be back in a short while.
“It was like funny-bone pain. I didn’t know what to do with my hands when it happened. When it popped I jumped straight away and flipped over on my back. I got stretchered off but over the next few days I didn’t feel bad.”
Boyce had to wait a couple of days to be scanned.
“When they told me the news I was in tears,” he says. “And Scout [his 19-month-old daughter] was climbing all over me and not even realising that I’d done my cruciate. I was obviously gutted for the rest of the day but once I got the operation I just started getting into the rehab. Most players get at least one bad injury in their careers – maybe not as long as this – but I just thought I needed to get on with it. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
Within four days of suffering the injury, Boyce had knee surgery.
The 26-year-old feels slightly fortunate insofar as he never suffered any setbacks during his recovery.
Once he got the leg brace off, he started doing knee-bending exercises. Then it was trying to lose the crutches and to start walking.
After that he lived in the gym.
“There was probably one day in particular where I thought: ‘Do I have to do this again today?’ But that was at a time when I was so close to running.”
To succeed in professional football requires mental toughness. When you suffer a long-term injury, it takes even more mental fortitude.
Boyce overcame the disappointment of rejection at Werder Bremen in early 2012 before returning to Cliftonville.
And after winning back-to-back league championships at the north Belfast club, Boyce’s unique talent was always going to take him above and beyond the Irish League again.
He had a few injury setbacks at Ross County – broken wrist and a medial ligament injury – but he blossomed in the SPL last season, finishing top scorer ahead of Celtic’s Scott Sinclair.
With a first team appearance now in Boyce’s sights, he reflects on the road he’s been on since his late teens.
“When I came back from Germany I was obviously gutted, I didn’t play good football for about six months. During that time I was just wanting to play with my mates and play for fun… But I realised that it wasn’t the end of the world, and when you come home and you see your missus and your daughter – you think: ‘I can always go again next week.’
“That’s probably one thing I’ve learned – never get too down and never get too high.”
Burton Albion are bottom of the table. They’ve lost 17 league games out of 26. Their saving grace is that there are a handful of other clubs in the same position.
“It’s frustrating watching the games because you can’t do anything to help,” he says.
On Burton's poor form, he says: “At the start of games we’re doing really well and then, I don’t know what it is, in the second half it’s either someone not concentrating or the opposition scores an absolute screamer…
“From watching the games, the Championship is more tactical [than the Scottish Premier League]. If you make a mistake [in defence] nine times out of 10 it’s going to be a goal. The higher you go, the more ruthless it is; teams are waiting on you making a mistake and that decides games at this level.”
He likes Nigel Clough and believes the team's fortunes will turn.
They'll turn a lot quicker, too, once Liam Boyce returns to action.