Liam Boyce has more reason than most Northern Ireland players to be desperate to qualify for Euro 2020.
Michael O’Neill’s team are looking to repeat the trick after reaching Euro 2016 – their first ever European Championships – but while most members of the squad have fond memories of playing in France, Boyce missed out on selection all together.
Now the 27-year-old, fit again after a injury-wrecked first season in the Championship last year, is champing at the bit to help Northern Ireland in the UEFA Nations League and the Euro 2020 qualifiers to come.
“It’s massive,” he said of his motivation. “I was so close (to making the 2016 squad), but obviously I had a poor second half to the season and just missed out.
“I knew I was less than 50-50 to make the squad. I think I only scored two, in the last two games of the season, and (Will) Griggsy was banging in goals so you sort of know it’s coming, even though you have that glimmer of hope.”
Boyce just has to listen as his team-mates swap stories from the tournament while together in Northern Ireland’s training camps, but he is not bitter, not least as missing the competition allowed him to be at home as he became a father.
“The players have great memories from a major tournament final, I’m not going to begrudge anyone for playing better than me at the time,” he said.
“I actually had my daughter the day of the first game (against Poland in Nice), so that helped take my mind off it. Once you don’t get picked you have to move on, keep playing club football and hope to get into the next international squad, which I did, so I just have to keep aiming higher and show what I can do.”
Showing what had can do was a struggle last season, as a serious knee injury restricted him to just 16 games and three goals in his debut season for Burton after his move south from Ross County.
But he has hit the ground running this season with five goals in eight games.
“This has been the first time really that I’ve been fit since (the injury) happened, because it came right at the end of pre-season,” he said. “Even though I came back early it felt like it took forever, maybe 10 games, to do the things I wanted to on the pitch.
“I’ve done pre-season now and it’s the fittest and lightest I’ve ever been, I’ve been able to do what I want the whole 90 minutes and keep going right to the end, I don’t get taken off that often.
“When you come back from injury and you’re only getting 10 minutes it’s hard to make an impact in games. It’s the best I’ve felt and I’m buzzing to be back playing, and feeling good.”
Boyce’s bright start caught the interest of Bolton, who reportedly put in a number of offers for Boyce but saw each one rejected by Burton.
Boyce said the speculation never bothered him, not surprising given the sort of moves he was linked with as a teenage star for Cliftonville.
“When I was 19, there were meant to be teams like Barcelona coming in, and you think ‘Aw Jesus, the chance to go there and play with Messi!’” he said.
“You could be going to sleep dreaming of playing with Messi then you wake up in your own bed and nothing’s changed. You just have to forget about it.
“It’s good to have that sort of talk because it means you’re doing something right, but if it doesn’t come off you just keep doing what you’re doing, eventually it will happen.”