Exclusive: Liam Boyce aims to break 30 years of Hearts history in the next few weeks
A humble facade and softly-spoken words mask the inner fire and determination driving Liam Boyce. With multiple targets in sight, he firmly intends seizing destiny with Hearts over the coming weeks.
An impressive finish at Tannadice on Saturday was his 15th goal in all competitions this season. Another five and he achieves history as the first Hearts player to reach 20 in a single campaign since a certain John Robertson 30 years ago.
None of Boyce’s predecessors completed that feat and literally dozens of them tried. Not Kyle Lafferty, nor Andrius Velicka, not even Paul Hartley or Rudi Skacel. It remains something of a holy grail at Tynecastle Park.
At 30 years of age, Boyce is sufficiently mature not to become obsessed with personal glory. The unassuming Northern Irishman quietly goes about his business as a team player, much like this interview. He prefers calm statements and friendly chat to bravado or bawling and shouting.
There is good reason to become just a tad more selfish now, though. Aside from aspiring to the 20-goal landmark, Hearts are motoring again and aiming to secure third place as a newly-promoted club. That would guarantee European football in Gorgie for the first time in six years. Then there is the Scottish Cup.
Eight league games are left, plus a maximum of three cup ties. More Boyce goals could make all the difference for player and club. “It’s more about winning but obviously goals help. You guys all count them more than I do,” he smiles.
“It’s a bit rare nowadays but I think it’s always in the back of any striker’s head that 20 goals is a brilliant season. Everyone wants a 20-goals-a-season striker.
“When I was scoring every week, people were saying: ‘Are you going to get 20?’ It hasn’t been done in a long while at Hearts. You want to be the first person to do it, however many years it’s been.
“It’s something you can think about when you’re done playing. You scored 20 goals in a season at a big club like Hearts. That would be a good achievement.”
Following in the footsteps of a living legend like Robertson would make it all the more remarkable. “You see him about and you just know who he is. The amount of goals he scored is insane. To be mentioned in the same breath as him is a good thing. Hopefully I can do it.”
He’s been here before, of course. Five years ago Boyce was a Ross County talisman lashing 24 goals in 40 appearances during the 2016/17 campaign. That earned him a move to Burton Albion and he returned north to Edinburgh in 2020.
He is Hearts’ most reliable goals source despite a recent run of seven without finding the net. A bout of Covid 19 ironically reinvigorated him. “Since I came back from coronavirus, I feel I’ve been playing well in the games,” he explains.
“Before that, I was getting goals but thought I wasn't playing well. I’m trying to put them both together. Being off for two weeks leaves you itching to get back and gives you that bit more motivation.
“I’m starting to learn that I need to shoot every time instead of trying to pick a pass or take a touch. On Saturday against United, I let the ball roll across and then hit it with my weaker foot. It’s probably the cleanest strike I’ve ever hit with my left foot.
“When I was younger and missed a chance, maybe it would affect me. I’d be worried if I wasn’t getting chances. I got them against Aberdeen and Dundee United. If I keep getting into the right areas, I believe in myself that I’ll take more opportunities than I’ll miss. Hopefully this is the start of something good.”
His manager shares the sentiment. Robbie Neilson is confident Boyce can become the first Hearts player in three decades to score 20 in a single campaign. “I think he will get there,” he says.
“Any striker goes through periods where they score some, and then periods where they don’t score. Hopefully this will kick him off again and he can keep scoring. It’s big shoes to fill. Wee Robbo was a top striker and it would be nice if somebody could reach his total but there is still a bit of work to do.
“I was delighted to see Boycie score on Saturday. I thought it was a really top finish. He’s got that in the locker. He had a wee barren period but he’s still our top goalscorer.”
And that’s despite a positional change taking him further away from goal. Since Ellis Simms joined Hearts on loan from Everton, Boyce has adopted a more withdrawn role in behind the Englishman. He has the technical ability to thrive as a traditional No.10.
“I started playing there before I got coronavirus and it wasn’t really working. We were going through a wee rough patch. Then I was off, sitting in the house doing nothing and desperate to play,” he says.
“I don’t know what happened but I’ve come back and been running more high speed in games, just because I’m happy being back. You just want to be on the pitch playing any position. I couldn’t care if I score or not, as long as Hearts win.
“I used to play as a No.10 in Northern Ireland and I sort of got away with it. If you want to make it in professional football, it’s all about stats. You need to score goals for people to be talking about you and to get to international level.
“I’m now at a club where I love it so now I can maybe get back to that. We are aiming for Europe which would be massive, especially after being promoted. We know we aren’t done yet but we know we have to do it. Europe is where the club should be.”