Sunday, March 25, 2018

Loving and lamenting Kris Boyd's renaissance

Kris Boyd scored the winning goal at Ibrox last week. That would have generated a marked feeling of deja vu, were it not for the fact that he actually scored it against Rangers.

It's the third time Boyd has scored against his former club this season, following on from a double in a 2-1 win for Kilmarnock at Rugby Park in December. That's as many league goals as he scored in his nightmare second spell at the Gers, in the 2014-15 Championship.

Already the wrong side of 30 at that point, it seemed then that Boyd was finished. And yet nearly three years on he leads the Scottish Premiership scoring charts with fifteen goals this season. He has twenty in all competitions.

And it's not just the goals.

During his first spell at Rangers, between 2006 and 2010, Boyd was the most consistently prolific centre-forward in the country, with 101 league goals in four and a half seasons. Part of a Rangers side who would comfortably dominate all but one of their domestic opponents, he scored for fun.

And yet when Celtic were the opposition, he could often be found on the bench; he managed just a single goal for Rangers in Old Firm derbies. His involvement in the club's run to the 2007-08 UEFA Cup final was minimal - that season he played for a grand total of six minutes - the last six minutes - of their Champions League group stage matches, and started a single game in the UEFA Cup campaign. That was also his only appearance in the tournament until the final, where he came on for the last four minutes in the defeat by Zenit St. Petersburg.

As at club level, so at international level. Boyd scored four goals in Euro 2008 qualifying, against the Faroe Islands, Georgia and Lithuania, all at home. The only other game he started was the return match against the Faroes. For clashes with the three group heavyweights, France, Italy and Ukraine, he was left on the bench.

The consensus was that Boyd was a flat-track bully. When paired with a strike-partner (most commonly Kenny Miller) to do his running, he came alive in the final third, and otherwise lumbered around like one of the extras in Shaun Of The Dead. This was okay when his team dominated possession and could create a plethora of chances for him. However, in situations where Rangers and Scotland might be under the cosh, in need of a striker who would hold the ball up, or chase fifty-fifties into the channels, or harass opposing centre-backs, or at least (I'm thinking of James McFadden here) be capable of conjuring a goal out of almost literally nothing, then Boyd was not your man.

It used to frustrate the hell out of me that he couldn't add that nous to his game - so much so that I actually blogged about it all the way back in 2007. Boyd was not only Scotland's most prolific centre-forward, but he was one of the best finishers in Europe. And yet because he couldn't, or wouldn't, learn how to lead the line effectively on his own, he was a liability in the really big games for both club and country.

Fast forward a decade to February 2018, as Kilmarnock beat Celtic 1-0 at Rugby Park thanks to Youssouf Mulumbu's seventieth minute goal and one of the best organised defensive performances I have seen in the Scottish Premiership this season or any other.

Boyd was actually substituted five minutes before Mulumbu's goal. He had a couple of shots in the game, but that was largely it.  Except it wasn't.

Now 34, Boyd is obviously a little bit slower than he was in his heyday, and it's not unusual for him to fail to complete 90 minutes; in fact he was subbed immediately after his strike at Ibrox last week. But against Celtic he didn't just wander aimlessly, or look bored at the lack of action near him. He didn't chase lost causes against Celtic's back three, but there was no point in doing so as they would just pass around him. What he did do, as trite as it sounds, was to stand in the right place.

When the ball was up around the half-way line, he would position himself to prevent a pass from a defender to one of Celtic's central midfielders, usually Scott Brown. This didn't take up much physical effort, but did require him to be switched on. He was. And on the rare occasions that the ball reached him, he did hold it up for teammates.

Part of this is down to the excellent planning of Killie's manager and miracle-worker-in-chief Steve Clarke. But even last season when Kilmarnock were struggling Boyd still showed a willingness to defend from the front, and to show leadership and fight as an example to his (often young) teammates. Whether through experience or maturity or a combination of both, he has finally added to his game the ability to lead the line on his own.

And, as part of a Kilmarnock side which are the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the Premiership this season, the goals are flowing. His Ibrox strike was a throwback to the old days, a case of him reacting quicker to a rebound than those around him. That yard of pace lost is more than made up for by the ones he has gained in his head.

If Boyd finishes as the Premiership's top scorer he will surely get a nomination for Player Of The Year, something that happened only once in his Rangers prime. And he'll deserve it, even though it seems unlikely he would get the overall award. There has even been talk of a Scotland recall, though the player himself has dismissed the thought.

After all, time waits for no man. Those legs could run out of batteries at any moment, and this may be the last hurrah. But through being in the right environment and having the right attitude, Kris Boyd is enjoying a fine Indian summer. If only I could just sit back and enjoy it, instead of wishing that he had played like this ten years ago.

Lawrie Spence has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

No comments: