Jonny Hayes’ nimble feet are the main reason he has earned a place on the PFA Scotland Premiership player of the year shortlist.
But he issued a reminder of his quick wit when he was asked what it would take for Aberdeen to launch a more meaningful title challenge next season. “About £20 million, I’d say,” replied the winger, quick as a flash.
It’s just as well Aberdeen owner Stewart Milne wasn’t in attendance otherwise we might have had a fainting casualty on our hands. While Hayes knows Aberdeen’s improvement must be measured against Celtic’s when it comes to the league, all the Pittodrie side can do is seek to get better.
“It’s difficult,” Hayes added. “Listen, we know the calibre of players they have and given they have young players like (Stuart) Armstrong and (Moussa) Dembele, if they improve again and have better seasons than this year again it’s going to be a difficult ask. But we can’t do a lot about that.
“Over the course of a season we play them four, five or six times and we can affect those games. But we can’t affect those other games. We need to fight our own battles.”
Hayes’ point is that, on one-off occasions, Aberdeen are still capable of doing damage to Celtic. Fortunately, the last major honour of the season to be settled is not judged over a 38-match campaign. Rather, it’s won and lost on a single afternoon’s play.
Aberdeen face Celtic in the Scottish Cup final at Hampden on 27 May. They are determined to make up for their poor performance in the League Cup final in November, when they lost 3-0 to the same opponents and failed to even get going.
Hayes knows he was one of the worst offenders on an afternoon when his teammates had been looking to him for inspiration. But he can be forgiven the odd below-par performance after another strong season in which he has earned his fellow players’ admiration. Hayes has also settled his long-term future by committing himself to the Pittodrie club until 2019.
Ironically for the sole Irishman among the PFA Scotland player of the year nominees, he was the only one without a clover on his chest yesterday. Hayes joined Armstrong, Dembele and Scott Sinclair, all kitted out in Celtic casual wear, at the announcement in Glasgow.
This state of affairs reflects a season of almost complete domination by Celtic. Aberdeen have tried their best and with a current points total of 67 are on course to better last season’s tally. Hayes notes the gradual improvement under Derek McInnes. If it hadn’t been for Celtic’s surge forward under Brendan Rodgers the player would like to think Aberdeen would be pressing them harder.
“The points tally at the end of the seasons probably hasn’t always reflected our improvement but there are different reasons (for that),” he said. “The manager likes to bring some youngsters into the team and when the league splits not every game always matters.
“That’s not the case this year. Our manager has put it across we must finish as strongly as possible with the battle for second (still going) and if we manage to achieve that it will be a definite improvement on the last few years.”
Hayes was honest about this season’s moribund title race. He accepted it had long since stopped being a live issue.
“It was pretty common knowledge from October that they were going to win the league,” he said. “In recent seasons the league has gone on later than October. If they produce the same sort of form next season it’s up to the rest to try and close that gap.
“We were not that far away from Celtic last season but they’ve got a hell of a lot better this season. If they improve every year it’s going to make life difficult for everyone else.
“It will be tougher again (next season) – Rangers will invest, so too will Hearts in their new manager’s first full season.”
Hayes could still have much to celebrate this campaign. The season is alive with possibilities for him personally as well as his team.
The player of the year winner is announced on Sunday in Glasgow. Hayes then returns to the city later this month as Aberdeen seek to prove they can overcome Celtic in a one-off tie without the need for Milne to break the bank, unlike in November when they came a very poor second.
“Normally if you lose a game, some individuals have played well,” rued Hayes. “But that day not one player really came off the pitch with any credit.
“But we know we are a lot better than we showed that day. It could have been more than three, if we are honest. But the Scottish Cup final is a one-off game and if we play to our best that’s all we can do. If Celtic turn up and every one of their players has the game of their lives we know it will be a difficult game.”