Liam Boyce: back into club contention; next step is a return to the international scene
LIAM Boyce may have spent more time at the English FA's training facilities than most of their internationals but there'll be no strange switch of allegiance.
The Belfast man is just happy to be back in the Northern Ireland set-up after another "heartbreaking" injury ruled him out of any involvement for more than the first half of this season.
Typically, after all his hard work at the St George's Park facility where his club Burton Albion train, Boyce returned with a goal as a substitute away to Aston Villa.
That made up for some of the pain and disappointment he suffered after rupturing an anterior cruciate ligament in a pre-season friendly late last July.
"It was heartbreaking, to be honest, when I found out,'' said Boyce.
"Obviously I was the club's record signing, so you want to do well. 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, who haven't had the best of seasons so far, just having to watch half of it, 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 league. It was really tough to be out for that long."
As regards Northern Ireland, it was another blow, having suffered an injury in early 2016 which contributed to him missing out on the squad for the Euro Finals in France:
"Yeah, I was scoring goals then and broke my wrist and came back and struggled a bit. I was scoring again when I got the move and I got the worst injury you can get in football. Hopefully I can come back as strong again."
Rather than being involved in the World Cup play-off games against Switzerland, he could only view them on television: "Yeah I watched them both in the house in Derby, I was getting treatment, doing leg weights.
"The second leg we were unlucky, I was going mental, thought we were going to score, especially the one cleared off the line at the end."
The dream of going to the World Cup died that night in Basel, but as long as it was alive it helped Boyce during his recuperation:
"A hundred per cent, that's all I was thinking. 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.
"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.
"Those were such big games, the whole campaign was building up to that, and to not be involved was gutting.
"Obviously I missed the Euros 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."
Boyce, who turns 27 next month, was expecting a step up in standard on moving from Scotland to the English Championship
"Ross County's training ground is actually really good, the training ground is round the stadium and it's all getting done up, new gym and all,'' he added.
"But obviously Burton are training at St George's, England's training ground, and that's unbelievable.
"Sometimes I was in the gym and there's 10 of every machine and I'm the only one in it. It's like a different level. Both are good – but St George's is ridiculous."
He knew too, that he was fortunate in other regards, having spoken to his old Cliftonville team-mate Joe Gormley, who suffered a similar injury in 2015:
"We have the same agent and he's one of my best mates so, from talking to him, I actually got really lucky. He was just telling me what it was going to be like.
"He had done a couple of things to his knee and had to wait six weeks before his operation due to swelling. I got my operation six days after so was straight on the road to recovery."
There's another Cliftonville connection, he revealed, in terms of the shirt number he wears for Burton, which made his playing return all the more pleasing:
"I was laughing 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."
Although he didn't pick him for Euro 2016, Boyce is happy that the manager remains the same, grateful for the help he has given him in his career:
"Keeping Michael O'Neill is probably the best thing that could have happened for Northern Ireland.
"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 [in 2014].
"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."
Liam Boyce has pushed himself back into club contention; his next step is a return to the international scene against South Korea this Saturday.