Belfast Telegraph

Liam Boyce has hunger to turn Northern Ireland Euro dreams into a reality

By Stuart McKinley

Liam Boyce's goalscoring feats over the last few months have given Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill plenty of food for thought.

The former Cliftonville ace has been on fire for Ross County this season, so much so that the Scottish Premiership Player of the Month prize has just come his way.

And his impressive form is all down to more thought going into his food.

Boyce is a leaner and meaner machine than when he and Joe Gormley fired the Reds to back-to-back Irish League titles in 2013 and 2014 before he left for Scotland.

Thanks to a strict diet and fitness programme, the 24-year-old seems a safe bet to be on the plane to France with Northern Ireland for the Euro 2016 finals in June.

His success in front of goal is all down to the appliance of science at the club, which is tucked away in the Scottish highlands.

"Having a full pre-season has made a big difference to me," said Boyce.

"When I signed at the start of last season I picked up an injury and missed pre-season and I was never fit enough.

"When the new manager came in last summer he brought in a sports scientist and with the training and the work he is doing, I am in much better shape.

"Obviously it takes time to get used to full-time football. The biggest change in my life is that I am in training every day now, not sitting about the house any more not working off the calories.

"I think that's made a difference and when I'm out injured, like I am now, I wouldn't eat as much as usual.

"It's all lean meat, fruit and vegetables and now carbohydrates, so there's not so many calories to burn off when I'm not in full training.

"We get a good education from the sports scientists, especially with what to do when we're not playing and that has helped massively."

Living the life of a full-time professional footballer isn't new to Boyce.

He was only 19 when, after just a single season in the Cliftonville first team, Bundesliga giants Werder Bremen came calling.

After 15 months in the German industrial city the big break never came and Boyce was on his way back home, eventually re-signing for Cliftonville after a couple of trials failed to result in a contract offer.

Despite not making the breakthrough in Bremen, Boyce places a great deal of significance on the experience of Germany and what he learned during his time abroad.

"I've no regrets about going to Werder Bremen. I would do it again," he said. "It was a brilliant experience for me and it really helped me as a player. I wouldn't be where I am today without it.

"The training was very tactical and that work, day in, day out, helped me improve as I don't depend on my pace to get away from defenders."

Going from living at home with his parents in north-Belfast to a lonely apartment in a strange German city did take some getting used to for Boyce.

Things are very different now. That 15-month spell in Bremen prepared him for a second bite at the cherry and both Boyce and Ross County are reaping the benefits.

"It was hard at the start in Germany. For the first few months, I didn't go out much," he said.

"I was only 19, I had lived at home up until then and I didn't speak the language, but it wasn't difficult to settle.

"The club looked after me really well. I was having German lessons and picked up the language quite quickly. The other players would have helped me by speaking English.

"My girlfriend would have come over once a month and I looked forward to that. We'd have gone out for meals and gone into town and that helped me."

Boyce's girlfriend Leontia has joined him in the little town of Dingwall and he is so settled that even when the club offered some time off at home as he recovers from a broken bone in his left wrist, he declined and remained in Scotland instead.

He is due to have the injury, which was sustained against Kilmarnock on December 29, assessed next week and the timing could be key

Ross County have a Scottish League Cup semi-final date with Celtic a week on Sunday and Boyce is hoping that the healing process will have him back within the minimum time frame.

"There could be a risk of re-fracturing it if I play before it's healed properly," said Boyce.

"I was told I would be out for four to six weeks. If it's four weeks then I'll hopefully be able to play next weekend. It just depends on what the X-rays show.

"It's really frustrating because we'd two big games in a week. We won the first against Kilmarnock and then I had to watch as we lost to Inverness, which is a big derby and losing 2-0 wasn't the result we wanted."

Boyce has hit 17 goals this season, including a superb hat-trick against Dundee on Boxing Day, just days before his unlucky break.

After the Celtic game comes a Scottish Cup tie against Forfar or Linlithgow Rose the following weekend, as well as the continuing fight to stay in the fight for a top-six spot in the Scottish Premiership.

Then comes the Euro 2016 finals in France.

Kyle Lafferty will spearhead the Northern Ireland attack in group battles with Poland, Ukraine and Germany and Boyce is hoping that he can play some part, after imagining being on the big stage in the past.

"It's something that you dream of," said Boyce.

"I used to play Fifa on the PlayStation and dream of being involved in matches against the top players. Now I hope I can do that in France."

Whatever happens in the summer, or in the future, Boyce will always look back on his second spell at Cliftonville with fondness, given the close bond formed on and off the pitch with his team-mates.

"It was a crazy time," was how Boyce described his trophy-laden return to Solitude.

"Everyone got on so well together and we all knew that we'd go the extra mile for each other on the pitch.

"In the first year that we won the league we went on a great run after Christmas and we had so much confidence that we felt we were just going out and playing and winning comfortably.

"It was a special time and I think it will only be when I retire that I'll look back and realise how special it was."

Hopefully for Boyce there will be more special times to come in between.

The B Plan

Breakfast: Fruit (no fat before training).

Lunch: Soup or salad (low fat and low carbohydrates while out injured).

Dinner: Chicken/fish and vegetables or ratatouille (no carbohydrates — rice or pasta — while injured).

Belfast Telegraph