The former Ross County man has finally earned a place in Northern Ireland’s starting 11 after a truly fantastic campaign in the Scottish Premier League, but things haven’t always been as straightforward for Liam Boyce.
The 26-year-old was born and raised in the Lower Falls area of Belfast, and began his career in the country with Irish Premiership side Cliftonville, where he scored a remarkable 19 goals in his first season. After plenty of hard work in the Cliftonville reserve side, Boyce quickly made a name for himself and was named Northern Ireland Football Writers’ Player of the Year for the 2009–10 season, subsequently earning a surprise move to Germany.
A move to SpVgg Greuther Fürth fell through early on in the negotiations, but he eventually signed for Werder Bremen on 31 August 2010, a move that certainly came as a shock to many and was seen as a major disappointment among the Cliftonville faithful. His simply disastrous time in Germany was short lived, having made just three appearances for the club’s reserves side. It was an unfortunate spell for the Belfast man, however he was of course welcomed back to Solitude with open arms, where he enjoyed his best goal scoring return to date from 2012-2014.
Cliftonville won the 2012/13 Irish Premier League for the first time since 1998 thanks to top scorer Boyce with 29 goals, earning him the 2012–13 Ulster Footballer of the Year and Northern Ireland Football Writers’ Player of the Year awards. He followed this up with 21 league goals the following season, once again driving his beloved Cliftonville to yet another league title, with fans once again recognizing that they may lose their top forward to a bigger fish across the water.
He left the north Belfast side for a second time after 51 goals in 85 appearances, and made no mistake this time around with his next destination, following in the footsteps of countless international team mates who had made the switch to the SPL. The gifted striker completed a move to Highland club Ross County, who soon realized just how important Boyce would be for them in the coming seasons. His debut season at the club involved netting County’s first ever top-flight hat-trick, as he quickly established himself as a fan favourite. He then bagged 17 goals in 24 games the following campaign, never straying far from those above him in the top scorer chart. His efforts left him fourth in the tally closely behind other top names such as Leigh Griffiths and Adam Rooney, who were earning their trade at Celtic and Aberdeen, much bigger clubs than that of Boyce’s Ross County.
The former Cliftonville man subsequently showed his true self in the season just past, bagging an incredible 23 goals as he finished the Scottish top flight season top of the goal scoring charts, ahead of Celtic’s Scott Sinclair and Moussa Dembele. Boyce never failed to find the net regardless of opposition, and finished with one of the best shots on target and minutes per goal ratios in the entire league. Many will feel that the Northern Ireland man was banging in goals against lesser opposition as County found themselves in the bottom half after the traditional SPL split, yet to outscore players in a side that went the season unbeaten and finished with over 100 points is a truly astonishing feat.
After a brief spell in the national team setup following his move to Bremen, he endured a disappointing number of years without playing for his country, and swallowed an extremely bitter pill after narrowly missing out on a place at the 2016 European Championships in France. Boyce was pipped to the post by Wigan man Will Grigg, a very difficult but understandable decision made by manager Michael O’Neill, who simply couldn’t refuse Grigg a place after an astonishing season in League 1. It was however his phenomenal 2016/17 campaign that has witnessed him return to the national side, earning starts in the country’s most recent encounters.
Boyce wasn’t blessed with extreme pace or strength, but rather a gift for scoring goals was bestowed upon him, seemingly always being able to pop up in the right place at the right time. He certainly knows where the net is, and despite perhaps a lower work rate than most of his team mates, it will be hard to deny Boyce a starting place in the remaining World Cup qualifiers. Granted, forwards Jamie Ward and Conor Washington were ruled out of the wins over New Zealand and Azerbaijan but Boyce knew what was expected of him and didn’t disappoint as he fired in his first international goal in the former, with an assured performance in the latter, undoubtedly giving Michael O’Neill a welcomed headache for the crucial meeting with Czech Republic later this year.
The 26-year-old still has plenty to offer with a hugely impressive 48 goals in 99 games for County, and has hit the back pages with a deserved move to Championship side Burton Albion – becoming the club’s record signing in the process – where Boyce now has the chance to prove himself in the next and arguably most important years of his career.