Aberdeen’s move to secure the return of Jonny Hayes after three years at Celtic looks to be a clever one.
The Dons’ undisputed wing king by the time of his departure from Pittodre in the summer of 2017, Hayes was more of utility man at the Hoops under first Brendan Rodgers and then Neil Lennon, making many of his appearances as a marauding left-back.
Hayes is on the record as saying a new deal at Parkhead was in the works, but for the uncertain financial landscape of the coronavirus crisis, which has seen clubs jettison players viewed as “options” rather than necessities.
What are Hayes’ qualities?
In his first spell, Hayes’ qualities were wide-ranging – among them were an ability to run directly and at speed, beat players with turns and quick feet and deliver dangerous crosses for the likes of Adam Rooney to finish.
The diminutive Irishman was also a goalscorer in his own right, who didn’t shy away from the big occasion. Just look at his three Pittodrie screamers against Celtic, his goal against the Hoops early in the 2017 Scottish Cup final or the deflected effort against Hibs in the semi which sealed the Dons’ return for the showpiece.
Hayes was also brilliant in defence during his first Pittodrie spell, and was never the type of winger to lose the ball and not chase back. In fact, the pacey attacker was a terrier in the way he’d sprint back, nipping at and harassing opposition players until possession of the ball was restored to his team.
If it’s the Hayes of old coming back, he’s a starter for Aberdeen, who suffered from a well-documented lack of creativity last season, and expect him to be a fulcrum of Derek McInnes’ team once more over the next two years.
But is he the same player after a leg break in his first season and a perceived lack of game time at Parkhead?
Hayes played close 70 times for Celtic in three seasons, with most of those appearances after his early 2018 tibia fracture, so was hardly frozen out, allowing his instincts to dwindle. He played plenty, including in the Champions League and Europa League against the likes of Valencia, Rosenborg, Rennes, Cluj and Lazio – experiences he is surely the better for.
He certainly showed the lethal pace and knack for big goals is still there, despite being the other side of 30 and coming back from a serious injury, when sprinting the full length of the pitch to score for Celtic against Rangers last term in a 2-0 win (starting at 2:56 in the video below).
It’s important to remember, for three years he’s been training in an environment where everything is of an elite intensity and standard, geared towards winning everything domestically and reaching Europe’s top table proper. Again, it’s hard to see how he wouldn’t be improved in certain ways by this experience, and – on top of this – eager to show he can be the main man again at Aberdeen.
How does he fit the current Aberdeen system?
Where Hayes plays is up for debate. If no one is leaving – perhaps they will, retrospectively, to make the finances of the Hayes deal work – then there are an abundance of players capable of playing on the wing now of the Pittodrie books.
Matty Kennedy, Niall McGinn, Ryan Hedges, Connor McLennan, Scott Wright and Ethan Ross are all options for the flanks.
Kennedy made a good go of easing the Reds’ creativity problem after arriving from St Johnstone in January, and veteran McGinn has shown he is perhaps more suited to the no.10 role at this point in his career, so is a three of Hayes, McGinn and Kennedy behind frontman Sam Cosgrove the best option? Where does indispensable Scottish young player of the year Lewis Ferguson, who McInnes seems to prefer in an advanced midfield role, fit in this system? In the central midfield two or instead of McGinn?
As for the wingers left spare, youth academy product Ross is only 18 and can wait for his chance, but will McLennan, 20, and fit-again Wright, 22, be content to wait for their chances? Hedges, having been given the reprieve of Wales’ Euro 2020 campaign being delayed by a year, having barely kicked a ball for spells last season, will be desperate to play regularly in 2020/21.
With last season’s loanee left-back Greg Leigh returning to NAC Breda and a Pittodrie return nowhere near set in stone, there’s also the possibility McInnes is planning on using his new acquisition at left-back once competitive action returns. Many onlookers have labelled Hayes a “two-for-one” signing in this regard. Would this mean club player of the season Andy Considine is primarily used at centre-back once the Premiership kicks off? Does it reveal moves are under way to use three centre-backs and two wing-backs more often next term?
We discussed the Hayes dilemma on last week’s Northern Goal podcast:
There are many questions, but, nonetheless, the Red Army will be delighted to have a much-loved player and 2014 League Cup-winner back in the Dons ranks.