Winger has had limited opportunities at senior international level as Graham Ruthven examines
Some players are just as notable in their absence as they are in their presence. That was certainly the case for Jonny Hayes earlier this season.
The Irish winger was already regarded as one of Aberdeen’s most important players, but only with a lengthy injury lay-off did it become clear just how important.
Hayes was sidelined for several weeks over August and September with a hamstring injury. In that time Aberdeen won just two of their six games, with one of those wins coming against lower league opposition in the League Cup. Without Hayes, the Dons took three games to score their first Scottish Premiership goal of the season.
Derek McInnes’ side have recovered now that Hayes is back involved, with Aberdeen sitting comfortably in third place, two points behind second place Rangers with a game in hand. That position was solidified by the 1-0 win over Hearts in the final Scottish top flight game before the winter break. Hayes scored the winner.
Not that goals are his strongest currency as a player, however. Hayes has six goals to his name so far this season, a decent haul for a winger who has played only 22 games, but that’s not really why he’s so important to Aberdeen.
Adam Rooney - another Irishman - is the one charged with scoring the goals at Pittodrie, Hayes is the one given the burned of sustaining the system that delivers them. In fact, no player has provided more assists (28) in the Scottish Premiership era than Hayes.
Aberdeen's Jonny Hayes (right) and Celtic's Emilio Izaguirre battle for the ball during the Scottish League Cup Final at Hampden Park, Glasgow. Picture by Jeff Holmes PA Wire/PA Images
So given all this, it’s somewhat unsurprising that Hayes is being courted by bigger clubs than Aberdeen this January transfer window. Cardiff City are reported to have made a £500,000 offer for the winger, with some claiming the Bluebirds are close to completing a deal.
Such a valuation is the product of the reducer Scottish football imposes on the worth of a player. Look at how Virgil Van Dijk moved to Southampton for £13 million just 18 months ago, only for the Dutchman now to be valued at around £50 million. Hayes is worth far more than £500,000, certainly to Aberdeen, and so if Cardiff can poach him for that, they should.
“When I signed him I don’t know if there were other interests, there certainly would be now because he’s blossomed into a very significant player for Aberdeen,” says Craig Brown, the manager who signed Hayes for Aberdeen back in 2012.
“He’s a now fans’ favourite there and I think if you were asking the supporters, they would say he’s their most influential player at the moment. I remember Neil Lennon saying that he’s an eliminator, he eliminates defenders. I signed him because he was bright and lively and he’s a very capable player.”
With every season, Hayes has grown in stature and influence at Aberdeen, which is why it’s surprising that he has only ever made two appearances for the Republic of Ireland. Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane presumably have a strong knowledge of the Scottish game, given their background there, yet Hayes entered the fold for just two appearances in back to back friendlies against Switzerland and Slovakia last year.
Ireland could use a player like Hayes. As Brown puts it, “he is a bit of a throwback to the wingers you used to see in football."
Players of his mould are now hard to come by, and so the 29-year-old would offer the Boys in Green something entirely different.
“He’s got every attribute, he can defend as well when required,” Brown adds. “He’s very conscientious about his work, he’s very fit, I just can’t compliment him highly enough, because he’s got everything. He can play on both sides, he can play in midfield. I didn’t use him in this way, but Derek McInnes has used him at Aberdeen at full back. He can do everything, really.”
Maybe it’ll take a move to the English Championship for Hayes to force his way into the national team fold. Perhaps down there he will catch the eye of O’Neill and Keane, dispelling any concerns they may have over the quality of the Scottish game. That may well be a factor in any decision the winger may take over Cardiff City’s approach this month.
Aberdeen are desperate to keep hold of Hayes, understandably so. The stretch between August and September, in which the Dons floundered with the winger injured on the sidelines, demonstrated what life would be like for them without their most influential player. It seems the only place that Hayes is underrated is when it comes to the Irish set-up.