Liam Boyce on the road and ready for Hearts challenge
After scoring the winner against Rangers for his new club Hearts that gave Celtic's nine-in-a-row challenge a massive boost, Brendan Crossan caught up with former Cliftonville striker Liam Boyce about a football life...
THE thing was Liam Boyce shouldn’t have been on the pitch. But sometimes fate intervenes and you simply need to be there to help write the narrative.
And so it was meant to be that the hard-bitten Hearts supporters would be sent into orbit last Sunday evening thanks to their new striker.
A nagging quad injury was hampering Boyce's movement in the second half against Rangers, but new manager Daniel Stendel had already used his final substitute by the 75th minute.
Boyce gritted his teeth and stayed in the game.
When Ryan Kent finished off a flowing counter-attack in the 47th minute for the title contenders it was business as usual.
In the visitor’s technical area, Stevie Gerrard stabbed the air to celebrate his side’s clinical goal.
The blue half of Glasgow was in raptures, confident of derailing Celtic’s push towards nine-in-a-row.
Despite Stendel’s renowned passion and glass-is-half-full optimism, it looked like the same old story for the rock bottom Edinburgh club.
Ten minutes later, though, everything changed.
In true Gegenpressen style – the gospel, according to the German coach - Hearts central defender Craig Halkett pushed right up on Glen Kamara on the right flank and managed to toe poke the ball through to Boyce.
The former Cliftonville striker shifted his feet in an instant. Head up and running out of grass fast, he caressed the ball back to Steven Naismith in the Rangers penalty area and the Hearts captain found the far corner of the net. 1-1.
Given their dire league position and Rangers’ incredible form, the Hearts fans would have settled for a share of the spoils right then.
But, to their eternal credit, Hearts kept pushing forward.
In the 83rd minute, Boyce played the most extravagant one-two with team-mate Oliver Bozanic.
With all the languid, devil-may-care grace that won the hearts of the Red Army back in the halcyon days of 2013 and ’14, Boyce found Bozanic with an exquisite right to left cross-field pass.
In turn, the Australian international crossed the ball into the Rangers penalty area before it spun to the gorgeously nimble feet of Boyce.
With one dip of the shoulder that sent Rangers striker Joe Aribo heading towards the corner flag in pursuit of an imaginary ball, Boyce moved it onto his left before pulling the trigger.
With the help of Borna Barisic's ankle, the ball nestled in the corner of Rangers' net. 2-1 to the Jam Tarts.
The Hearts contingent among the 18,539 Tynecastle crowd went ballistic.
The TV gantry shook in the mayhem as Boyce embarked on one of the longest, most elegant knee slides known to man.
It was beautiful.
It was the turn of the green half of Glasgow to go ballistic – not to mention the green half of Boycie’s native Belfast.
As far as debuts go, this was the stuff of dreams.
Regardless of what he achieves between now and the end of his playing career, Liam Boyce may well be remembered as the man who ruined Rangers’ gallant title hopes and gift-wrapped nine-in-a-row for the Hoops.
“When a team is struggling and they concede a goal you can fall to pieces,” says Boyce. “But I thought we were brilliant and when I set up the goal, I thought: ‘Yes! I’ve done something.’
“So I could relax. I had a sore quad and probably needed to come off but we’d used our three subs so I had to stay on. When I scored I couldn’t believe it; I couldn’t believe the noise. It was incredible.
“I was saying to Leoncha [his fiancé] the night before that I was a bit nervous because it was a big match, my first match. So I did feel a bit of pressure because Rangers were absolutely flying and playing unbelievable football.
“The manager said: ‘Just do what you can and do what you were doing with Burton.’”
As soon as he switched on his phone after the game, the congratulatory messages came flooding in one after the other.
Bing. Bing. Bing…Bing. Bing. Bing…
One of his favourite WhatsApp groups – featuring Red men Georgie McMullan, Joe Gormley and Barry Johnston – was busy too.
So, did the Celtic-worshipping ‘Joe The Goal’ get in touch?
“Of course, he did,” Boyce laughs.
“My phone was going mental. So many messages, messages from friends back in primary school who are all Celtic fans. It was brilliant we got three points but Celtic fans were obviously buzzing.
