JONNY Hayes credits the quality of his colleagues in the Dons defence for his recent successful transition from winger into a highly effective left-back.
It was Craig Brown who brought the Irishman to Pittodrie from Inverness Caley Thistle in the summer of 2012 to add a creative edge to Aberdeen’s play and Hayes admits that first season didn’t go as well as he had hoped. And he hasn’t scored a single league goal since the opening day of this one.
That was against Kilmarnock and, back in August, no one could have predicted the role he would play in today’s reverse fixture at Rugby Park.
Brown’s successor, Derek McInnes, was impressed by the pace, aggression and stamina Hayes showed in support of the full-backs while ostensibly playing as an attacking midfielder down the flanks. That’s why the Aberdeen manager was happy to experiment with him as an emergency left-back after injuries to Clark Robertson and Andrew Considine.
It’s a role Hayes has adapted to so well that he even had Dundee United’s mercurial winger Gary Mackay-Steven in his pocket during Wednesday’s win at Tannadice.
McInnes has already moved to strengthen his backline by signing experienced Swansea City stopper Alan Tate on loan for the rest of the season. However, that move is seen as a direct replacement for Michael Hector, who returns to Reading following this afternoon’s game against Kilmarnock.
That means Hayes is poised to continue in the left-back berth, at least until the end of the month when Considine is expected to have recovered from a calf muscle tear.
It’s a situation Hayes is suitably sanguine about, as the presence of Russell Anderson and Mark Reynolds has greatly reduced the stress factor involved with such a switch. He said: “I don’t mind where I have to play as there are experienced players beside me that can talk you through any game.
“Russell Anderson is unbelievable as he’s not the sort of captain who shouts and bawls. He leads by example on the pitch. I remember Terry Butcher telling me that to be a captain that’s what you had to do and there’s not a better captain in the country than Russell. He puts his body on the line for the team and his preparation is excellent, coming in early, staying behind, whatever he needs to do.
“He’s getting on a bit, but the way he looks after himself and the example he sets young professionals is second to none. They all look up to him.
“Mark Reynolds is the same and he’ll be happy if he goes on to have a career like Russell’s and plays as long as he’s done. So, with those two beside me I’ve felt comfortable and while it’s not natural for me I think I’m getting the hang of it.”
Aberdeen complete a hectic run of fixtures with games at Kilmarnock today followed by the visit of a rejuvenated Hibs to Pittodrie on Friday night. The Dons can approach those matches with confidence having won eight of their last 11 league games, and they haven’t been involved in a single draw since late September. In fact, McInnes’s side have already won more matches this season than in the whole of the previous one and are now favourites to win the race for second place.
If they do finish as runners-up to Celtic it would constitute their highest league finish since Willie Miller was manager two decades ago. However, Hayes insists that’s not on his mind as he added: “I never look that far ahead and I don’t look at the league table anyway. We knew going into the festive period we’d be playing Inverness, Motherwell and Dundee United and that they were going to be up there. We’ve done well enough over the period and we’re happy where we are but we know there’s still a helluva long way to go.”
Tate goes straight into today’s squad and Calvin Zola is expected to be fit enough for a place on the bench.