FOR almost as long as he has played in Scotland, Jonny Hayes has had cause to fear Scott Brown.
As England’s great hope, Dele Alli, discovered when he was launched into orbit less than three minutes into last month’s World Cup qualifier at Hampden, the Celtic captain is the nearest thing the modern game has to a Graeme Souness-style enforcer.
Anyone trying to stamp an impression on games against the Hoops – or Scotland – is going to find Brown in their space, if not their face, before long.
And Hayes, as the danger man for first Inverness Caley Thistle, then Aberdeen, has been no exception.
So much so, in fact, that when the Republic of Ireland internationalist looked up from the ground after being poleaxed early into his Celtic debut against BW Linz, last Wednesday night, one of his first thoughts was to give thanks the shaven-headed Fifer standing over him was not the perpetrator promising more to follow, but a concerned team-mate.
“After seven years being kicked up and down the park by Scott, I am happy to have him on my side now, trust me,” said the winger, smiling as the thought lingered.
“To actually have him in my corner week in, week out, I am looking forward to that.
“Against Linz I got hit with a couple of tackles and straight away he was over asking: ‘Are you all right?’ He is a proper captain.
“To be fair, I had met him a few times off the pitch in the past and he had always been brand new.
“Since joining Celtic, I have had that impression confirmed. He is a completely different person off the pitch.
“The first day I was having a chat with the gaffer and he came in and, straight away, he was laughing and joking.
“It has carried on from there. I am going to be 30 years old in a few days and Scott is reminding me of that fact every three hours.
“He has passed that milestone himself, so now he is on everybody else’s case.”
As dressing room banter goes, it is on the affectionate end of the scale as opposed to the biting.
Brown, who celebrated his 32nd birthday a week ago, is a walking billboard endorsement for the Brendan Rodgers mantra about the benefit to players of being as fit as they possibly can be.
“Scott is a perfect example to any player,” said Hayes, whose goal-scoring form for Aberdeen persuaded Celtic to pay £1.3-million for his services.
“I would think he is at the peak of his career now and will be looking to kick on, not only next year but for years to come.
“Because in modern football, with all the advances in nutrition, fitness and the sports scientists, you are seeing careers prolonged.
“Listen, you know when people are good players, but witnessing it day in, day out, at training you can see there is a reason why Scott Brown is Scott Brown. The same way there is a reason Kieran Tierney has a reputation of being such a good young player.
“It is the work they put in. I am obviously seeing it first hand and I am enjoying it.
“I think it will take a while to adapt because the intensity of training is different, and the way we play is different.
“There a lot of things to pick up on. But the sooner I can do that the better, because I am looking to get going as quickly as possible.
“Being away with the international team has given me the bonus whereby I have not had too much to catch up on in terms of fitness. It has given me the level.
“So, for me, it is more about the match sharpness and that is something that can’t really be trained into you. You need the games for that.”
Brendan Rodgers agreed, noting after the Linz game that Hayes’ strength and quality were clear to see, but that he would need a little time to get used to linking up with those around him, the likes of Brown, Callum McGregor and Stuart Armstrong, before he was able to really show what he was capable of.
“It is about adjusting, so I can put what the manager wants from me into practice,” said the Irishman.
“Last season I saw from the other side how Celtic play football.
“It is quite refreshing being on the same team as a lot of these boys now. I don’t really have to chase Kieran as much! It is a different way of playing, I think.
“Having worked with the manager before at Reading, I had an idea of how he likes to play football. But having seen how he has adjusted the team here since he came in to play his own brand of football is just phenomenal. The sooner I get on board with it all, the better.”
Indeed. A new season approaches and it is one in which Hayes will have to get used to the raised expectations of playing for a club which – particularly after last season’s Invincibles run – is expected to win each and every game.
Even when the opponents are rivals Rangers or his old team, Aberdeen.
In addition to selling Hayes to Celtic, the Dons lost Ryan Jack to the Light Blues under freedom of contract.
Yet, while the latter can expect a hostile reception when he returns to Pittodrie, feelings towards Hayes are warmer.
Much of the reason for that will be the fact Hayes didn’t reject the new deal offered by Aberdeen, but signed it guaranteeing a fee on his departure. Some will be down to the historic rivalry with the Ibrox club.
“Is there a contrast between the moves? It is hard to say. I can only really worry about myself on that score,” said Hayes.
“Ryan could have been comfortable in Aberdeen, but he fancied a new challenge so he has moved himself and his family down to Glasgow and good luck to him. You have got to challenge yourself in football.
“I do think he will settle in well at Rangers, because he is a fantastic player who could settle in anywhere.
“In terms of my own move, it has been received OK because I think I went about things the right way. I have got a good friend who lives in Glasgow and is a lifelong Aberdeen fan and that is how he feels.
“The manager always said if a big club down in England or a Celtic came in, I could go.
“Celtic was always the dream move for me, but I think I have a good relationship with Aberdeen. Since I left, I have been in touch with the chief executive, the manager, the assistant manager and the players.
“I have been keeping a close eye on them since the move and I’m delighted they have Ryan Christie on loan and Greg Stewart coming in, plus they have managed to keep Kenny McLean.
“You quite often don’t hear anything about their business until the last minute, but they will be working away on strengthening behind the scenes and I will be quite happy if they are second again this season.”
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