Liam Boyce reveals the one European chance still haunting him and why he wants Hearts to knock Rosenborg out

Striker’s regret fuelling his desire for Conference League progress
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Flashbacks to 12 months ago still haunt the Hearts striker Liam Boyce. When your entire season collapses inside a few days, memories persist no matter how thoroughly you try to erase them. Boyce’s wasted header proved costly in the Europa League play-off against FC Zurich last August. Then, three days later, the Northern Irishman ruptured his cruciate ligament against St Johnstone.

He is now recovered and desperate to experience a proper European adventure after watching last season’s Europa Conference League group stage from the stand. Boyce knows that header from Alan Forrest’s cross against Zurich looked easier to score than miss, and still regrets nodding it down into the ground and over goalkeeper Yanick Brecher’s crossbar. The moment still lives rent free in his head. This week is a chance to atone.

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Rosenborg visit Tynecastle Park for the second leg of the Europa Conference League third qualifying round this Thursday carrying a 2-1 advantage from the first meeting in Trondheim. Boyce is eager to play from the start competitively for the first time since that knee injury, and attend to his own European aspirations in the process.

“That's what I want more than anything now. For me that was the hardest thing about last year,” he admitted. “When you’re watching the league games you know that you’re ages away but you don't get the chance to play in European group stages that much so we need to realise what an opportunity it is. I definitely want to get back in because I didn't get the chance last year.”

An early goal would get a full Tynecastle bouncing and seriously test the Norwegians’ resolve. “It’s like the Zurich game last year when we ended up going out [of the Europa League],” recalled Boyce. “I missed a header and if we had gone 1-0 up I think we would have battered them. We need that same start and that same positive energy going into the game. We need to get forward and cause them problems because once you get chances you can hear the roar coming and that just keeps you going. If I get another header, hopefully if I will score it this year.

“Even a big tackle or something like that gets everyone going and that’s the moments you love. You hear the fans and that gives you an extra boost. We just need a lot of those moments and need to make sure we get into the right areas to take advantage. The European nights were what I missed last year. We won two games out of the six but with every game you could feel the atmosphere build all day. The night-time games, that's my favourite time to play. The atmosphere was unbelievable and we will need that again to help us through.”

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The tight surroundings in Gorgie might also work in Hearts’ favour. Rosenborg’s Lerkendal Stadion playing surface is wider and longer than Tynecastle’s, so squeezing the game will likely be part of Thursday’s tactics. Lawrence Shankland’s late header in Trondheim gave Hearts hope of progressing after trailing 2-0 at half-time.

Hearts forward Liam Boyce with young midfielder Aidan Denholm. Pic: SNSHearts forward Liam Boyce with young midfielder Aidan Denholm. Pic: SNS
Hearts forward Liam Boyce with young midfielder Aidan Denholm. Pic: SNS

“That was a massive moment. If you’re two goals behind and if you are coming home, you are still confident going into the game and still believe that you can get something. To just be one goal behind is a massive difference,” explained Boyce. “Towards the end of the game we had figured them out a wee bit and we were causing them problems as well, so that is another positive. We seemed to adapt and figured out their weaknesses

“I think the pitch will give us a boost but they will be used to it. They are a big club and they've played in the Champions League before. In the first half they were really well-drilled and that surprised us with how quick they were on the counter-attack. Any time we gave the ball away they were three on two and we were running back towards our own goal. We are now more aware and that’s probably what they will come and try to do because they were good at it. The onus is on us to go and win the game – they don’t have to – so we know what we have to do.”

Only in the last week has Boyce started to reach levels seen before his injury. He remains one of Hearts’ most experienced and influential players, whose intelligence was missed last year. He feels ready to play from the start in the Edinburgh club’s biggest game of 2023 so far.

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“I was a bit impatient [during rehabilitation],” he said. “You feel like you are further ahead than you actually are so it’s only the last five days or week or so in training that I have started to feel like myself. I want to play 90 minutes but it’s not as easy as that. When you come back from being out so long, especially when it’s Thursday-Sunday, two games in a week, it is a big ask.

“When you get to the end of coming back from a cruciate you do get the wee niggly calf injuries, etc. I had one against Mansfield and you just need to balance it. Obviously, I have been through it before but I was a lot younger and didn't seem to get them at that time. I'm experienced now and I know I just have to be patient. When I get the chance I will help the team in any way I can.”

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