“I’d look out for Celtic’s results and watch their Champions League games and they’re obviously a brilliant club who are adored in Ireland and Scotland. Growing up, my brother was a Celtic fan and I was a United fan, so it was competitive between us. ‘We’re better than youse.’ That kind of thing.
“If it helps Celtic win the league, it doesn’t really matter, it’s three points for Hearts to help them because that’s who I play for now.”
The bright sparks on social media got to work in double quick time and the humorous mock-ups of Boycie’s slaying of the Rangers went viral.
Grabbing the winner in last Sunday's epic encounter easily sits in Boyce’s top five moments in football.
“Winning the League with Cliftonville, winning the Scottish League Cup with Ross County, finishing top scorer in Scotland and my first goal for Northern Ireland – my only goal for Northern Ireland – are all up there.
“I’ve never scored against Rangers before. Everyone’s watching you, I hadn’t trained, I didn’t know any of the players, you’re trying to fit in as much as you can, and to score the winner… It was obviously a massive three points and it gives the team momentum.
“After the game Stevie [Whelan, football representative] and me were absolutely buzzing in the hotel.”
THE car’s packed and he’s hands-free. A five-hour journey north. The road to Edinburgh begins here.
Leoncha is up front. Scout, their three-year-old daughter, is in the back seat watching a show on her laptop with Theo, the family dog.
Like the Joads on Route 66, the next chapter awaits them - back to the Scottish Premier League, where the amiable striker made some of his best memories.
“Ross County was when my life changed,” he says. “I settled down, we got engaged, we got our dog and had our first baby. It was the first time living away as a family.”
A professional footballer’s life has its rewards but it has its vulnerable side too. Sometimes it’s like riding a bike along a stony cliff edge.
Always fretting about the future. Staying fit. Keeping your place in the team. Being happy.
And all the while the contract talks edge closer – don’t mention contract talks.
They’re like exam halls. Unfeeling. Ruthless.
When Burton Albion accepted Hearts’ £150,000 offer for their top scorer last week, it was the perfect illustration of what football is: business.
Like all professional footballers, Liam Boyce is merely an asset. A business transaction.
When it was rumoured Hearts and Aberdeen were vying for the striker’s signature, Burton Albion manager Nigel Clough said: “It’s the same with everybody here that if a club comes in with the right offer then we look at it.”
Boyce’s three-year contract was due to run out in the summer. The west Belfast man turns 29 in April.
So Burton Albion weighed up their options and decided to sell.
They decided to sell their asset on and recoup some of the £500,000, a record fee they stumped up for Boyce in 2017.
Burton had placed their trust in the Scottish Premier League top scorer to keep them in the Championship but a bad knee injury sustained in pre-season cruelly shaved off seven months of his first season.
Despite his best efforts on his return, Burton dropped into League One football.
If Boyce had a choice, he would have happily stayed with the mid-table League One club.
He’d had bagged 14 goals this season and was playing the best football of his career. Players often say that, but it was undoubtedly true: Boyce was absolutely flying.
So why move? Why ruin a good thing? Why would a manager want to off-load one of his best players?
And that’s when the realpolitik of professional football enters.
“I didn’t want to be thinking about the business side of it.
“I’d be playing football no matter where it is for whatever amount of money and having the chance of playing football every day… I was playing a match last Sunday where there were 20,000 people watching you.
“That’s the things you want to do. I’d rather not know what was going on; I leave all that to Stevie [Whelan]. I didn’t want to know who was interested, who was watching me. I just want to go and have fun.
“That’s something I’ve learned: when I start thinking about things too much that’s when I don’t play the way I usually do.
“I was coming to the end of my contract at Burton and they are always going to try and get money back [on you],” he says matter-of-factly.
“I would be away at the end of the season for free. There was a lot of talk going on.
“I could have waited until the summer and, financially, it might’ve been better – but that’s not the biggest thing; you just have more options because you’re going on a free and more clubs want you because they don’t have to pay a fee.”
But Boyce wanted certainty.
His daughter, Scout – named after the adorable character in Harper Lee’s novel: ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ – is due to start primary school in September, and running down his contract made no sense from a family perspective.
