Martin Boyle’s emergence as a dangerous central striker in Hibs’ last two matches comes as little surprise to anyone who witnessed him make his breakthrough at Montrose as a teenager.
Steven Tweed, the former Easter Road defender, was so impressed by the jet-heeled Aberdonian’s talent that he pitched him in for his Gable Endies debut as a 16-year-old, ironically away to Hibs in a Scottish Cup tie in February 2010.
Boyle subsequently flitted in and out of Tweed’s first team over the next year or so while continuing to plunder goals at an eye-catching rate in George Shields’ youth team. He duly ignited for the League Two side in the 2011/12 campaign. With Ray Farningham having replaced Tweed as manager, Boyle, by then 18, delivered on the promise that had excited those at Links Park by bagging 22 goals to finish as the top scorer in the entire Scottish Football League. Only Gary Hooper, then of Celtic, scored more league goals in the whole country that season.
“Tweedy used to tell me about Boyley when he was the manager,” Farningham told the Evening News. “He said it was just a matter of time before he’d be playing regularly in the first team. When Steven stepped down, I took over and I put him in the team because, even at that age, he had showed he could handle it in that league.
“He went on to be the top striker in the league that season, without a doubt. His pace was his main asset. He was the quickest in the league by a country mile. Although he scored 22 goals, we kept on at him that he had to work on his finishing because he could have had a lot more. It sounds stupid because he scored 22 but realistically he could have scored 30-plus goals that year.”
Until netting three goals in Hibs’ recent back-to-back wins over St Mirren and Ayr United, Boyle’s opportunities in his favoured central striker role have been restricted since that memorable campaign at Links Park. Even under Farningham, he was occasionally deployed out wide, while at Dundee and Hibs he has been used predominantly on the flank or as an impact substitute. Farningham is in no doubt that Boyle is best deployed through the middle, alongside a more physical, wily centre-forward, such as current partner Grant Holt.
“We played him through the middle, but we also used him wide in a three occasionally,” said Farningham, the 55-year-old former Motherwell, Dunfermline, Partick Thistle and Dundee midfielder. “There were times we played him wide because he was so young and we were a bit worried about him going up against rugged centre-backs. He had to build on his upper-body strength because he wasn’t the biggest guy but he’s got a low centre of gravity which helped him get by players. I liked him best through the middle though. Although he was small, playing with the right striker he could cause loads of problems.
“I’m not surprised he’s doing well playing beside Grant Holt. I can see that partnership working because he benefited from playing off a bigger, more experienced partner in Garry Wood at Montrose. Garry was good for him and liked to hold the ball up and link up whereas Martin liked to burst in behind because he was so quick.”
Aberdeen were intrigued enough by Boyle to take him on trial midway through that goal-laden campaign, while Kilmarnock were also among his suitors. When Farningham left Links Park at the end of the aforementioned season to become Barry Smith’s assistant at Dundee, he set about ensuring the little attacker followed him to Dens Park. Boyle duly signed for the Dark Blues in August 2012. “It’s not easy to bring players through the ranks at Montrose because of the location and the budget, so Martin was one of the best they had brought through for a long time,” said Farningham, now assistant manager at Lochee United. “Everybody had high hopes for him and there were always plenty scouts at our games to watch but I don’t know if there were any firm offers for him. When I left to go to Dundee I told Barry I thought he could definitely do a job for us. Barry knew of him and had watched him, so we signed him.”
Boyle joined Dundee during a chaotic period when they had suddenly been catapulted into the top flight in the wake of Rangers’ financial implosion. It meant, having just turned 19, he had gone straight from fourth tier to a side destined to struggle in the top tier. “At Dundee things could have worked out a bit better for him,” said Farningham, who worked alongside Boyle for a further two years at Dens. “Because Dundee were forced into the Premier League, the whole team weren’t ready for the top league. I remember myself and Barry sitting down and saying the team wasn’t ready for the top league, and it didn’t work out well for any of the players. It had a detrimental effect on them, Martin included.”
The sacking of Smith in February 2013, with Dundee adrift at the foot of the table, did little to aid Boyle’s cause at Dens Park. Although he had just been loaned back to Montrose to get game time, Smith and Farningham viewed him as a prospect who would flourish at the club in the long term. They didn’t get the chance to nurture him the way they wanted and, although Farningham remained at the club as assistant to John Brown and then Paul Hartley, the No.2 could sense things weren’t going to happen for Boyle at Dens Park. He is hopeful that, still only 23, his career is now about to take off under Neil Lennon.
“If Barry had stayed at Dundee longer, he’d definitely have had a better chance of making it there,” said Farningham. “He liked Martin and I think he would have developed a lot better under him. I don’t think Paul Hartley fancied him. He didn’t really get a chance under him, possibly because he wasn’t his signing – a lot of managers tend to be like that. I don’t think he developed much at Dundee after Barry left and lost his way a bit but the move to Hibs has been good for his career. It shows how well he’s doing at the moment that he’s keeping Jason Cummings out the team because he’s another player I like a lot. It also speaks volumes that a manager like Neil Lennon is picking him. Obviously Neil has seen something in Boyley and thinks that he can do a job playing off the big lad Holt. It’s brilliant to see him doing well at the moment.”