An appreciation of Jonny Hayes

Why the Aberdeen midfielder deserves to be regarded as one of the best players in the country.

By John Maxwell

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

29 August 2009. Inverness Caledonian Thistle 1-3 Ross County. Jonny Hayes’s seventh competitive match in Scotland was the first time I saw him play.  Hayes scored the first goal for his club that proved to be of little consolation, in a match where Terry Butcher’s recently relegated side were caught flat-footed in their attempt to return to the top flight at the first time of asking. I thought Caley Thistle were surprisingly poor across the park that day, but one player stood out among the winners and losers for his speed and direct running with the ball at Gary Miller. As a Ross County supporter I was jubilant about my own team winning the first meaningful Highland Derby in five years, but I left Inverness seriously impressed by Caley Thistle’s new left winger.

Caley Thistle had a few hiccups in the first half of that season but comfortably won the First Division by the end. Hayes made 99 appearances for the club across the two divisions, scoring approximately a goal every four games, the most memorable of which was a viciously swerving shot from beyond 20 yards, which cut across his left foot and beyond Alan McGregor’s outstretched arm for a 1-1 draw against Rangers.

Hayes was the first of a clutch of former Inverness CT players to find their way to Pittodrie and he has now made more than 170 appearances for Aberdeen. Now 29 years old, Hayes is by nature a winger but his manager Derek McInnes has come to rely on him to play anywhere across the width of the pitch, as well as at left-back and central midfield at a pinch. Hayes has committed his best years at Aberdeen along with the club’s other recent iconic forwards Adam Rooney and Niall McGinn, when they all have the talent to test themselves again in the English Championship. That is a testament to how much those players enjoy working aside one another as much as it is about how McInnes has established the team as the second best in the country in the last couple of years.

By this stage Hayes doesn’t need to prove himself to anyone about his credentials as one of the SPFL Premiership’s better players. While Leigh Griffiths’s 40 goals across all competitions quite justly merited his PFA Player of the Year award in 2015/16, Hayes was also nominated and would have been my own choice for the prize. There are few players in the Scottish game with his capacity to beat a full-back on the outside, but when that is combined with his trademark drilled cross into the goalkeeping abyss behind the centre-backs then I can’t help but admire him as one of the league’s most thrilling match-winners.

My visit to Pittodrie on 15 October 2016 was as a Ross County supporter in their first fixture against Aberdeen of the season, but with a keen interest on how Jonny Hayes was going to perform.  Mainstream media coverage in the weeks preceding the match focused on James Maddison’s form, from an outrageous winning free-kick against Rangers to his dribbling qualities against Kilmarnock. One criticism of Aberdeen in recent seasons has been that they have sometimes failed to produce match-winning moments when one or both of Hayes or McGinn is not in peak form, but Maddison’s introduction to the team has brought an extra layer of productivity.  Maddison’s close control under duress from copious defenders is a wonder to behold, but would his hogging of the spotlight hinder Hayes’s own form?

The answer was definitely no, which I soon learned from taking in the match.

It was a rain-soaked day across the north of Scotland and the match started slowly as players adjusted to the conditions. The first interesting aspect of this contest was that Hayes started as a centre forward, alongside Rooney and flanked by Maddison on the left and McGinn on the right, in a loose 4-4-2. In the opening exchanges, it was a surprise to see Hayes the highest attacker in Aberdeen’s line-up, with Rooney dropping short to lay off passes to the midfield and Hayes making runs in behind County’s defence.  It was a deliberate tactic to do either one of two things: to get Hayes in possession behind Andrew Davies and Paul Quinn, one of the slowest central-defensive partnerships in the league, or at least to drag County’s defence backwards and open up more space for Maddison and McGinn to use infield. In either event, it didn’t work particularly well, with goalkeeper Joe Lewis and the defenders distributing the ball long for Davies to comfortably deal with. Aberdeen had plenty possession at the beginning but were not doing much with it.

Whether by instruction or instinct, Hayes started roaming off the front line and interchanged with McGinn and Maddison on the flanks, most notably on the left. By 12 minutes in the match, Lewis found Hayes free just inside his own half and threw the ball into Hayes’s stride. The midfielder was able to accelerate with the ball toward County’s right-back Marcus Fraser, who uncerimoniously clattered his marker to concede a foul and a yellow card. Aberdeen scored from the resulting free-kick, which was disallowed for off-side, but it was an ominous sign early in the match.

By the next attack, Hayes had come inside again to his starting position.  The run at Fraser seemed to give Hayes some confidence to continue attacking the defence and there was a glimpse that he could affect the game from a central area, before peeling right to get on to a loose ball and force a corner kick from County left-back Kenny Van der Weg. On 17 minutes, Hayes executed a quite brilliant one-two pass – via a back-heel volley – with Rooney to get behind the defence, but at a tight angle shanked a right-footed shot over the bar.

By 20 minutes, Hayes moved left again, where left-back Andrew Considine fed a pass into his feet without any pressure put on either player. This time Fraser couldn’t afford to get tight on Hayes and continued to back off as Hayes advanced with the ball into the penalty area. Fraser retreated to an extent that Hayes was afforded the opportunity to set the ball on to his left foot outside the full-back.  Hayes didn’t need asked twice to swerve the ball into the opposite corner of Scott Fox’s goal and open the scoring.

