The current Celtic manager was a youth academy coach at Reading when he stepped in to convince the young Irishman that he would be better served embarking on his professional football career under his tutelage, in England.
“It was just me saying ‘you don’t want to go to Celtic’. I convinced him to come to Reading and he probably should have done better than he actually did,” said the man who has been named Manager of the Month for the fourth time this season. “He always had talent and the talent he has now was evident then. He was a breath of fresh air. He wasn’t coached or anything, he was just a free spirit but always a talent.”
The pair retain a mutual appreciation and shared a warm embrace when their clubs faced up earlier in the campaign.
As well as placing second in the league and finishing runners-up to Rodgers’ side in the League Cup, the 29-year-old playmaker and his Aberdeen colleagues are all that stand between the Celtic boss and a historic domestic treble in his first year at the helm. Hayes was the only non-Celtic player who made the shortlist for this season’s PFA Scotland Player of the Year and he will face up to the Parkhead club tomorrow night in their last Premiership meeting of the season but there was a time when the man who will occupy the away dugout treated him like a member of his family. Similar to other young players, who were living away from home for the first time, Hayes would be invited into the Rodgers’ family home for dinner, something Derek McInnes’s prize asset remembers fondly.
“He had been travelling over to Celtic, him and another young boy who was playing for the Republic of Ireland. The other boy was going to go to Leeds and Jonny was going to go to Celtic and then we eventually persuaded him to come over,” recalls Rodgers.
“He came with another young fella called Darren Stapleton. They both loved it. Glenn Driscoll, now head of performance here, used to give him a lift in every morning because he went past his house so he used to take him in.
“I try to treat them like my own. I remember we had a young goalkeeper at that time with Jonny, Jamie Young, who was from Australia. I took him to my house for Christmas dinner so that he could eat and feel part of the family. He left and went to play for Wycombe and then I bumped into him a few years ago. He was playing for Brisbane after having gone back to Australia but he never forgot that. I think it is so important that you never forget the human needs of young players, especially the kids who travel. I knew what it was like because I moved away at 16. He wanted to feel some sense of homeliness.”
Raised in Dublin, attending an all-Irish speaking school, the fact that former Irish international Martin O’Neill, pictured, was Celtic boss at the time the Glasgow club were chasing his signature was a major lure for the 16-year-old Hayes, according to the man who is plotting ways to subdue the attacker he rates so highly at Pittodrie tomorrow evening. “So you can imagine the job I then had convincing him not to go to Celtic. With players you have to hook them emotionally and that was important because I was trying to bring in the best young talent to Reading,” said Rodgers. “We had a good academy with lots of good players and Jonny was a great talent, really natural. He had great speed, strength and pace and he was a courageous little bugger as well.”
Rodgers’ gain was Scottish football’s loss. That was just over 13 years ago and it meant that Scottish fans had to wait until 2009 before the player Rodgers describes as a very “studious” and “clever” boy, on and off the pitch, finally headed north. That was to make his name at Inverness Caledonian Thistle, where he attracted the attention of current employers Aberdeen. But throughout his career, at Leicester, Northampton, Cheltenham, MK Dons and even after he headed up to Scotland, Rodgers kept a close eye on his progress.
“There was a time at Reading where he should have had an opportunity and he didn’t get it. With young players it is all about timing and if they don’t think they are going to get a chance you can demotivate them and I think that is what happened with Jonny,” concedes the Celtic manager. “He was doing exceptionally well but the first team were doing well at the time and he just needed a little bit of oxygen to get in there, but he never did. He then travelled around a few clubs but when he came up to Scotland he found a home. He done really well at Inverness, got his move to Aberdeen and I was actually watching him at Swansea and thinking should I take him but I had Scott Sinclair at the time. But he has done great and it is nice to see. He has settled down now, has a young child and he looks focused and strong.”
At the PFA awards, Hayes lost out to Sinclair when the individual honours were handed out but he has his heart set on having the final say when the sides meet up at Hampden for the Scottish Cup. Unhappy that Aberdeen did not do themselves justice when the pair fought for silverware earlier in the season, he wants a winners’ medal to show for this term’s efforts. Rodgers will again try to divert his dream. But this time it will be to Celtic’s advantage.