The case for Liam Boyce as Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 campaign looms
REGULAR readers of this column will be aware that I’m an unashamed fan of Liam Boyce. To be more precise, I’m an unashamed fan of players like Liam Boyce.
Players like Liam Boyce are easy on the eye. They are the ones that put bums on seats.
They're entertainers. And people want to be entertained.
The fancy flicks, the clever dummies, the drop of the shoulder, the dribbles, the chest traps, the goals – don’t forget the goals - and the swagger with which they play.
What’s not to love?
Players like Boyce interpret the game differently. They see things on the pitch that others don’t see.
Players like Boyce are the bravest kind. They steadfastly refuse to have their flair coached out of them.
In an interview with the Irish News in 2014, the Ross County striker said: "I'd rather try something 10 times and it come off once than play it safe 10 times."
Boyce is an unrepentant romantic. Yet, it's hard to shake labels. Luxury player. Doesn't track back. Goes missing in games.
Rather than be seen as a luxury player, the exact opposite is true. They are integral to a team's success.
They are the players that invariably make the difference in games.
It might be a five-yard pass, a seemingly insignificant lay-off in open play that exposes the tiniest of spaces in an opposition defence.
Most players can't do what people like Liam Boyce do on a football pitch. Other players' GPS stats might be more impressive but how do you measure invention?
There are countless teams whose attacking strategy doesn’t stretch beyond playing the percentages, trying to win free-kicks and corner-kicks, second balls and flick-ons.
Indeed, many games have been won in this austere way.
You only need to look at Republic of Ireland under Giovanni Trapattoni.
Covering Trap's reign as the Irish News's soccer correspondent amounted to six utterly joyless years. It killed your spirit.
Players like Wes Hoolahan were viewed with deep suspicion.
Hoolahan clocked up a few appearances under the veteran Italian, but they came mostly in friendly international outings.
Trap was cute as a fox. In his broken English, he danced rings around reporters.
He would always make the right noises in press conferences.
He would sing Hoolahan’s praises. But he never had the slightest intention of playing him. Not when it really mattered.
Not when the competitive games came around.
During Trap's time, Hoolahan was kept out of harm’s way. He was included in many Irish squads but was always in the wilderness.
As Euro 2016 edges closer, Hoolahan goes to France as Ireland’s most important player.
Martin O’Neill’s single greatest achievement since taking the reins has been investing in Wes Hoolahan and being brave enough to tweak his formation to accommodate the 33-year-old playmaker.
He doesn't lack bravery, but Hoolahan won't win many 50-50 tackles during next month's championships.
He might even lose possession a few times, but he will present the biggest puzzle for the opposition because he will play in areas of the field that puts doubt in the heads of defenders.
Sometimes it’s worth pondering what the opposition won’t like.
Tonight, Northern Ireland host Belarus in a warm-up tie ahead of their Euro 2016 group games against Poland, Ukraine and Germany.
Liam Boyce hopes to see some game-time at Windsor Park in a bid to win a place in Michael O’Neill’s 23-man squad that heads off to France.
The consensus at this moment in time is that the former Cliftonville striker could just miss out.
Kyle Lafferty, Josh Magennis, Conor Washington and Jamie Ward look nailed on certainties to go to the Euros as the north’s strikers.
It is felt Boyce is perhaps vying for a spot with fellow strikers Billy McKay and Will Grigg.
Up until he suffered a fractured hand, Boyce had bagged 17 goals for Scottish Premier League strugglers Ross County. He was on track for a player of the year nomination in Scotland.
The injury effectively derailed his season, but he finished strongly with a couple of goals near the end of the campaign.
He only played 12 minutes (against Greece) in the north’s successful qualification campaign.
On the face of it, he’s down the pecking order. Some pundits could argue that there are other squad members more deserving of a seat on the plane than Boyce.
It’s reasonable to assume some of O’Neill’s strikers won’t get any game-time in France.
At Euro 2012, Giovanni Trapattoni used a mere 16 players over the three games in Poland.
That left seven players, albeit including two sub goalkeepers, wearing tracksuits for the duration. There will be many players going to France and their international managers have no intentions of playing them.
They are included on the grounds of fairness.
But fairness should have nothing to do with it.
Qualification football is very different to what the north will encounter in France. There’s an altogether different dynamic at play. It's effectively sudden death.
The stakes are higher. Managers need to roll the dice more. They need to be risk takers.
Given the minimum amount of game-time that he’s got at club level this season, it’s highly unlikely the north’s key striker Kyle Lafferty will play a full 90 minutes in any game in France.
The lone striker’s role is particularly demanding in Michael O’Neill’s team.
When Lafferty inevitably tires in games O’Neill can replace like with like. But like with like mightn’t always be the answer, particularly if you’re chasing games – and given the north’s tough opposition, they’re likely to be chasing games in Group C.
If they’re chasing a goal against Poland or Germany or Ukraine, Boyce becomes a very attractive option for the manager.
When the heat is on and Michael O’Neill turns around to look at his bench for inspiration, he should see Liam Boyce sitting on it.
It's an investment that O'Neill should make ahead of next month's Euro finals.