Liam Boyce could break 30-year Hearts record if he recaptures his scoring touch
It is no coincidence that Hearts’ two weakest performances to date this season occurred away from home without Liam Boyce in the starting line-up.
The most potent attacking threat at Tynecastle, Boyce’s craft and eye for goal were sorely missed during defeats at Aberdeen and Motherwell. He played the last half-hour at Fir Park and is now sufficiently fit to attempt the unexpected tonight at Celtic Park.
A calf problem has subsided and the Northern Irishman will lead Hearts’ forward line in Glasgow. The club’s away form came sharply back into focus following the aforementioned losses and this would be a perfect juncture to address the matter.
Hearts haven’t won away to Celtic since a 1-0 League Cup success in October 2009. You must rewind further to 2007 for their last league victory there. Chances of ending that undesirable sequence are indisputably better with Boyce in the side.
He has ten goals in 17 appearances this season despite failing to ripple a net for two months. He is particularly hard on himself in an effort to do even better.
“When you get injured you try not to think like that [getting back up to speed] but I think against Motherwell I came on and had a chance. When you are on a run of scoring goals, you hit it and it goes in. The keeper made a good save,” recalled Boyce.
“On Saturday [a 2-0 win against St Mirren] I felt it the most. The one time I took a good touch in the game I didn't shoot. There were other times I was getting slipped in but my touch wasn't right. It was working out for us as we were getting chances from it but if I had a better touch I'd bet on myself to score.
“One in the second half there was a good ball slipped in, I tried to take a touch, it hit off my feet and Mick [Michael Smith] ended up getting a chance from it. You are not as sharp when you come back from injuries, it's just good to get minutes under the belt.
“When you have a couple of bad touches you can work on it during the week in training for the next time. It takes one goal. You need to keep getting in the right positions.
“Coming back from injury, if I wasn't making those runs or getting those balls slipped into me you don't know when the next chance is going to come. I've still been getting chances and I know it is on me. I know I just need to sharpen up a wee bit and concentrate on my first touch and take my chance.”
The encouraging news for Hearts supporters is that, physically, he feels fine. “Everything felt good across 80 minutes and I was gutted I was coming off because I didn't take my chances and wanted to score. It was positive feeling good, and obviously I need to tidy up my first touch.”
Boyce won’t become unduly flustered by the wait for his next goal. He has been here before. A 30-year-old international striker with experience of leagues in Germany, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the odd lean spell doesn’t faze him.
“I’ve gone through spells where I haven’t scored in ages. There was one leading up to the Euros [in 2016] that I’ll always remember. I scored something like 17 by January, I was flying. I was thinking I was going to the Euros but then I broke my hand.
“I didn’t score until the last two games for Ross County which got to me to 20, which was good. When you go through spells you’re more worried if the chances aren’t coming, but when I’m still getting chances I know it’s just down to me to just get that finishing touch right.”
Again, he isn’t slow to apply pressure on himself. Yet Boyce knows there is an array of providers waiting to help. Josh Ginnelly, Ben Woodburn, Gary Mackay-Steven and Barrie McKay are creative types out wide. McKay in particular has teed up some impressive chances recently.
“On Saturday, that’s why I was even more frustrated after the game,” said Boyce. “It’s good to have someone that has that eye for a pass, it doesn’t matter if it’s on his weaker foot, you know he can make that pass.
“There was one pass he played perfectly in the first half but my touch wasn’t right and it went out for a goal-kick. Other ones just skidded off the surface, or the keeper was in a good position to come and get it.
“It’s just good to have someone on the same wavelength and you can tell he’s getting better with the games. I know I just need to make a run and he’ll find me.
“That’s the benefit of the squad we’ve got. When Gino [Ginnelly] gets the ball, I know I just need to be in the six-yard box and he’ll get a cross in. With Barrie or Gary Mackay-Steven, you know they’ll take someone on, so I just need to time my run and I’ll get a chance.”
If he can recapture the clinical touch, Boyce could find himself closing in on a 30-year record. Not since John Robertson in 1991/92 has a Hearts player claimed 20 goals in one campaign.
“I’ve always said I want to get ten before Christmas. I got it really early this year and then I got injured, but I still try to stay positive. I still scored ten goals and that’s a good position to be in,” said Boyce.
“I just try to take it game by game. After the game on Saturday I was disappointed that I didn’t score. I probably could’ve scored two in that game. You try to save that frustration to keep you sharp for when the next chance comes in the next game.”