Football: Hayes emerges from the Celtic haze: He was in Arsenal's championship side and played for England B, now he is firing Swansea's FA Cup run. Joe Lovejoy reports

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The Independent Online
FAT RON and Old Mal were some double act - mal de tete more like. Contrary to tabloid belief, the FA Cup is not all about managerial behemoths slagging each other off, or agents and their players' perks. The real human interest stuff is in plentiful supply down among the hoi polloi.

Take the case of Arsenal's leading scorer, 1987 vintage, who should be at his peak at 26, but is instead striving to relaunch his career as a free transfer cast-off in what most of us still regard as the Third Division.

Martin Hayes was a Wembley winner with Arsenal six years ago, when he played in the Littlewoods Cup final against Liverpool in preference to Michael Thomas. After that, Swansea City versus Grimsby Town in the fourth round of the FA Cup, postponed from today until 2 February, must seem about as far from the madding crowd as a fallen hero can get.

Fate has not been kind to the midfielder-cum-winger who rattled in 24 goals in George Graham's first season as manager at Highbury. The pounds 650,000 transfer to Celtic that was to have set him up for life did anything but, a broken leg cost him a restorative move to Wimbledon at the end of last season, and when he swallowed his pride and joined Swansea on a 'free', a fortnight ago, he was plunged into 'Why me?' distraction when a domestic accident put his 11-month old daughter in a hospital burns unit.

Fortunately, they breed them tough where Hayes comes from, in London's East End, and the spiked Gunner has fought back to earn the admiration of Swansea's players and supporters alike.

The skills which took him into the England Under-21 and B teams commanded instant respect from his new team-mates, whose appreciation was articulated best by John Cornforth, the captain. 'As a midfield player,' he said, 'it is nice to have someone I can play the ball to and get it back. Before Martin came, we had no one of his class, and when I got possession all I saw was a row of big arses vanishing over the horizon.'

Hayes has the fans, too, eating out of his hand after the extra-time winner which saw off the old enemy, Cardiff City, in Tuesday's Autoglass tie, before an eyebrow- raising gate of 13,000-plus.

Having stagnated for 22 months in Celtic's reserves, the fitness is suspect, but he is getting there, and if the Second Division is a hard school, full of tough guys eager to prove a painful point or two, he accepts both knocks and knockers, grateful for the chance to play first- team football again.

The gratitude cuts both ways. Frank Burrows, Swansea's well- travelled manager, knows he got a good player on the cheap, the pittance Hayes is earning, by comparison with his salary at Celtic, suggesting that he has learned the time-honoured lesson that money and happiness do not always walk hand in hand.

With the benefit of hindsight, he would have been much better off, certainly financially, had he stayed at Highbury. He knows it, of course, yet he professes no regrets.

'I'd been there eight years, and the easy thing would have been to stay. I'd gone there straight from school, I knew everybody well, and the club had been like a mum and dad to me. It was very difficult to leave.'

He did so for two reasons - to play in the first team regularly and to improve a standard of living which was surprisingly modest for a player with a championship medal. Arsenal have acquired a parsimonious reputation during the Graham years, but pounds 600 a week was poor, even by their standards.

Hayes said: 'I'd just been part of a great achievement (the 1989 championship), but what had I got from it in concrete terms? I was looking for financial security, but they wouldn't give me a decent rise. I'd come through the ranks, so I was one of the lower earners. I didn't have much behind me to secure my family, and I was looking to set us up for the future.

'I saw the new players coming in and getting double my wages and a nice signing-on fee, and I wanted some of that for myself.'

Money was not the only consideration. 'I was also in a rut. I was 24 years of age, and I wasn't established - always in and out of the team. When I did get in I was playing on the left when I wanted to be on the right or in the centre. It seemed a good time to break away and try my luck elsewhere.'

Graham never held him in the highest esteem, even during the annus mirabilis which brought 24 goals, and had tried to sell him to Huddersfield Town, which seemed strange at the time. The Celtic deal, on the other hand, was entirely understandable, their pounds 650,000 an offer no manager would have refused for a player who had gone from scoring 19 times in 35 League games (1986-87) to just five goals in three seasons.

