Ten years ago next month, aged only 16, Martin Boyle made his senior debut as a substitute for Montrose. The venue? Easter Road.
In the Hibs side that night for the Scottish Cup fixture were Derek Riordan and Merouane Zemamma. Chris Hegarty, Dundee United great Paul’s son, scored for Montrose in their 5-1 defeat.
The last thing we can call Boyle is an overnight success. Indeed, the opposite is true. There have been some false starts, a career-threatening injury and numerous battles to simply secure a regular first-team place. He left Dundee after they elected to let his contract run out. Hibs, where he had been on loan for the last half of the previous season, wisely snapped him up. They now face a battle to hold on to someone who has either scored or had a hand in eight of his side’s last nine goals, going back to last month’s 3-0 win over Aberdeen. He is proving about as indispensable as a player can be.
Celtic’s head of football Nick Hammond was at Easter Road on Wednesday to watch Boyle provide two assists in Hibs’ 2-1 win over Hamilton Accies, as was Stoke City manager Michael O’Neill. Other clubs are sure to have been represented.
The subject of their interest? With all due respect to everyone else on the pitch, it’s almost certain to be Boyle. There were already rumours of Celtic’s interest. Neil Lennon, after all, helped his career reach another stage. Boyle was by no means a certain starter under Alan Stubbs. He was an unused substitute in Hibs’ Scottish Cup win in 2016, for example.
Boyle’s tale is an inspiring one. He is now having the time of his life. To see him scamper down the wing is to watch someone play with uninhibited joy. And why not? He has recovered from a serious knee injury and is playing as well as before, if not better. He is running high on that winger’s great elixir – confidence.
This time last year he had just gone under the knife after injuring knee ligaments while playing for for Australia in a friendly against Oman. That is another remarkable strand to his story. Now a regular in Socceroos squads, he is likely to be performing in Colombia and Argentina this summer after Australia’s guest invite to Copa America. It is a long way from Links Park.
With only another week left of the transfer window, the question is whether he will still be a Hibs player when he is in South America? Hibs manager Jack Ross certainly intends for that to be the case and stressed in midweek that he was “the last player” he wanted to see leave this month, or, indeed, this summer.
Paul Hanlon has reason to hope Boyle sticks around. He was the beneficiary of the winger’s cross, which was played with pinpoint accuracy into the danger area rather than simply flashed across goal, when scoring the late winner against Hamilton on Wednesday. Hanlon’s crashing header complemented such intelligent wing play. “He is a great outlet for us to have with that pace,” said Hanlon.
“If you can get him in a one on one in certain situations there are not many people who can live with that pace. Obviously, he is full of confidence right now and producing the end product as well, and hopefully he can continue that form.”
Hanlon himself brought up the confidence factor. Would the Boyle of a few years ago have had the chutzpah to let fly from 20-odd yards as he did to put his side back in front in Sunday’s 2-2 Scottish Cup draw with Dundee United? Or might the younger, less bold version of Boyle have started to lose faith rather than keep on plugging away, as he did against Hamilton.
“He has improved all sides of his game,” said Hanlon. “He is just full of confidence – that is the biggest thing in football. If you are full of confidence and looking forward to every game you are playing in and confident you will get the better of your opponent then it brings out the best in you. And you can definitely see that in Martin now.”
A year ago, Boyle posted a video of himself preparing for surgery by doing an impression of Bane, the Batman villain played by Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises, while wearing his oxygen mask. Married to fellow Hibs player Rachael Small, even the attendant responsibilities following the birth of a daughter have not eliminated his playful side.
“He is great to have around the dressing room,” reported Hanlon. “He is a bubbly character and in the changing room on match days as well.”
But Hanlon did not want to create the impression that Boyle is a frivolous type who has not put the work in. As noted above, he has served his time in the lower leagues as well as on benches and treatment tables.
“He has the joker side to him and we all love that but I think you do not come into the team so seamlessly after such a serious injury without working hard and looking after yourself,” he said.
“There are probably times if you asked the fitness team that they probably had to push him when he has been down – everyone has those days – but all credit to him to come back so fit and sharp right away.”