Martin Boyle: Did Scotland miss a trick by not capping Hibs winger before Australia switch?
On Thursday night, Hibs winger Martin Boyle scored for Australia in their 3-0 World Cup qualifying win against China.
It was his third goal in seven caps and it would be a bold person who would bet against the Socceroos reaching the finals in Qatar next year.
There might have been more than a few Tartan Army footsoldiers looking at Steve Clarke's makeshift team against Denmark with Andy Robertson – so often a driving force on the left – shoehorned into a right wingback role in a 3-5-2; a position Boyle has played in the past.
The 28-year-old has hit eight goals in all competitions since the start of the 2021/22 season including four in the first four league matches of the campaign – the first player to do so since Scott Sinclair for Celtic in 2016/17.
Clarke didn’t have his problems to seek ahead of the qualifier in Copenhagen with coronavirus cases and injuries leaving him with a decimated squad but had one of his predecessors made a different call in 2018, he might have had fewer problems – at least on the right flank.
McLeish, America, and the hamstring injury
With the summer of 2018 approaching and Scotland facing another summer of standing outside the major tournament looking in longingly at the numerous teams vying for international glory, a brief tour of the Americas to face Peru and Mexico was arranged.
The long-haul trip would give then Scotland manager Alex McLeish the chance to run the rule over some fringe Scots including Boyle, whose only previous involvement in international football was playing for the under-16s. But when he phoned Neil Lennon to enquire about the winger’s availability, a hamstring injury ended Boyle’s chances of a first Scotland cap alongside Dylan McGeouch and Lewis Stevenson.
Three months later, Australia made thier move. With Boyle eligible through Sydney-born father Graeme, Australia boss Graham Arnold travelled to Edinburgh, primarily to check up on Jamie Maclaren and Mark Milligan, but also to cast an appraising eye over a potential new recruit.
Boyle the Socceroo
By October 2018, Boyle had been called into the Australia squad for a training camp in Dubai but paperwork and red tape would prevent him from facing Kuwait in a friendly later that month.
The former Dundee wideman revealed that McLeish had been in contact again but hadn’t been able to promise him gametime.
"He said he didn’t want to bring me along as a cheerleader, and he was straight up with me,” Boyle said of his phonecall with the Scotland boss.
“Alex said he was strong in the position. I appreciated his honesty – it’s not everyday the national manager phones you and says he is delighted with your progress. But it’s not going to be a call-up.”
‘The most improved player’
Initially little more than a squad player at Easter Road, Boyle had become an integral part of Neil Lennon's team.
"Definitely the most improved player I’ve seen in my time at Hibs,” Lennon said of the forward.
Previously seen as quick but lacking a consistent end product, he had transformed himself into a speed merchant with an eye for goal and a knack for picking out his team-mates in the box.
"He has a lot more self-belief. There's a lot more positivity in his game in terms of being more direct,” Lennon added.
Boyle had notched five goals and five assists prior to the Socceroos training camp in the Middle East.
In November he made his Australia debut, entering as a 71st minute substitute in a 1-1 draw with South Korea. Handed a starting berth in the next match againt Lebanon Boyle scored twice and set up the third in a 3-0 win.
Getting better and better
Two serious injuries and the coronavirus pandemic have limited him to just seven international caps out of a possible 17 but he has certainly caught the eye in his 440 minutes of action in the yellow jersey, scoring four goals and registering two assists.
He finished the 18/19 domestic season with four goals and six assists but missed half the season through injury. He managed six goals and eight assists the next season but again, a portion of the campaign was spent on the sidelines.
Last term he played in all but two of Hibs’ 50 games, scoring 15 goals and laying on 12 more for his team-mates – his best ever return. So far this season he is halfway to equalling his goal tally with fewer than ten games played.
If Boyle maintains this form he will close out the campaign with 30+ goals, which at this point must be borderline fantasy, but his statistics are an ominous sign for upcoming opponents.
Boyle and Scotland
It could be argued that in late 2018 Scotland were well stocked on the right of midfield. James Forrest was in his pomp and scored five goals in the two international fixtures in November while there were other options capable of playing on the right.
Since then however, Forrest has registered just one assist in 12 appearances – against San Marino in March 2019. Granted, he missed nine games through injury, but Scotland currently lack a player with explosive pace who can run with the ball and cause problems for opponents, while Boyle is doing more or less precisely that for Hibs and Australia.
His versatility, too, would be a boon for Clarke who often deploys a wide player as a supporting striker.
Prolific in the lower leagues as a youngster it is only relatively recently that Boyle has reached a high level of performance for club and country.
McLeish couldn’t predict the future; none of us can – but is there a discussion to be had about how to ensure potential late developers aren’t lost to other nations?
Regardless, Scotland’s loss is very much Australia’s gain; a loss that will be most keenly felt if the Hibs winger helps the Socceroos to Qatar 2022.
Should that be the case, at least there will be one Scot at the World Cup.