Liam Boyce is fired up to hit back after injury hell
Liam Boyce has admitted his injury hell was the toughest chapter of his career so far.
The former Cliftonville hero suffered a horrendous knee ligament injury in pre-season just after signing for Championship side Burton Albion and he has never felt heartbreak like it.
Back playing and in the Northern Ireland squad with a smile on his face, he's anxious to make up for lost time but there's no disguising the emotional scars.
Football can be a cruel game, cutting a player down in his prime, and Boyce knows only good times with club and country will lift his spirits.
The last time he was part of Michael O'Neill's squad, Boyce netted his first Northern Ireland goal in a friendly against New Zealand last May and then started the World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan a few days later.
And the 26-year-old, who finished top scorer in the Scottish Premier League with 23 goals in 34 league outings for Ross County, has a new spring in his step.
"It was heartbreaking, to be honest, when I found out," said Boyce. "Obviously I was the club's record signing, so you want to do well. I was in such great form, I thought anything I hit was going to go in at that time.
"Having to sit and watch the boys, who haven't had the best of seasons so far, just having to watch half of it, knowing you can't do anything, was probably the toughest thing I've experienced in my career.
"When I came back I scored right away. It fell to me in the box and thankfully I took it, my first chance in the league. It was really tough to be out for that long.
"I've always felt like a quick healer - I did my medical the year before and was supposed to be out 10 (months) and was back in four.
"Our physio was trying to keep me optimistic and said to me 'six months' - when I came back he said 'I actually thought you were going to be eight or nine months'.
"I went in every day. I was gutted when I found out the news but as soon as I went into training I just had to get my head down - I did leg weights for about five months!
"I looked forward to the next thing - 'You're starting to run in two weeks' - and then it went past quick. It didn't feel as long as it actually was, it sort of flew by. There are a lot of games in the Championship so you're going to watch a lot and that got it out of the way quickly for me.
"I was laughing because obviously in pre-season you don't have names on the back of a shirt. That first match back I went in and took a picture as I'd not worn 27 on a shirt since Cliftonville and it's my favourite number. Just to see it for the first time on a Burton top was brilliant."
Boyce's former Solitude team-mate Joe Gormley also suffered a serious knee injury but the rehabilitation was different.
"We have the same agent and he's one of my best mates so, from talking to him, I actually got really lucky," said Boyce.
"He had done a couple of things to his knee and had to wait six weeks before his operation due to swelling. He was just telling me what it was going to be like.
"I got my operation six days after so was straight on the road to recovery."
Boyce is expected to play some part in tomorrow's home friendly with South Korea as O'Neill casts his eye over players who haven't always enjoyed game time.
"I wouldn't say I'm 100 per cent; back at Burton, Nigel Clough's been doing well," he added.
"I've started some games and he's taken me off after 70 and just gradually been building up."
Boyce missed out on a place at the Euro 2016 finals and World Cup qualifiers came and went too without his input.
"I was scoring goals then and broke my wrist and came back and struggled a bit," he added.
"I was scoring again when I got the move and I got the worst injury you can get in football. Hopefully I can come back as strong again.
"I watched the World Cup play-offs in the house in Derby, I was getting treatment, doing leg weights.
"The second leg we were unlucky, I was going mental, thought we were going to score, especially the one cleared off the line at the end.
"Those were such big games, the whole campaign was building up to that, and to not be involved was gutting. Obviously I missed the Euros as well, a big chance to play at a major tournament, and then to miss the chance to help us get to another one was tough."
The tantalising prospect of a place at the World Cup Finals in Russia had everyone gripped, including Boyce as he faced the long road to recovery.
"A hundred per cent, that's all I was thinking," he said. "I know how good we are as a team and I really believed we were going to get there. I was thinking the whole way up to the final whistle, when they cleared that one off the line, that I was going to get the (World Cup) chance.
"I still would have had to come back and play well, but just to play a couple of games and get my name in the hat again was my main motivation.
"I think the squad is looking good," he said.
"I've Jamal (Lewis) as my room-mate and he has come in and looked comfortable. Big Conor (Hazard) is massive, which will obviously help as a goalkeeper.
"Even at the dinner between the senior squad and under 21s it was great to have everyone mixing together."
Liam Boyce factfile
Date of birth: April 8, 1991
Place of birth: Belfast
Current club: Burton Albion
Former clubs: Cliftonville, Werder Bremen, Ross County
International caps: 9
International goals: 1
Underage representative honours: Northern Ireland U19s and U21s
Did you know?: Boyce has had two separate stints with Cliftonville, starting his career at Solitude from 2008-10 and then returning there from 2012-14.
Where has he been?: Boyce has only recently returned to action after suffering a knee injury in a pre-season match for new club Burton Albion.
How has his international form been?: Boyce scored his first goal for Northern Ireland in a friendly against New Zealand last June.