Scottish football is often unfairly maligned as a boring, predictable concept. Celtic win the league…
Professor Ian Robertson, founding director of the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, was recently asked to explain Vladimir Putin’s relentless pursuit of power. “The human brain has a single reward network – a single feel-good network,” he said. “It is switched on whenever we’re paid a compliment, whenever we have sex, whenever we take cocaine and whenever we have power and great success.
“What happens is you get an intense surge of pleasure and satisfaction from the stimulus but as you repeat that at a higher level the brain needs more and more to achieve the same effect – that’s called tolerance. It’s an insatiable appetite.”
In football, there is no better way to attract compliments than to score goals. And Kris Boyd, a man who routinely celebrates scoring by caressing an imaginary pot-belly, certainly has an insatiable appetite for them. He’s scored 22 times this season and at the age of 34, it seems the ‘tolerance’ effect is yet to take hold.
“It’s something you enjoy – you’ll always go back for more there’s no doubt about it. Whether it’s in training, games, you want to score”, Boyd tells TheTwoPointOne.
For the SPL’s record goalscorer – and the only player in Scotland ever to finish as the top scorer for two clubs in one season – his reward network was stimulated during time spent playing on the streets of Tarbolton before joining Kilmarnock’s youth academy.
“I would go out myself and batter shots in, just hit the net. You get that buzz out of hitting the net. Even if there’s nobody in it you would just want to do it. Going back to my younger days at Kilmarnock, it became a bit of a running joke in training but that’s all I wanted to do.”
Perhaps the best explanation for why the ‘tolerance’ effect has not taken hold is that, in Boyd’s mind, scoring is not a matter of pleasure, as it is for most players. Instead, his hunger is borne out of a sense of duty.
He explains: “You place demands on yourself every day to better yourself and I’ll always think if there are people around about me scoring more goals then I’m not doing my job properly. And that became a daily habit for me.”
“My body was killing me. I hadn’t been playing games and I hadn’t been enjoying it for a while,”
Goals, it seems, not only motivate the striker but, in some ways, sustain him. At the beginning of the season, Boyd was in a rut. He had failed to replicate the form of a heroic 22-goal haul for Kilmarnock in his first full season back in Scotland in 2013/14.
Forays beforehand in England, Turkey and the USA and an ill-advised one-year return to Rangers afterwards – the club for which he had scored 128 times during his peak – ensured another resurgence seemed barely conceivable.
Doubts had even crept into the consciousness of the man himself. Training had become a chore, he was no longer a guaranteed starter and Kilmarnock were once again dangling perilously close to relegation.
“My body was killing me. I hadn’t been playing games and I hadn’t been enjoying it for a while,” he admits.
But perhaps reminded of the great unknown of life without professional football, Boyd recoils from the suggestion that he was ready to hang up his brightly-coloured boots. He does, though, hint at a conclusion being reached – he would grit his teeth and resume his ceaseless hunt for goals.
Casting his mind back only nine, short months, Boyd says: “I would have been raging with myself had I given up the opportunity to learn from someone like that.” That someone was Steve Clarke, of course. Upon being appointed Kilmarnock manager in November, Clarke spun the wheel on an imbalanced oil tanker, masterminding the most preposterous of turnarounds.
Killie, who had amassed just three points from eight games in November, have turned from relegation dead-certs into genuine contenders for European qualification with Boyd spearheading the revival.
Clarke’s messianic touch has enthralled football fans all over Scotland and Boyd is no exception. Although he’s made an impressive 38 appearances already this season, being substituted is something a 34-year-old player learns to expect. Instead of parking his enormous frame next to his teammates, however, Boyd typically sits next to the manager, occasionally rising from his seat to issue instructions to teammates.
“I’ve seen an opportunity to learn from a manager who’s probably the best I’ve worked with. I look at the way the manager conducts himself, the way he behaves on the touchline – everything about him.”
Not throwing in the towel in August? “It’s the best decision I’ve made in a long, long time,” he says. Boyd’s studious manner is perhaps unsurprising for a man approaching the end of his time as a player.
He has already launched a self-styled, no-nonsense punditry career and is on his way to earning his pro-licence coaching accreditation. He is not concerned about his career prospects. No, his concern is reserved for the next generation of footballers. “When I look at academies now, we’re all creating the same players. We’re all creating these young, technical, gifted players who are not really a specialist in anything.
“I don’t really see any out-and-out defenders anymore that just go and smash people and put the ball in the stand if they need to. I don’t really see many strikers anymore that just want to score goals, players whose role in the team is based on just scoring goals.”
Boyd is not the first to recognise this trend, with particular attention paid to a perceived drop in world-class European strikers in the wake of a transition towards Leo Messi-inspired false-number-nines. One theory tells of the demise of the street footballer: young prospects are being hoovered up into glistening academies before they are able to develop a level of feistiness that only scrapping in the streets with older boys can produce.
Boyd ponders this proposition briefly. Without explicitly recognising the roles of glistening academies in creating the problem, he explains that perhaps the solution lies within them. “I think a lot of training is now designed to suit the team rather than individuals. When I look at academies coaching, it’s about the whole team – the whole team is never going to make it.”
His solution, pragmatic to say the least, leaves little room for sympathy. Without it, though, he’s confident there will not be another Kris Boyd. “There needs to be a separation. Take the top kids out and improve them and teach them to be a specialist at what they’re very good at. That could be a striker hitting the net, constantly.
“If you do it once and do it twice that feeling starts to grow. It’s something you get a buzz out of and I’ve been fortunate to do it a few times in games as well.”
For Kilmarnock’s talisman, the answer is simple – keep scoring goals.