Put together a list of the most important players at Easter Road and the usual suspects will emerge. Midfielders John McGinn and Dylan McGeouch, the defensive trio of Paul Hanlon, Darren McGregor and Efe Ambrose, target-man and new fans’ favourite Florian Kamberi. Then there is Martin Boyle.
That in itself highlights the growth in the 24-year-old’s game. Coming into this season, it would have been reasonable if fans looked at Boyle as a player who could be upgraded. He was raw, inconsistent and frustrated as much as he enthralled. Now he is one of the most feared wide-men in the league.
A look into his background paints a more vivid picture as to the magnitude of his rise. He progressed through junior football in Aberdeen to sign for fourth-tier Montrose. By the time he had reached the Gable Endies’ first team, they were no more than a plodding outfit having been stranded in the division since 1996.
It was at this time that Boyle was more familiar with doing shuttle runs between doors delivering parcels for his mum than he was for terrorising full-backs as he supported his part-time football and studying for an HNC degree in sports science at college.
“I was just tagging along with my mum, just getting by really, a bit of money on the side”, Boyle recalled earlier this year. “I had to run to the doors with the parcels. It was a nightmare. It kept me fit, but I was shattered going training at night.”
He made his breakthrough for Montrose early, coming off the bench against Hibs as a 16-year-old in a 5-1 Scottish Cup defeat in 2010. By the time he was 18 he had exploded, blitzing defences with his searing pace. He netted 22 times in 36 league games during the 2011/2012 campaign.
It prompted Dundee to make a move, the player jumping from the fourth to the top tier. Dee boss Barry Smith admitted he was “one for the future” and Boyle was used sparingly before spending the second half of the season back at Montrose on loan.
He arrived at Hibs under Alan Stubbs in a loan swap deal with Alex Harris in 2015, a move which didn’t sit too well with either support. While Dundee fans were left frustrated with his final product, they realised the danger he posed with his pace, even if he wasn’t utilised correctly. One of his finest moments in the City of Discovery was Paul Hartley’s first game in charge, a 1-0 win over Hamilton. Boyle scored the only goal of the game, plus he left not one but two left-backs in a tizz. One was subbed, while the substitute was sent off.
At Hibs, he was replacing a popular figure in Harris, someone fans had an affection for. It took him until April and a starring role in a derby win that he won over many doubters. Despite a serious injury to his medial ligament in his knee in the final league game of the season, the club had been impressed enough to offer him a two-year-deal.
The arrival of Neil Lennon was a staging post in Boyle’s career. The Northern Irishman’s presence provided Boyle with an extra focus, minus one or two incidents. The Hibs boss has an aura as a ranter and raver, but he has an undoubted ability to inspire, knowing which players to give the stick and which players to offer the carrot.
“The gaffer has given me real belief,” Boyle said in December. “He’s one man you don’t want to let down – he has that fear factor – but he’s brought more to my game. He’s told me to take the ball down the line and if I lose it 100 times to go again.”
Lennon noted Boyle’s propensity to spend a lot of time on the ground last season, the winger needing to find the required balance to match his pace. But he was awarded with a two-year contract extension, even if there was a scepticism about his ability to make the transition to Premiership level.
A goal and assist in an opening day win over Partick Thistle was a portent for what was to come. Before the year was out Lennon has revealed the player had been awarded with a further contract extension, this time until 2021.
On the player signing the deal, Lennon said: “He made the step up to the Premiership without any issues. On his day he can be one of the most dangerous players in the league – he brings real pace and power.”
Boyle may have been overshadowed by team-mates with a better reputation, a more refined style, but what he brings to the team cannot be undervalued. Hibs are an excellent counter-attacking team and Boyle is crucial in the transition, turning defence into attack within a matter of seconds, and sits second in the league for dribbles and one-v-one situations.
Speed has always been Boyle’s key asset and it would not be awry to suggest he would not have got anywhere in the Premiership without it. Dundee fans will attest to his level of inefficiency when in dangerous areas. He is still prone to missing big chances for Hibs, specifically one-on-one with the goalkeeper, but he is continuing to improve in the final third and become more reliable.
Aside from his numbers, Boyle, more than anyone else in the squad, epitomises the balance of the Hibs team. He is able to play through the middle, he can play on the wing of a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2, as a wing-back and right-back. His versatility and adaptability gives Lennon options to shape his side and make changes during games without confusing the team.
Boyle won’t feature on many player of the year shortlists. But if there were awards handed out for most improved or most underrated players in the Scottish Premiership, he would be flying high. His importance should not be underestimated.