The Liam Boyce Story: No-one wanted me, I was playing with mates, now I'm aiming for Europa League with Hearts

You don’t forget that feeling as a footballer. Nobody wants you, clubs won’t sign you. It sparks a melancholy wave amid a realisation that the dream may be over.

Liam Boyce remembers it well as we sit discussing his backstory just hours before possibly the biggest game of his life. This humble striker from Belfast is 90 minutes away from qualifying for the Europa League with Hearts. No-one need remind him many others in his chosen profession are green with envy.

It is a profession in which Boyce has worked at relentlessly to become a success. Just over ten years ago he was an outcast, clubless and jobless with no-one willing to give him a chance. Tonight at Tynecastle Park could be the pinnacle if Hearts overcome Swiss champions FC Zurich in the Europa League play-off second leg.

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Boyce is 31 and knows exactly when and why his career flipped. A change of mindset a decade ago underpinned a gradual turnaround. As a result, he no longer entertains feelings of pressure, angst or trepidation.

He left his part-time formative club Cliftonville in 2010 to join Werder Bremen dreaming of full-time football in one of Europe’s most glamorous leagues. After a damaging period and only a handful of appearances for Bremen’s reserves, he was released in October 2011.

What took hold was an unshakeable fear that his full-time career was finished before it began. He returned to Northern Ireland and trained again with Cliftonville, officially rejoining them three months later. The familiarity was the perfect antidote to the distress. The entire episode taught him to relax and enjoy football every day.

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While a few team-mates are bursting with pent-up emotion and energy in the Tynecastle tunnel around 7.55pm tonight, Boyce will be the epitome of calmness.

“When I was in Germany, I used to put so much pressure on myself,” he tells the Evening News. “‘You want to do well, you wanted to play full-time football,’ I would say to myself. Football really became a job when I was over there. I was on my own and I wanted to do well so much. It took for me to go back home before I realised.

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Liam Boyce is desperate to reach the Europa League groups with Hearts.

“No-one wanted to sign me. I was just playing with my mates at my local professional team [Cliftonville]. That’s when you start enjoying football more. Since then, I’ve always thought there’s no point putting pressure on myself. I just go out, try to enjoy it and have fun. That has stood me in good stead up to now.”

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He quickly impressed during that second Cliftonville spell and earned a move to Ross County, where he became the Scottish Premiership’s top goalscorer in 2016/17. Burton Albion took him to England and he returned north to Hearts in 2020. The progress all stems from taking a step back following that German episode.

“When I went back to Cliftonville, I thought I’d never play full-time football again. I thought I would just stay part-time. Not many people get second chances in football. When you start going down, you usually keep going further and further down.

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“It sounds cheesy but that’s when you fall back in love with the game. You are playing with your mates, having fun and having a laugh. That’s just when things seemed to click. It has always stuck with me to just keep doing that.”

Whether running about at Solitude or stepping out at Tynecastle in a pulsating European play-off, Boyce won’t change. “These are the nights you want to be playing in, with 20,000 people going mental and a chance to get into the Europa League. The teams we could be playing are absolutely massive. What more do you need to motivate you?

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“We know how big tonight is. It was tough over in Switzerland last week, on their own patch with them playing well. This is what we have been playing for. We put that effort in last week to get them back home with a chance to go through. It would be absolutely massive if we can get there.

“If we play with the same determination we showed on Sunday [against Celtic] and want to be aggressive, I think we will be in good stead.”

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A 2-1 deficit from the away leg in St Gallen leaves this tie very much in the balance. “It’s absolutely huge. The only other game I’ve played in like this was when Northern Ireland qualified for the Euros [in 2015]. We beat Greece to qualify and I played that night but obviously I didn’t go to the Euros in the end.

“When I played in the Champions League before, I actually played at Celtic Park for Cliftonville. That was the second qualifier so it was a long way from the group stages. This one is 90 minutes away from getting into the Europa League. It’s probably the biggest game in most people’s careers, and certainly in their Hearts careers.

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“We have watched Zurich and they have good players. You go to anyone’s ground, it doesn’t matter if you think you are a better team, they have more confidence at home. They will try to put their imprint on the game more.

“We knew that would happen to us over in Switzerland, now it’s out chance to do it. We have to stand up and put our stamp on the game.”

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Whether Boyce plays from the start remains to be seen. Recent signing Lawrence Shankland is Hearts’ preferred choice at centre-forward just now. “Shanks has been brilliant. That competition is always in football and it’s always going to happen,” says Boyce.

“Even when big Armand [Gnanduillet] came, I wasn’t always playing up front and had to play other positions to help the team. Football is like that, it’s competitive. You need to do well every time you play. That’s what we need if we’re in Europe and signing better players. It pushes other people’s levels up.”

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