Martin Boyle is intent on maintaining his significant improvement in the upcoming season after being transformed from fringe man to main man in his three-and-a-half years with Hibs.
The 25-year-old struggled to command regular game time under previous manager Alan Stubbs and was an unused substitute for the 2016 Scottish Cup final victory over Rangers. Boyle freely admits his game lacked consistency in his early days at Hibs. Not now.
After beginning to establish himself as a mainstay of Neil Lennon’s starting line-up in the second half of the Championship-winning campaign, the versatile former Montrose and Dundee attacker took his game to a new level last term. Whether deployed as a wing-back, a right winger or a striker, Boyle showed he had augmented his raw pace with goals, assists and an ability to regularly get his team on the front foot. His value to Lennon was underlined by the reward of a four-year contract and 34 starts in 38 Premiership matches last season.
Buoyed by his emergence as one of the most dangerous attackers in Scotland, the Aberdonian is desperate to maintain his upward trajectory into the peak years of his career.
“I feel like I’m getting better all the time,” Boyle told the Evening News.
“I’m working hard in training on different things. I’ve been trying to build myself up and working on aspects of my game like my crossing and my finishing. I feel like I stepped up last season so hopefully I can maintain that and get even better.
“I was more consistent last year, so hopefully I can push on even further and add more goals and assists to my game. I felt like before I would play a good game and then go missing for a few games and drop out of it, but I feel like I’ve been more steady and consistent recently and I’ve been able to keep my starting place.
“From day one, the manager has given me the freedom to take the ball and go for it. I know I can lose the ball 99 times and I’ll still be encouraged to keep going and run with the ball. The manager and Garry Parker have been working on stuff with me and they’ve spurred me on.”
Another factor in Boyle’s improvement is his enhanced fitness levels, with the attacker having benefited from developing as an athlete since leaving Montrose six years ago.
“I’ve always been fast but I probably didn’t have the fitness when I first left Montrose,” he said. “Nowadays I can just run for days – I don’t know where I get the energy from. I’m hungry for it and I just want to keep improving.”
Having previously had no more than a two-year contract, Boyle is enjoying the relative security of being committed to Hibs until 2021 after being handed a new long-term deal in December. The prospect of imminent fatherhood and additional responsibility lends this scenario extra significance.
“It’s brilliant having the longer contract because it means I’ve not had to finish the season worrying or stressing about it,” he said. “It’s good for the long-term. I’m settled down here and I’m happy, and I’ve got the wee one on the way in September, so it’s good to have that security. I’ve been buying a buggy and decorating the room so the reality of becoming a dad is slowly starting to creep in!”
Despite his new-found status as one of Hibs’ key men, Boyle knows he is unlikely to shake off his “versatile” tag any time soon. Although he started out as a striker, a position he played in occasionally last season prior to the January arrivals of Jamie Maclaren and Florian Kamberi, it is clear he is now viewed predominantly as a wide player at Hibs.
“As I’ve been saying for a few years, I’m happy playing anywhere as long as I’m on the pitch,” he said. “I’ve been moved about all over the place but it’s great to be a part of this squad and I’ll play wherever I’m needed. I’ll probably be a utility man all my days! I started off as a striker, I’ve adapted to being a right-wing-back and I like playing right wing as well. Different teams set up differently so you’ve sometimes got to change formation. It’s good to be able to adapt to different positions and I feel like I can do that easily.”
Boyle was delighted to be reunited with his team-mates as the Hibs squad reassembled at East Mains for the start of their pre-season work yesterday. He has been at the training ground in recent weeks to work on his recovery from a hamstring injury sustained at the end of last season and is relishing the onset of the new campaign, with the Europa League adventure kicking off in three weeks and the Premiership starting with a home game against Motherwell in the first weekend of August.
“It’s been a short summer but I get bored too easily so I like to come back in,” he said. “It’s like you’ve never been away once you get back in there with all the boys. It’s good to see them all again at the start of pre-season and hear all their stories about what they’ve been up to in the summer, but then you start to dread all the runs and stuff like that. Obviously it wasn’t ideal getting my hamstring injury at the end of last season so I’ve been coming in for a few weeks just to keep on top of it.
“I’ve had a wee bit of running so hopefully that can give me a wee head-start. I just can’t wait for the new season to start. Sometimes you can be looking forward to the end of the season but I don’t think anyone at Hibs wanted last season to end. The way we were playing and the support we were getting from the fans, it was brilliant. We just can’t wait to get going again, back into the games and for the new campaign to start.”
It remains to be seen how Hibs’ squad will look by the time the league campaign kicks off, but Boyle is not fazed by the sight of more players leaving than coming into the club thus far. As things stand, key men like Scott Allan, Brandon Barker, Jamie Maclaren and Dylan McGeouch are no longer part of the team, although that could change as the summer progresses. Florian Kamberi last week returned to Easter Road on a three-year contract and management are busy working to replenish the squad.
“The manager has delivered in the last two seasons so you’ve got to believe in what he’s doing and what he’s building,” said Boyle. “He’s done a really good job and he’s getting the support of the backroom staff. There’s nothing we can do to influence how the squad is shaping up. We just come in and put the work in and see what happens.
“A lot has been made of the players we could potentially lose but we’ve still got the foundations of a really good squad here. We’ve still got some really good players.”