Michael O'Neill: Liam Boyce can fire us to Russia
O'Neill backs hitman to deliver a World Cup gift
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill is ready to reward Liam Boyce with a leading role in Baku after a brilliant goalscoring cameo performance against New Zealand last night.
Just one year on from being the odd man out as O'Neill selected his panel for the Euro 2016 finals in France, Boyce is suddenly the June headline act, with Jamie Ward and Conor Washington out of contention, and will be expected to lead Northern Ireland's attack next Saturday night in a crucial World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan which could propel Northern Ireland a step closer to Russia in 2018.
However injury plagued Watford defender Craig Cathcart will miss the clash with a knee problem.
Ross County hitman Boyce, leading marksman in the Scottish Premiership with 23 goals, took just six minutes to register his first international strike with a sublime finish on his ninth appearance for his country.
"I'm delighted for Liam, I thought he played excellently, his link-up play was really good and it's a great goal," conceded O'Neill after his side's 1-0 victory.
"I'm delighted for him because he's a genuinely good lad. I've got family members who are huge Cliftonville fans who have been telling me for years I should have him in the squad. Finally I relented."
Former Cliftonville striker Boyce produced a fantastic all-round display in the warm-up match for Azerbaijan, causing the All Whites defence numerous problems, before O’Neill opted to take him off at half time to keep him fresh and injury free for Baku.
“You’ve got to remember Liam has had only three seasons as a full-time professional,” added O’Neill.
“Three years ago he was a Cliftonville player. His development has been great, a lot of that’s down to himself, he recognised he had to be fitter.
“Technically his level is extremely high, you watch him and some of the things he does make you take notice of him.
“He’s got fantastic feet, good finishing.
“He brings it back on to his weaker side and scores.
“Your first international goal is important as a striker.
“Liam has the ability to score at international level, there’s no doubt about that, because of the types of goals he scores.
“I think that the year that he’s had, off the back of not coming to France, shows there’s certainly a lot of character there.
“I think his career is just going to continue to progress.”
While Boyce will be a central figure in Baku, defender Cathcart will not be fit in time, despite training with the international team on Thursday.
Influential defender Gareth McAuley flew into Belfast last night and attended the game after spending a week receiving treatment on his knee at West Brom and O’Neill confirmed the 37 year-old will be available for selection against Azerbaijan.
“We won’t have Craig Cathcart with us next week due to the injury,” O’Neill added.
“Gareth will be fine. He flew into Belfast and has joined up with us.
“We have no concerns about Gareth’s fitness.
“He’ll start training with us on Sunday when we are in Turkey for a week-long training camp.”