“I needed to know where I’m going to be. Say, I went to Edinburgh in the summer, getting her into a school would have been virtually impossible, so she could’ve missed a year. So that was a big part of my thinking.
“It was alright before as she was in play groups and she could go into play groups anywhere and she’d be okay, but when you’re in school you want her to be settled.
“I want to get a house as quickly as possible so that we know what schools are in that area and apply.”
As he embarks on the next chapter, Boyce doesn't look back in anger.
“I definitely would have stayed. When I first went there I got injured and the physio was unbelievable with me. I got really close to him, and I obviously got close to everyone else. It was tough leaving because I wasn’t really expecting it.
“Within a week I was away. If you’d told me I would be playing against Rangers on Sunday and I’d be moving all my stuff up to Edinburgh, I would have said: ‘Are you mental?’
“It just went so fast. I loved my time at Burton. Obviously the second year I did alright, but this year is the best I’ve played. I started scoring and scored the same amount of goals (14) I got last season and it is only January.
“So it’s a bit disappointing in that sense, especially when you’re playing so well. I suppose it was the best for everyone that they got money back.
“It has shown me more than anything that football is a business. Burton couldn’t risk me going for free in the summer. I don’t hold anything against them.”
Last Sunday’s brilliant win over Rangers will breathe new life into Hearts’ hopes of climbing out of the relegation zone.
They face St Johnston (a) and Kilmarnock (h) before trying to topple the other half of Glasgow at Parkhead on Wednesday February 12.
The Scottish Premier might get the best out of Boyce too – even though he was thriving in the dog-eat-dog environs of League One.
“I think it’s a lot more physical in League One.
“There are some teams in League One that try and play football and the following week you’re playing against a team that play long balls and are living off second balls.
“At Burton, we always tried to play football and when teams changed it up against us we couldn’t really cope with it. In Scotland it is similar.
“Obviously the top teams in the Scottish Premier are better than the top teams in League One, they play better football and have better players. But if teams are struggling they’re going to have to change to get points by any means necessary.
“I think in League One you have to be more of an athlete, whereas in Scotland they can handle the ball better, there are more tactics and more quality, I think. But I learned a lot during my time at Burton.”
Right now, helping Hearts is the priority, while the Euro 2020 play-offs are on his mind too as Northern Ireland aim to make back-to-back final appearances this summer, with Bosnia lurking over the horizon.
But here they are, on the road - Liam, Leoncha, Scout and Theo.
Hands-free and excited about the future.
“I’ve got everyone with me,” Boyce says. “I’ve got everything I need. I came from Cliftonville where it was fun; now it’s a job. But I still want it to be fun. On Sunday, I did the best I could and hopefully it gets better.”
For Hearts supporters, the pleasure will be all theirs…
Boyce remembers the late Tommy Breslin....
LIAM Boyce has paid a touching tribute to the late, great Tommy Breslin who passed away last August while on holiday.
Boyce, who just sealed a move to Scottish Premier League club Hearts, said he owed the former Cliftonville manager everything after helping him get his career back on track.
“Tommy was one of those people you always imagined would be here,” said the 28-year-old striker.
“He was so healthy, so happy. You couldn’t imagine that something like this would happen. I don’t think I ever seen him sad or not joking. I still can’t believe that he’s not here.”
When Boyce returned to Solitude after an ill-fated spell with German club Werder Bremen, it was Breslin’s constant praise and encouragement that helped him rediscover his best form.
“Everyone loved ‘Bressy’. He was always protective of us. We knew he loved us.
“He always had our respect. He would always ask you about your personal life. Obviously looking back when I had that bad six months after coming back to Cliftonville, I was playing in the reserves with Joe Gormley.
“Bressy was always talking to me and telling me that I’d get back to where I was. He knew we all loved to play football with the players we had. He just got all the right players in the right positions.”
Breslin was Cliftonville’s most successful manager during which time he won back-to-back League titles. He stepped down as manager in September 2015 – but he remained the team’s spiritual leader long afterwards.
The north Belfast club was left reeling when news broke he’d suffered a heart attack while holidaying in Spain last summer.