“My wife sent me one just before the game, and it was the little fella saying ‘make sure you win, I want to go to the final’,” the Republic of Ireland international said.
“She had taken him to the safari park for the day. That was probably the biggest pressure I’ve had in a game, thinking about him… I walked in the door on Sunday evening and he was sitting there in his Celtic kit ready to go. Five weeks early. He’s Celtic daft and he absolutely loves it. And he’ll definitely be there, he’s guaranteed a ticket.”
Hayes is guaranteed a more than decent chance of making Neil Lennon’s selection for that historic occasion. In the final weeks of the Brendan Rodgers era, and in the two months that have followed under the interim manager, he has been a player renewed. The 31-year-old has at last put his struggles for outings behind him, following a leg break in December 2017.
Until this year, Hayes was largely a bench warmer, or deployed as an auxiliary left-back or wing-back, with his favoured wide left position the preserve of Scott Sinclair. For the semi-final, and the recent win over Rangers that has placed an eighth straight title within their grasp, the roles were reversed. It was not lost on Hayes that he made the starting line-up for Hampden, with Tom Rogic, Oliver Ntcham and Sinclair required to settle for places on the substitutes’ bench.
“Football, first and foremost, is about enjoyment and that’s enjoyable for me,” he said of earning his selection for big games. “We’re in a results-driven business and we are under pressure to win every week but that factor has to come into it and it’s always more enjoyable when you’re in the team.
“I’ve been back there for the last couple of games but I can’t remember the last time I played as a left-winger before that. Again, I’m just happy to be involved at all, especially after coming back from injury. When you’re picked to play in big games in Scotland, it gives you the belief that you’re doing something right.
“It’s a sign the manager has a bit of trust in me and that gives me confidence. I don’t think you’ll see a stronger bench in Scotland than ours and that’ll be the case for the foreseeable future due to the quality we have. The previous manager built a 30-strong squad so that any one of us can step in and play when required, but the good thing is you can see how strong the togetherness is when we win trophies. After big games everyone celebrates together and no-one is left out. It’s never been about the 11 or the 14 who get on the pitch.”
That sense of squad equality means Hayes doesn’t feel so very different about the potential of playing his part in closing in on another title – which would be clinched if Rangers drop points against Hearts tomorrow and Celtic then win at Easter Road on Sunday – than when he was in the background recuperating from his leg break as the double treble was snared a year ago.
Yet, Lennon’s input has certainly allowed him to be more expressive on the pitch. “I remember a couple of years ago when I was at Aberdeen and I wasn’t playing particularly well. [Manager] Derek McInnes took me aside and said: ‘No matter what happens, you’re going to start the next half-dozen games to build your confidence and give you some momentum.’ Attacking players need that kind of backing. You can see how well Odsonne Edouard is doing now and that’s because he’s playing regularly.
“One of the things I have to give our manager credit for is that he’s given us a little more freedom [than Brendan Rodgers]. You still need to go out and produce, of course; you can’t keep losing the ball– but he encourages you to make things happen. Then, if you do get caught in possession, he urges you to get back on the ball again and make it work the next time. But you better make it work sooner rather than later…”