Aberdeen’s supporters had barely just finished chanting Hayes’s name when he collected a loose ball on the left touchline again – before he knew it, Tim Chow launched into a two-footed challenge for an obvious red card.  Wingers aren’t meant to cope well with a sodden, heavy pitch, but with 21 minutes gone Jonny Hayes had already done plenty to win the match for his team.

Chow’s tackle was a sore one, but Hayes limped it off and began influencing the game once more.  For the rest of the first half, he used his intelligence to double up with one of McGinn or Maddison and overload County’s full-backs. As Ross County had a man fewer, they had to try to keep a narrow shape while somehow getting their own wide midfielders forward to support Craig Curran. With the quality that Aberdeen had on the flanks, the most effective way to get behind County was by Hayes doubling up on the wings with the other attacking midfielders.

For instance, on 24 minutes Hayes stood out on his own on the right touchline not far from the dug-outs, seemingly in an inocuous position. Yet with a short angled pass by McGinn into Hayes’s stride, the latter took on and easily beat Michael Gardyne for pace to get to the byline.  Hayes had more time than he thought to make a decision but the cross was cleared. A minute later, Hayes followed McGinn to the left flank to offer a pass on the underlap, but this time McGinn dribbled into the box before hitting a tame shot wide of goal.

Aberdeen could comfortably afford Hayes to drift away from the central positions. Not only did it allow one of Maddison or McGinn to attack infield, but it left space for either Graeme Shinnie or Kenny McLean to surge into. The central midfielders took it in turn to get forward in the knowledge that they still had three players back to mark an overworked and isolated Craig Curran.

Derek McInnes has occasionally relied on Hayes’s versatility when the squad has been short in numbers, but the winger’s effort for the team is probably his most under-appreciated quality compared to his speed, skill and power from his left foot.  The match against Ross County was a definitive example of how Hayes was willing and able to cover for other team-mates to attack; his selfless temperament was key to how fluent Aberdeen could play.

One sometimes sees a winger diligently covering his full-back to get forward in his place, but Hayes gives more than that. Not only did Hayes cover for both full-backs during the match, but at various points filled in at central midfield and in one moment deputised for an advancing centre-back. It did not seem to be done simply as a case of allowing others to attack for the sake of it: as other players progressed up the pitch in his absence it gave the opposition a test of a different skillset to defend against.

Aberdeen’s right-back Shay Logan took the sponsor’s man of the match award, scoring the second goal and setting up the third, but that was largely facilitated by Hayes’s influence in affording the full-back to advance as often as he did.  Considine isn’t as much of an attacking full-back as Logan, but with Hayes staying deep Considine ought to have set up a third goal before half-time, while on 42 minutes a rare Ross County counter attack was thwarted as Hayes made up an impenetrable line of four in defence.

Aberdeen scored two goals in each half but could have had many more. The second half continued as the first, with Hayes nominally playing a central position and making penetrating runs behind the defence, but the central midifelders never provided him with the service to get one-on-one with the goalkeeper.  Instead, Aberdeen looked their best when Hayes roamed into pockets of space between and outside of full-back and centre-back to allow the home team to counter-attack. On 62 minutes Hayes was played in on the inside right channel close to County’s penalty area and his low cross resulted in two shots that brought a fine double-save from Fox, before Hayes screwed the third shot before the near post. A minute later Hayes attacked two on two with McGinn but the latter had another attempt well saved. It wasn’t long after that when Hayes stayed back to give Logan space to run behind Van der Weg to set up the third goal.

On course to win their fifth match in succession, Aberdeen were in bouyant mood and the team played in a cohesive manner. It was perhaps easy to do so against a side down to ten men and shorn of confidence from not scoring in five games, but nonetheless the interchanging and understanding among the players was evident to see. James Maddison might not be long in Scotland if he surpasses his already exquisite ability, but his game can only improve by working alongside a group of players who cover for one another. The core group of players have played over 100 matches for Aberdeen at this stage and the selflessnes of players such as McGinn, Hayes and Shinnie sets a good example to such a promising young player.

The contrast in having and not having an understanding that comes from playing a multitude of games together became apparent, when McGinn and Rooney were substituted for Jayden Stockley and Wes Burns after 71 minutes.  The latter forwards might turn out to have good careers at Pittodrie, but until they are integrated McInnes made sure that they played in a less fluid system, with Maddison fixed on the left and Hayes on the right of a more conventional 4-2-3-1 formation. Hayes still came infield to link up with and set up Stockley for Aberdeen’s fourth goal, but mostly combined with Logan’s rampant attacking down the right flank. Hayes deserved another goal and could have had one with a curling chip that rebounded off the far post in the last attack of the match, which would have been a just reward for an accomplished overall performance.

The stunning close control that James Maddison exhibits will rightly continue to draw praise from most observers, but the established trio of Rooney, McGinn and Hayes continue to form an excellent partnership to establish Aberdeen as Scotland’s second force for the time being. Maddison’s ability takes the side’s attacking talent to another level, but Jonny Hayes still remains my favourite player to watch in that team, from the sheer thrill of beating a full-back on the outside, to the selflessness and tactical intelligence to support and cover for team-mates who are also keen to get involved in the action. Hayes himself has the aptitude to make a name for himself in the English Championship at least, which perhaps could increase his exposure to the Republic of Ireland’s national team.

That he has continued to remain at Aberdeen is a blessing to the game in Scotland.

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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