Inside Liam Boyce's fight for fitness as Hearts' top scorer reveals the test he must pass to face Motherwell

Liam Boyce was scaling such lofty heights when Hearts last met Motherwell that he could have played one-twos with the pigeons above Tynecastle Park.

Friday, 19th November 2021, 7:00 am
Updated Friday, 19th November 2021, 9:04 am
Liam Boyce back in training for Hearts yesterday. The striker is edging towards full fitness and hopes to take part in small sided games today to test his calf for Fir Park

The prolific Northern Irishman struck his tenth goal in his 13th appearance of the campaign as the Edinburgh club moved top of the Premiership with a 2-0 win over their North Lanarkshire opponents in early October. Emotionally, this traditional No.9 was on cloud nine.

Two games later he was trudging off with a calf strain which has sidelined him for the last four weeks. His involvement at Fir Park tomorrow is far from certain, for he has yet to complete a full training session.

“When I was at Ross County, I always said I wanted ten goals before Christmas,” says Boyce, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I was absolutely buzzing because I hit ten in early October. I felt I was flying but now I’ve missed three games, so you’re missing chances to score more. That’s always at the back of my mind.”

Sign up to our Hearts newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Liam Boyce back in training for Hearts yesterday. The striker is edging towards full fitness and hopes to take part in small sided games today to test his calf for Fir Park

Calf injuries are notoriously difficult to gauge and any strenuous exercise can result in a tear. Depending on the severity, that could mean several weeks or potentially months out. Boyce explains why he and the Hearts medical staff have treated this one with extreme caution.

“I had a small strain. I think it was coming from my hamstring. It was a bit tight before the Dundee game and the calf has been overcompensating for it. During the game it started getting tight every time I put my foot down, so I just came off.

“I found out a couple of days later that it was a wee strain. I’ve done rehab, leg weights and calf-building exercises. I tried to run before the next game, against St Johnstone, but I had to stop after two steps, so it wasn’t right.

“I missed Aberdeen but I did a wee bit of training before the United game and it felt all right. I hadn’t run at full speed yet. I did one run in a warm-up and felt a wee pain so that showed it still wasn’t right.

Ben Woodburn, Cammy Devlin and Liam Boyce training for Hearts yesterday. The striker is hoping to take part in small sided games today to test his calf for Fir Park

“This week is the first time I’ve got through a full running session. Because it’s a calf, it’s hard to judge. It felt fine but hasn’t been right for a game. I’ve been running and in the gym so it’s a gradual build-up.

“We did some shooting and I hadn’t kicked a ball in three weeks. I haven’t managed a full session yet but hopefully soon. This is a learning curve for me, even at the age of 30. Nothing has ever happened to my calf before.”

Today is decision-day with regards Boyce’s participation against Motherwell. Hearts naturally want their most deadly forward available but much depends on how he copes during game situations at training.

“I’m not sure what the gaffer is thinking. Starting a game, I don’t know about,” he says. “The intensity is completely different. I haven’t played in small-sided games where you’re holding people off or running with people pulling you. I’ll join in the small-sided game on Friday and see how it is.”

The back-up plan is fairly obvious now. Josh Ginnelly’s display as a central striker in Hearts’ 5-2 win against Dundee United gave comfort to all concerned throughout this two-week international break. Even without Boyce, there is a viable option.

“Gino came in against United and I thought he was brilliant,” admits Boyce. “That gives us more options, we don’t want to be dependent on anyone as a team. If we need someone with pace up top, we know he can do it now. We maybe wouldn’t have learned that if I had kept playing.

“Gino is very humble. He wouldn’t say, ‘I played well,’ or anything like that. He will have wee jokes about other people’s performances. If they are playing well then he will talk them up. If he does something well in training, everyone has been saying to him, ‘you’re a striker now’.”

French forward Armand Gnanduillet started the other matches Boyce missed against St Johnstone and Aberdeen but appeared only as a substitute against United.

Between his physical presence and heading ability, Ginnelly’s turn of speed, plus Boyce’s interlinking and eye for goal, Hearts are not short of attacking possibilities. They also have Boyce’s compatriot, Michael Smith, available again in defence after he missed the Dundee United win with a back problem.

Boyce is still striving to regain full fitness and knows he must overcome competition in order to regain an automatic starting place in manager Robbie Neilson’s team.

He might be gradually reintroduced over the next two or three games but, ultimately, he wants his place back as the front-line focal point.

“That’s the way football is, 100 per cent,” says the striker. “We are in such a good position at the minute because of the players we have. Look at big Pete [Haring], who can come into midfield. Andy Halliday can play midfield or wing-back.

“Up front we have me and Armand and now Gino – three different types of striker. It’s the gaffer’s decision that is the most difficult. If we are playing against a team with a high defensive line, then you want pace.

“If we want to keep the ball then you need someone who links the play. If it’s a team going to sit in and defend their box, then we have Armand who we can target. It’s good to have those options.”

Read More

Read More
Hearts want to sign Brighton's Alex Cochrane on permanent deal but other issues ...

A message from the Editor: Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers. If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital sports subscription.