The move suited all parties, Hayes having hit the brick wall so many other malcontents bang their heads against when seeking solace in the marble halls.

Graham has many qualities as a manager, but sympathy and understanding are not those which spring readily to mind. Overtaken in the queue for places by Kevin Richardson, and then Brian Marwood, Hayes went to discuss his future, and found the 'discussion' all one way.

'George is not a listener,' he said. 'He has very definite ideas, and he won't change them for anyone. Certain players do certain jobs. Full stop. He's very positive, very confident. He knows what he wants, and he insists on getting it. As long as you are prepared to work hard, and do exactly as he says, you'll be fine.

'I have to say his preparation for matches is very good. Where he is not so good is when it comes to man management, and the one- to-one relationships.

'If you've got problems, if you're unhappy or want to discuss your contract, he's always a hard man to talk to. He's not flexible in any way. When Don Howe was at Arsenal you could talk to him and he would try to understand. He would discuss things. George just isn't like that. With him, it was very much a case of: 'That's the way it is. Just get on with it.'

'When I went to see him about my future it was: 'This is my club, you work here and this is what I want you to do. If you don't like it, too bad, because that's the way its going to be.'

'He told me: 'Even though we've just won the League, don't expect me to give you more money' '

Celtic were prepared to give Hayes the improved wage he wanted, but as a career move it was a disaster. He played just seven games in three seasons in the Scottish League, the last of them as long ago as March 1991. Why?

'I was a major signing, I didn't score in the first five matches, and it all seemed to fall apart. It was a big club, and they were having a bad time. The manager (Billy McNeill) was under pressure, everything was piling up, and I just got caught up in that.

'Of those first five games, three were in the Skol Cup and two in the league. We spluttered along, scraping through against lesser teams in the cup but losing both matches in the league. It wasn't working. I was playing in different positions, all across the team, and it just didn't fall into shape.'

Nor did Hayes. Celtic like their wingers 'old fashioned' (his phrase), in the mould of jinking Jimmy Johnstone, and the sassenach was all wrong for the part. 'I'm just not like that,' he said. 'I like to attack from a wide position, and get on the end of things, but I'm more of an attacking midfield player. Whatever I did was wrong. If I drifted into the middle it was 'Get out wide', and if I stayed out on the wing it was 'Push in.' '

After five games, he was dropped. So, too, were Charlie Nicholas and Chris Morris but, unlike them, Hayes was never to re-establish himself, bad soon becoming worse.

'When McNeill was sacked, I was happy that someone else was going to come in and give me a chance.' Wrong again.

'Liam Brady took over, and said everyone was going to start afresh, with a clean sheet, but it wasn't the case with me. We had five pre-season games, and I played one half. That was it. He had made up his mind. He decided four or five of us - Dziekanowski at Bristol City and Walker at Bolton were others - had to go. He never played me at all. Not once in two seasons. And it's not as if he's had any success up there. They've done nothing.'

Knocking on the manager's door proved as unrewarding as it had been at Highbury. 'When I went to see him he said: 'You're just not a Celtic player. It's as simple as that.' I don't know why, but he wasn't prepared to give me a chance.'

For the second time in what was becoming a stunted career, Hayes knew he had to move on. A five- week loan spell with Coventry City last season came to nothing, but a temporary move to Wimbledon would have been made permanent had he not broken a leg in April.

After that, it was back to the drudgery of Celtic reserves, and back to the typewriter, churning out letters offering his services to clubs in the Football (he had given up on the Premier) League.

The reponse was underwhelming. John Bond, at Shrewsbury, proposed what amounted to a season's trial, as did David Pleat at Luton, but Hayes wanted something 'long term.'

Swansea was a long way from Celtic, in every sense, but Frank Burrows's phone call was like manna from heaven. Someone, somewhere wanted him. And for two and a half years.

The Second Division treadmill - Rotherham, Mansfield, Stockport - had not been quite what he was looking for, but it would do as a first stepping stone on the road to renewed prosperity. 'I'm going out to do well for Swansea, but also to do well for myself. Having played at the highest level, I want to go back.

'I've had some good times and I've had a taste of the bad times. No regrets. When the good times come again, I'll enjoy them all the more.'

(Photograph omitted)