Hayles rises to the rigours of elite challenge

Former carpenter prepares to see off another big-name player at Fulham to guard his unexpected position as a Premiership striker
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The Independent Football

As I leave Fulham's training ground a fellow journalist says: "I see you've been interviewing Barry Hayles. Apparently he told the press officer if anyone else asked him if he's 'amazed to be playing in the Premiership' he'll hit them."

I mentally run back through the interview. I did not actually use the word 'amazed' but there was definitely a line of questioning on that theme. Fortunately Hayles, who looks as if he could handle himself in a tight corner, was far too polite to take umbrage and exuded only geniality.

But, seriously, what does he expect? His is a classic rags to riches tale. At 22, an age when Michael Owen clocked up his 100th goal for Liverpool, Barry Hayles was contemplating his future at Stevenage Borough. The club had just been promoted from the Diadora [now Ryman] League but, having scored just one goal, against Hitchin Town, there was no obvious reason for Hayles to be confident about stepping up to Conference football. Carpentry, his full-time trade, still seemed the long-term career. Certainly the semi-pro 'bible', the Non-League Club Directory, had little faith. It omitted him from Borough's squad list.

Seven years on and Hayles is still being written off but, having successfully adjusted to the Conference with Stevenage, the Nationwide with Bristol Rovers and now the Premiership with Fulham, he is entitled to feel aggrieved that he is still being asked about his days with lathes and hammers.

Especially as he has a more interesting tale to tell. Even by the lacerated standards of a footballer, Hayles' face carries a few scars. The most vivid, a jagged one under his right eye, is a souvenir from the match away to Blackburn last year that effectively sealed Fulham's First Division title. Under the left eye is a relic from his Stevenage days but there are several others with a far more frightening provenance.

"I fell through some glass when I was about seven years old," said Hayles. "It was serious. I nearly died. I was in a shop with some mates kicking a ball around and I slipped and went through the plate glass door. There was blood everywhere. It was a frightening experience. When my mum came to the hospital she thought I was gone. I'd lost so much blood."

Fortunately the experience did not put Hayles off football, though he tends not to play near plate glass these days. Guided throughout by his brother Clifton ["no, he's not like the Anelka brothers," he said, laughing at the comparison] Hayles has made a habit of overcoming challenges. At Rovers he quickly justified Ian Holloway's £250,000 gamble on a 25-year-old non-League footballer.

Hayles' 23 goals carried Rovers into the Second Division play-offs but they failed in the semi-finals. Fulham, the other beaten semi-finalists, soon stepped in, with Kevin Keegan lavishing £2m on Hayles. Small change now but a huge sum for them at the time and, though Fulham went up, Hayles took time to settle.

"There was a lot of pressure at the time," he recalled. "It was only a year-and-a-half since I had left Stevenage and it was a big fee for a Division Two player. It took longer than I thought to feel comfortable."

He scored only five goals the following season and admitted: "I wondered then if I had gone as far as I would. When Paul Bracewell took over he said I could leave. He wanted me to go in a swap deal for Ade Akinbiyi. He was then at Bristol City. As a former Rovers player I didn't think it would go down too well. Also, I didn't think I had done myself justice at Fulham. I wanted to fight it out. It is all about choices and I think I made the right one."

Bracewell went instead. In came Jean Tigana and Louis Saha whose £2m fee, and goals, took the pressure off Hayles. Meanwhile, Geoff Horsfield joined Stan Collymore, Paul Peschisolido and Karlheinz Riedle among the strikers he had seen off. Now a new threat awaits.

While we were talking in the canteen a glance out of the window revealed Steve Marlet, the £13m autumn signing from Lyon, making his comeback from injury in the reserve side. Marlet made the bench against Manchester United on Sunday and, coming on as a substitute for Hayles, who had hit the bar, scored.

Marlet's lack of match fitness means Hayles, Fulham's top scorer this season with eight goals, is likely to get the nod at Derby tomorrow night. A goal or two would be timely, for him and, after one win in eight matches, the club.

"We've had a few lulls like this this season, then turned the corner with a few wins," said Hayles. "We've played better than the results suggest."

One problem, highlighted by the Fulham fans singing, on Sunday, "have a shot, have a shot," is a tendency to over-elaborate in front of goal. It is a criticism that Hayles accepts. "We tend to pass it around the box too much. Sometimes we should let fly. It might take a ricochet. My brother's always saying: 'Just have a shot'. I have a tendency to dribble it in instead of having a pop. I need to work on my long-range shooting."

Several times Hayles stresses his determination to improve. "I came to the game late, which has made me a bit more hungry. It shows in the way I play. I know what the real world is like. The disadvantage is I lack the schooling young players get. I'm still learning. People say to me: 'You can't be. You're too old'. You're never too old."

Like Ian Wright and Les Ferdinand, other late-comers, Hayles believes the combination of appreciating his fortune, and not having over-played in his youth, means he "will go on longer than most pros". He does appear to have kept his feet on the ground. While most of his team-mates either occupy large houses in Surrey's leafy stockbroker belt, or upmarket Thames-side apartments, Hayles lives in West Norwood, near his Jamaican-born family and Stockwell birthplace.

And is he 'amazed' to be in the Premiership? "A lot of people said, when I was growing up, I should be playing at the highest level. I always had that at the back of my mind. Now I have got there and am doing fairly well." 2001 was good to Barry Hayles, now he hopes for more of the same in 2002. And given his response when I finish by asking if has he 'anything else to say', he may not be alone. Said Hayles: "A happy New Year to all your readers, especially the Fulham fans."

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