Exclusive: Liam Boyce's Hearts role clarified after talks

The Northern Irishman has added responsibility within the first-team squad

Sweat dripped off Liam Boyce standing beneath St Mirren’s main stand late on Wednesday night. It was 45 minutes after the end of a game in which he had played little more than 20 minutes. The Hearts striker had finally made his return from injury and revelled in the emotion and adrenaline of it all.

A cruciate ligament injury wrecked season 2022/23 for the Northern Irishman and denied him the chance to play Conference League group-stage ties. Having fought bravely to return, he succumbed to a hamstring problem in December and eventually needed surgery. It would be fair to say he has been through the mill.

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Now 33, Boyce desperately wanted competitive action before the 2023/24 campaign ended. It came in Paisley late on Wednesday night. Hearts head coach Steven Naismith remarked earlier this month that Boyce would not feature until next term, and the player revealed to the Edinburgh News that he approached after reading that interview.

“I didn’t know, we hadn’t really talked about it,” said Boyce. “I went to see him after that came out and he said he just didn’t put a time on it because he didn’t want to put pressure on me. He didn’t want to rush me back before the end of the season. It was good it was done that way. I was just training and trying to get fit. Then he said to me on Sunday that I’d be in the squad for the last two games and would hopefully get minutes.

“It’s massive hearing that. Last year, after I did my knee, I was close to coming back for the last two games of the season but then I pulled my hamstring a bit. I was gutted. To get on the pitch again and be off the injury list is great. I’ll try to play again on Saturday and then just be ready to go for pre-season, instead of having to ease my way in like last year.

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“I tried to come back a couple of times this year before I had my operation. Any time I kicked a ball, my hamstring just cramped. Then I found out I needed surgery. It’s a hard one to take. I was thinking if I trained then I was going to play the next day, but it just kept cramping. Finding out it was a three-month rehab, I was like: ‘What’s my luck like?’

“For the first two or three days, you feel like sh** and deal with it that way. Then you go back into the gym and you know you are on the mend. Mentally, you know you are working to come back instead of waiting to get an operation. That’s what drives you through, then you get on the pitch. Wednesday was actually a decent game to come into. Both teams were trying to pass the ball about and the game opened up, which gave us a bit of space.”

The 2-2 draw witnessed the old and the new for Hearts. Experienced figures like Boyce and goalkeeper Craig Gordon featured as well as youth academy graduates Aidan Denholm, Macaulay Tait and James Wilson. As a senior player, Boyce is expected to shoulder added responsibility for helping nurture the next generation at Tynecastle.

Discussions with Naismith have centred around what the forward can bring to the team, but also what he can do to impart skill, knowledge and wisdom to prodigious youngsters. “Hearts is a big club and every season there are new strikers coming in. That’s the demands of being here, you need to earn your jersey,” stated Boyce. “The manager spoke to me. At the start of the season I was just coming back from my knee and I was dying to play. I was like: ‘What’s happening? Am I going to play or what?’

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“The gaffer said: ‘You are a member of the squad and we value you. The way you play, no-one else does it that way so we need you.’ Then obviously I got hurt. He said to me again that, because I’m one of the older ones now, I need to help bring players on like wee James [Wilson]. I want to try and help him get better. This is a different stage in my career. I’m used to being the young one and it changes so quick. I’m just enjoying my football and I know I can help the team.

“I’ve been lucky enough in my career that someone has bought me towards the end of my contract so you know your future is secure. I got hurt and then got a new contract and Naisy says he values me. That’s all you want to hear. That’s all I’ve wanted my whole career. As long I’m wanted wherever I’m playing. If they didn’t want me, I wouldn’t want to be here. You want to go into work knowing you are valued and you can help the team.”

Boyce is conscious of the need to ease himself gently back into competitive action. Another substitute appearance against Rangers on Saturday is realistically the best he can expect - and the most he can cope with right now. “I feel good. When I went on against St Mirren, I felt good on the ball and my awareness was there.

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“When we go on the attack and then lose the ball and you have to run all the way back, that takes more runs and full training for longer than a week or two. I think I played the right amount of time. I couldn’t have played from the start, I’d have been taken off after 30 minutes,” he laughed.

One burning ambition has still to be fulfilled in Boyce’s career. The memory of watching Hearts in those group matches last season, merely days after tearing his cruciate against St Johnstone, won’t be forgotten. Next season ensures more league-stage ties against foreign opposition and Boyce is utterly determined to participate.

“It’s massive. When we lost against Zurich, the St Johnstone game was just after that and I got injured. I missed the group stages and had to sit and watch them all. There’s nothing worse,” he recalled. “I had played in all the qualifiers. Even in Ireland, I played in the Champions League qualifiers [with Cliftonville] but I didn’t get through. To me, you need to be in the group stages to be in the tournament proper.

“That’s the level you want to be at. The European nights at Tynecastle are special. The Zurich game and the Rosenborg game earlier this year, those are the games you want to be involved in. It would be a great achievement to play in the group stages next season.”

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