LIAM BOYCE needed just one touch to make himself a Northern Ireland hero and tee up what promises to be a momentous three weeks for club and country.
But the Hearts star is adamant taking a penalty for Belfast boys’ club Immaculata FC was more nerve-wracking than his steely spot-kick in Sarajevo.
Boyce was thrown on in the final minute of extra time against Bosnia as Northern Ireland sought to reach the European Championship playoff final, with boss Ian Baraclough seeing him as a certainty to net from 12 yards.
He didn’t even get a kick of the ball before the full-time whistle blew, yet he stepped up and dispatched the decisive penalty like he was a veteran of countless shootouts.
As it happens, nothing could have been further from the truth.
Boyce smiled: “It was only the second penalty shootout I’ve ever been in – and the other one was in under-age football, for Immaculata FC in an Irish Cup semi-final.
“I think I was 12 years old and I didn’t even want to hit one then – I was more nervous for that one than I was in the Northern Ireland game!
“I didn’t even get a touch before taking the penalty in Bosnia it so it was a nerve-wracking moment.
“One thing that didn’t help was that when I was walking up to take the penalty, the keeper rolled it out to me and I tried to chip it up for myself and messed it up!
“So I’m thinking ‘oh no, the first time I touch the ball and I can’t even chip it into my own hands’. But I calmed down and just hit it where I have been in training.”
Boyce’s composed spot-kick has teed up a one-off clash with Slovakia at Windsor Park on November 12, with the winners taking their place at next summer’s Euros.
He can also look forward to a Scottish Cup semi-final against Hibernian at Hampden next weekend, while Hearts’ bid for the Championship title continues unabashed.
But while the next 20 days will be among the biggest in Boyce’s career, he is adamant nothing matters more at the moment than seeing off Arbroath at Gayfield this evening.
He continued: “The Northern Ireland final is massive and so is the game against Hibs, but I know I need to keep building momentum to be involved in matches like that.
“I need to be playing well and scoring goals to keep my place in the national side and get minutes on the pitch.
“We have all been saying that games like this [Arbroath] are the challenges. We know that when we are at home and playing well – like scoring six against Dundee last week – it’s all fine and well, but it means nothing if we don’t carry that on
“We are out to set a marker and build on the start we’ve had.”