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Gareth McAuley

Liam Boyce can aim high at basement boys Hearts

Gareth McAuley


Liam Boyce

Liam Boyce was unlucky to lose out to Will Grigg for a place at the Euro 2016 Finals.

It was a controversial call at the time and I would have much preferred Liam to have been on the plane to France.

I know Will had been banging in the goals for Wigan, but I felt Liam's all-round game suited our counter-attacking style more.

Liam's such a clever striker; he holds the ball up well, has great vision and I think is a natural goalscorer.

At the time there was huge public interest in Will because of the 'Will Grigg's on Fire' song and I felt Michael O'Neill's decision to pick him was swayed by this. It maybe clouded his judgment.

Will was in good form, but Liam had been too before he was struck down by injury and was slowly getting back up to speed.

Liam could have been used as a foil in France, an intelligent player who demonstrated what he can offer to the team in the friendly win over the Czech Republic last October.

He produced a similar display against Bosnia in Sarajevo a year earlier with a lot of good attacking opportunities going through him and it could have been such a different result had George Saville and Gavin Whyte taken their chances in front of goal.

Liam, in my mind, is certainly in the running to start against Bosnia next month, even though his record of scoring only one international goal in 21 appearances isn't great.

His incredible start to life at new club Hearts, scoring the winner against Rangers, hasn't done him any harm.

With Kyle Lafferty only starting to play regular club football again, Josh Magennis needing to find some form at Hull City after returning from injury and Conor Washington in a similar position, Liam is currently the front runner for the spot. But Michael always takes his time in deciding and sometimes it is actually what you do during training on match week, so the striker's shirt is very much up grabs.

Liam has done his chances the world of good by going to Hearts. I know there was talk about him going to Sunderland and some of their fans can't believe their 'big club' was beaten to Boycie by a club near the bottom of the Scottish Premiership, but I don't see it as a step down or a lack of ambition. He was a proven goalscorer in League One, he'd already scored 14 this season, and I'm convinced he would have enhanced Sunderland greatly as they seek promotion to the Championship.

However, the Austin MacPhee factor likely played a huge role. I've written before about how I made career decisions on where I felt most wanted, where I felt I was needed and where I could make the most impact. Austin, assistant coach at Hearts, knows Boycie well from the international set-up and can make sure the Jambos play to his strengths. Austin will also be able to give Michael regular updates on Boycie's form in training and games ahead of the Bosnia play-off.

Hearts are a good sized club and regularly play in front of 14,000 fans - that is a big difference to some of the League One sides who are fortunate to get 5,000 through the gate.

After Boycie scored that winning goal against Rangers last weekend, he spoke about the deafening noise as he celebrated. Every player wants to perform in great atmospheres and in great games and he is going to get that against Celtic, Rangers, Hibernian and Aberdeen.

Hearts are getting a good player, a striker who is brave, clever, strong and deceptively rapid. He links up well but is also clinical. His goal against Rangers was evidence of that - especially when he felt an injury on his right side so swapped the ball to his left and fired home.

Since the 2018 World Cup Play-Off with Switzerland, Northern Ireland now enjoy a much more possession-based game and have more control, and Boycie will only thrive on this style.

Boycie, after his Euro 2016 heartache, could easily have walked away from the international scene and threw the head up. He didn't; instead, he showed great character and a terrific attitude when called upon by Michael for future games.

He now has a chance to be part of a Northern Ireland European adventure.

Four years too late but maybe for Boycie, patience will be a virtue.

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