Opinion: Super Paul Hayes

Three is the magic number – George Young looks back fondly on Paul Hayes’ three spells at Glanford Park and reacts to the news that the mercurial striker is set to hang up his boots this summer.

It’s the 15th February 2003, Scunthorpe are defending a corner against Hull City and, kids, you’ll have to believe me when I tell you that Scunthorpe were the favourites to win that match. The ball is hoofed upfield and drops at the feet of a young striker making only his second professional start. Knocking it past his marker he is suddenly clear on goal from the halfway line. No one can catch him and, despite having what seems like a week to think about it, his finish is low and true into the bottom corner. Not a bad first impression.

The Iron win the game and everyone is excited by Hayes’ promise but the following year was a disaster for both him and the club. Squeezed out by the “Loan Ranger” Steve MacLean and the undroppable Steve Torpey, Hayes ended up playing left wing, scoring just seven goals as the club avoided relegation to the Conference by the skin of its teeth.

At that point, Hayes’ career in claret and blue could have fizzled out into nothing but everything changed in 2004/05. An early-season injury to Torpey saw Hayes partnered with a very young Andy Keogh. The side began picking up wins and Hayes was top scorer as United were top at Christmas. In November, he scored twice in our first win over Grimsby for 27 years, including the hilarious second when three defenders took each other out leaving Hayes to roll the ball into the empty goal.

Hayes’ time with us was full of these magic moments and perhaps the most famous one came in January 2005: that goal at Chelsea. Just eight minutes in, he collected Matt Sparrow’s cross, spun Russian international Alexei Smertin and smashed the ball through Carlo Cudicini’s legs. Chelsea 0 Scunthorpe 1. What a moment! Pandemonium in the away end, limbs everywhere. I even sprained my ankle in the chaos. Football is about moments and they don’t get much better than that. Ok, the lead didn’t last long but that goal is a cherished memory for so many Iron fans.

That season ended in our first automatic promotion in over 20 years but in the summer Hayes left for Barnsley. Almost immediately he was back at Glanford Park for the first home game of the season, scoring apologetically at the Doncaster Road end. Despite defeat that night, Hayes got his second promotion in a row, scoring in the penalty shoot-out in the play-off final.

Yet only a year later, he was back in a Scunthorpe shirt, replacing Billy Sharp for our first season in the Championship. By now, Hayes’ game had matured and he was not just a goalscorer, becoming a more creative influence, with a fantastic ability to pick a pass and make use of space. In September, there was perhaps his best ever goal, a sensational ball-juggling strike against Colchester. Later in his career, he scored an almost identical goal for Wycombe at Stevenage, another for his incredible show reel.

Sadly, the season faded into relegation and Hayes only contributed eight goals. He became a lightning rod for fans’ frustrations, despite making many of Martin Paterson’s goals, the first of several strike partners to play the best football of their careers alongside Hayes. Another would be Garry Hooper, their partnership showing immediate potential with Hooper scoring on debut from an exquisite Hayes flick.

In their first season, they scored 50 goals between them, Hayes contributing 19 and making many more. As strike partnerships go, I have never seen a better one, a perfect combination of Hayes’ guile and instinctive play with the movement and finishing of Garry Hooper. It was thrilling to watch.

The duo continued to shine in the Championship the following season, Hayes scoring and being instrumental in memorable wins, including two win over Sheffield United and 4-0 away at Crystal Palace. This time we stayed up, those two glorious seasons sealing Hayes’ reputation as a club legend and banishing talk among certain sections of the fans “Lazy Haysey”.

Sadly, a new contract could not be agreed and he left for Prestonin the summer. It was a disaster for all involved as Scunthorpe floundered without their main attacking player and Hayes struggled to make any impression for the Lilywhites. Over the next three years, he changed clubs eight times, unable to find a home like he had at Glanford Park. So when it was announced at the end of 2013 that Hayes would be returning to Scunny for a third stint, many fans were uncertain, worried that his career was winding down and concerned he would ruin his legacy. Nine minutes in to his third debut, at Mansfield Town, all those worries disappeared. Collecting a knock down, he belted the bouncing ball into the top corner from 30 yards. A truly glorious moment for any Scunthorpe fan, especially those of us in the away end at Field Mill that day. He scored again in the second half to seal the win. Hayes was back, back, back.

Inexplicably, Russ Wilcox decided not to retain him at the end of the season (but kept Deon Burton!) so the promotion clinching game at Exeter was Paul Hayes’ last for us, his final goal coming at home to Bury. Our loss was Wycombe’s gain where he had three good seasons, including two goals at White Hart Lane in an epic cup defeat to Spurs.

Everyone has their own favourite players and their own reasons for their choice. For me, Paul Hayes takes some beating. I get that some people got frustrated by his tendency to attempt the spectacular and to drop deep rather than run the channels. But when you put together all those magic moments, the three promotions, the spectacular goals he scored and all the ones he created, few players have made such a memorable contribution to Scunthorpe United. In contrast with the turgid football served up in recent years at Glanford Park, a team with Paul Hayes already had a spark. Thanks for all the memories Paul, I hope you are just as successful in retirement.

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