Kevin Graham with A Celtic State of Mind – Farewell Jonny Hayes

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When Jonny Hayes joined Celtic in June 2017, it was really no surprise because it was an open secret that Brendan Rodgers had been an admirer. Rodgers, responsible for introducing the Irishman to British football when he signed the 16-year-old for Reading, claimed he thought about signing the player from Inverness Caledonian Thistle when he was in charge at Swansea.

After Celtic v Aberdeen games, the Aberdeen player and the Celtic manager were often seen embracing and in conversation … but his signing wasn’t just a whim. Hayes was generally considered the best player in Scotland outside Celtic’s ‘Invincibles’, and was the only non-Celt nominated for the ‘Player of the Year’ awards.

His last game for Aberdeen was the 2017 Scottish Cup final where Aberdeen’s impressive opening was down to his direct probing and quick link-up play winning the corner from which he subsequently scored with an unstoppable half-volley. The course of football history might have been different after his tenacious press on Callum McGregor saw him steal the ball, and only an unmarked Kenny McLean can explain how he managed to mess up the pass Hayes played to him.

Signing for Celtic at the age of 29, Jonny Hayes, in the best form of his career, was making his most important move.

He could play anywhere up the left-hand side and was even an option as a right-sided forward. He would have been in no doubt that he was coming into Celtic as a squad player, but one who would expect to get games. He was a vastly experienced option when the manager looked to rotate his squad. The reaction to the signing was muted as the support are always looking for the fabled ‘kick-on’, and Jonny Hayes wasn’t a signing signalling that.

The player made his debut at Windsor Park against Linfield as a 70th-minute substitute for James Forrest. His debut is best remembered (or perhaps forgotten), as he was targeted with missiles from the Linfield fans when he took corner kicks. In the next qualifier against Rosenburg, he again came on as a sub before starting the away leg … and a pattern was set for the player.

His next start, against Kilmarnock in the League Cup, showed more of his talents as he won a penalty and got an assist; that was enough for him to keep his place for the game against Partick Thistle three days later. He fell out of the game and was substituted in 68 minutes. One of his most impressive early performances came in a 4-0 win over Ross County where his work rate and determination impressed rather than technical ability, a feature of his time at Celtic.

What was clear at this stage was why we had signed the player. He was dependable rather than earth-shattering and Brendan Rodgers trusted him to contribute whether starting or from the bench. What he contributed was inconsistent but he always remained an option for Rodgers.

He scored his first goal for the club against Aberdeen, his former club, on 23rd December 2017 when he converted a Scott Sinclair cross. The delight on his face told its own story and the player looked like he had turned a corner but only three days later, on Boxing Day against Dundee, he was having an impressive game before a bad challenge from Josh Meekings broke his leg, a horrible and possibly career-ending injury.

Making his return in August 2018, he started the first domestic game of the season against Livingston and set up the rare event – that of a Tom Rogic-headed goal, Celtic’s first of the campaign. The following week at Tynecastle he was ‘assaulted’ by Steven Naismith, typically revealing a nasty side to his nature when he plays against Celtic; the sight of the ex-Ranger standing over the stricken Jonny Hayes and screaming abuse was most unpleasant.

After those two starts, he didn’t appear again until December in a 1-1 draw with Motherwell at Fir Park. This signalled him being involved more in that month which culminated in him coming on for Emilio Izaguirre at half-time against Aberdeen on Boxing Day, after the Honduran had given away a soft penalty. Hayes had an impressive 45 minutes and looked a certainty to play left-back against Rangers at Ibrox in the next game but Rodgers had other ideas in playing Callum McGregor, unfortunately.

The continuing absence of injured Keiran Teirney, and the shaky form of the returning cult-hero Izaguirre, heralded a clamour for Jonny to be given a chance as a starter (rather than a sub). Izaguirre was exposed against Valencia in the Europa League at Celtic Park and, with the advantage of hindsight, Jonny Hayes should have been chosen, a feeling confirmed after his superb performance in the away tie.

The departure of Brendan Rodgers and the appointment of Neil Lennon did little to change how the player was used but it did lead to him having some memorable moments in a Celtic jersey.

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While Rodgers didn’t trust him to start at Ibrox, Lennon trusted him to play any game for him no matter the occasion if he was the best option available … As we struggled against Dundee at Dens Park, he was brought on as a 59th-minute substitute for Mikey Johnstone. Lennon after the game praised the player and his directness when he combined with James Forrest and Odsonne Edouard for the cool Frenchman to score the winner deep into injury time … The following season he came on against Hamilton at New Douglas Park with the score at 1-1 and his quick throw-in after vaulting a barrier to grab the ball from a policeman led directly to Ryan Christie crossing for Christopher Jullien to score …

Sometimes little cameos like the above stick in the memory when you assess a player’s contribution.

The game after Dens Park was Rangers at Celtic Park. He started the game to much-raised eyebrows as Ollie Burke, Scott Sinclair and Timothy Weah were all available, and on the bench. The doubters were soon in reverse mode as he turned in a fantastic 45 minutes where he owned the left-hand side of the pitch as Celtic dominated. Unfortunately he suffered an injury and had to be replaced at half-time. Lennon trusted him in big games and it was no surprise that he started the 2019 Scottish Cup final against Hearts, a game where we needed heart and effort. Jonny Hayes never let anyone down in that department when or wherever he was fielded.

Now, it’s every Celtic fan’s dream to score a goal in a Glasgow Derby, and an injury-time breakaway goal at Ibrox to seal a victory only adds to that dream. Well, he did exactly that. On as an 84th-minute substitute, he combined with Oliver Ntcham and Odsonne Edouard as he scored following a dangerous Rangers attack. For once, a player fist-pumping the badge after a goal did not seem like a hollow gesture and that he looked genuinely overwhelmed tugged at Celtic heartstrings. It’s fair to say that he enjoyed games against Rangers. Jonny Hayes played four times against Rangers and – although not a dirty player – was booked in three of those games. After scoring at Ibrox he got involved in ‘a confrontation’ with Scott Arfield, and managed to get booked. He had been on the pitch for only nine minutes!

If two games sum up how he will be remembered it will be Lazio away in the Europa League, and the 2019 League Cup final against Rangers. In Rome, Lennon played a 3-5-2 formation with Hayes as the left wing-back and like the team, he had a bad start. For Lazio’s goal, he was at fault in allowing a Lazio player to avoid the offside trap and for that torrid opening, he was targeted as a probable weakness. Hayes stood up to the task, had a fantastic work rate and showed guts not to let the poor start affect him. By the final whistle he was a hero.

A few weeks before the 2019 League Cup final, the player dislocated his shoulder against Livingston. With Greg Taylor cup-tied and Boli Bolingoli injured, Hayes never shirked his duty and played when chosen although he remained far from fully fit. To compound matters, he got injured around the hour mark, and left Hampden after the final with a cast on his foot. This was a back-against-the-wall type performance in terrible conditions and once again Hayes never hid despite his troubles which could have caused lesser men to crumble.

His Celtic career came to a close when he, fittingly, came on as a substitute in the 76th minute for Greg Taylor against St Johnstone in the Scottish Cup in March 2020 on a ground where Celtic had experienced a great deal of trouble against frequently bogey opponents.

He leaves Celtic with three league titles, three League Cup and two Scottish Cup medals, surely much more than he could ever have dreamed … and he did play a part in this period of domination. A life-long supporter of the club, this Irishman lived out his wildest dreams.

Kevin Graham

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