Nostalgia can be a beautiful thing, but it can sometimes cloud decision making. Pretty much any Aberdeen supporter will tell you Jonny Hayes is of the clubs’ players of the last decade – in fact, even with three years at Celtic, he might have been the very best in a red shirt in the past ten years.
It’s all but done as this piece is written, Hayes will come back to Pittodrie to build on 206 appearances in all competitions, his first goal back under Derek Mcinnes would be his 31st for the club, and he was previously even more dangerous setting others up than scoring himself.
In his five year spell in the granite city the Irishman lifted one trophy – the League Cup in 2014. He very nearly helped the Dons lift the Scottish Cup in his final game before moving to Celtic, scoring the opener against his soon-to-be new teammates, before Tom Rogic broke hearts. A miscommunication between Hayes and Kenny McLean – by mere inches – could have been the difference that day.
The thing with Hayes in his spell with Aberdeen, is he built up one hell of a highlight reel. Several goals against Celtic spring to mind – he always saved the screamers for them – and there were none much better than the peach that broke Fraser Forster’s streak of not conceding a goal. The image of the winger bursting into the box and pulling the ball back for Adam Rooney to score is pretty much etched into the minds of Aberdeen supporters.
He was always far more than just that highlight reel though, Hayes often swapped around different positions for Derek Mcinnes, was one of the harder working players in the squad, and his pace was unmatched.
Two questions come up for most Aberdeen fans when considering if Hayes returning is a sensible decision. Is he still that same player? and what position will he play on the pitch?
The Irishman is most well known as a winger, but of course he did play at left-back on occasion in his previous spell at Pittodrie, and was used there – or as a wing-back – more often than anywhere else last season by Celtic.
Greg Leigh’s loan deal ended with little suggestion the Dons were going to activate the buy clause – as was initially suggested before the virus. Youngster Jack Mackenzie plays as a left-back, and he may have an opportunity in 20/21 to get some minutes, be he won’t be first choice. Andy Considine is still there and like a moth to a flame, he seems to always return to that left sided spot. Even though fans prefer to see him centrally, with Ash Taylor, Scott McKenna and Michael Devlin all filling centre-back roles, Derek Mcinnes is probably likely to see more benefit of Considine at left-back and Hayes as a winger.
If Hayes does play further forward, that is where the question of ‘Is he really the same player?’ becomes important. There is a lot more to his game than pace, but it certainly is a big advantage. Pace is exactly what Aberdeen lacked last season – among other things – and that did seem to improve after the January signing of Matty Kennedy from St Johnstone, but it did often feel like he was the sole producer of that burst of running.
Some have assumed that at 33, Hayes is bound to have lost that pace, but it didn’t look like it last season and while he might lose a foot race to Kennedy, he’d probably beat most of the rest of the Aberdeen squad.
The issue with playing Hayes there is that it almost certainly forces at least one player out of the club, or onto the fringes. Matty Kennedy will be up there near first choice, as will Hayes, and Niall McGinn remains a stalwart in Derek Mcinnes teams as he continues to produce better goal and assist numbers than his competitors year-on-year.
Derek Mcinnes will have Ryan Hedges, Connor McLennan, Scott Wright and Ethan Ross to pick from. Ethan Ross is still much younger than most other in this conversation and his loan with Dunfermline was cut short in 19/20. He’s likely to have another loan or pick up minutes where he can get them next term.
Scott Wright was unlucky to pick up a serious knee injury when he did last season. He seemed to have found an uptick in a season where many predicted it was make or break for him. The desire he has shown in getting back fit, and the fact he looked very handy – possibly even more effective – in a number 10 role, will probably be enough to see him included in the rotation.
Numbers-wise that could mean departures for both Ryan Hedges and Connor McLennan, but realistically with a few injury prone players in the position, it’s probably only one that will head for the exit. Many Aberdeen fans will worry that man is Ryan Hedges. Despite showing some interesting qualities and decent numbers last season, Mcinnes never seemed to fancy him, and his wage is likely to be a bigger saving.
McLennan has always shown flashes, and he’s still young, but some Aberdeen fans became frustrated at his level of predictability and lack of end product last season. But of course, those are common issue in younger players.
So then, will Hayes work as a winger? At least enough to justify potentially letting one of Ryan Hedges or Connor McLennan leave?
At 33, it will always be a risk. You won’t have him long term, but with some younger players at Pittodrie ready to step up in a year or two, that might not be a concern for the Dons, they just need a here and now type of guy.
With his pace still intact, and an already established relationship on the pitch with the likes of McGinn and Considine, you have to feel he can be a very effective signing – with two qualifiers for that.
Firstly, he will need to manage to find the link with the likes of Dylan Mceouch and Lewis Ferguson as he had with Graeme Shinnie & Kenny McLean, and with Sam Cosgrove as he found with Adam Rooney.
Secondly, he has got to stay fit. Throughout his time at both Aberdeen and Celtic, Hayes only ever had one long injury lay-off, and that was his broken leg in his first season at Celtic Park. However, he often did pick up injuries that woreturnuld see him miss 4-6 games at a time. With multiple injuries to both his knee and hamstring. These of course often get worse as a player ages and while Hayes retention of pace and general fitness can help with that, it will be a worry.
What do Aberdeen supporters think?
To conclude, the likelihood is Hayes probably will more often than not play as a winger, and the odds would suggest that he will at least be useful in that area. Staying fit could prove to be the big decider in how this signing is seen by the time Hayes leaves Aberdeen for a second time.