Jake Doyle-Hayes: Have Hibs finally found a successor for the 'Dylan McGeouch role'?
Of all the positions needing strengthened in the Easter Road squad, central midfield was probably fairly down the list of priorities. Even the departure of Jackson Irvine wasn’t cause for concern given he had latterly been filling in on the left, with the returning Jamie Murphy already earmarked for that role.
And what of Scott Allan? The playmaker’s return from a heart issue that nearly prematurely ended his playing career was eagerly anticipated by his team-mates, coaching staff, and supporters alike.
Yet here we are, seven games into the new season including the European matches and Allan has been limited to just 74 minutes of action, not helped by a knock keeping him out of the second leg against Santa Coloma while Joe Newell’s red card in the first leg saw the 29-year-old withdrawn for Kyle Magennis after just half an hour.
The midfield trio of Alex Gogic, Magennis, and Newell against Motherwell on the opening day of the new season performed well enough but it wasn’t until Doyle-Hayes entered the fray that Hibs looked more comfortable in the middle of the park, so it was no surprise when the same three lined up for the first leg against NK Rijeka and again on Sunday for the visit of Ross County.
Doyle-Hayes has continued to impress alongside Newell in the holding role, and is showing signs of being a key performer in green and white this season.
The jigsaw puzzle
Just as Hibs were undone at times last season by the fine margins that can decide matches, it hasn’t been wholesale changes that have revamped the midfield. Shifting Magennis into a more central attacking role has given the 22-year-old a new lease of life; two goals in two league matches proves that.
While perhaps not the obvious candidate for a number ten in the Hibs squad, especially with Allan available and his accumulated minutes in a deeper or wider position, he has taken to the advanced role like a duck to water.
His energy and dynamism has been a big part of Hibs’ impressive start to the season and he has already exceeded his previous goal total for an entire season.
Against Rijeka in Croatia Doyle-Hayes and Magennis were among the few players who could be satisfied with their performance.
At the moment, the pair will surely be two of the first names on the teamsheet, such is their influence and importance to the side.
The new McGeouch?
One doesn’t wish to heap pressure on Doyle-Hayes but the Irishman is already showing the attributes that marked him as an attractive, and necessary, signing for Hibs.
While Gogic had some impressive games last season and certainly improved over the course of the season, there were some matches in which his style of play wasn’t really required. The Cyprus internationalist deserves a huge amount of credit for working on his skillset to become more adaptable, but Doyle-Hayes offers something Gogic can’t.
Cast your mind back to the second half of the 2017/18 season. After a bright start, and a somewhat subdued middle, Neil Lennon’s side became a force to be reckoned with in the latter months of the campaign. Part of that was down to the midfield triumvirate of Allan, Dylan McGeouch, and John McGinn.
The trio’s work in the middle of the park made life easier for Florian Kamberi and Jamie Maclaren in attack, and offered protection to the back three and allowed the wingbacks to storm up and down the flanks.
Allan and McGinn collected most of the headlines; the latter for his eventual move to Aston Villa and the on-loan Celtic playmaker for those sumptuous passes to the strikers.
McGeouch earned his fair share of praise but was often elbowed out of the limelight as he took care of the dirty work in the engine room.
One man who appreciated his talents was Jack Ross, who took McGeouch to Sunderland. He played 30 times for the Black Cats but ended up returning to Scotland with Aberdeen, although there had been a clamour among certain sections of the Easter Road support to bring him back to the Capital.
It is early days so far but Doyle-Hayes looks to be in the mould of McGeouch; dropping deep and picking the ball up, making himself available for passes, and driving forward from the edge of his own penalty area.
Paul Heckingbottom tried to fill the McGeouch void with Josh Vela, although for whatever reason it didn’t work out, while Ross has tried a number of players in the position.
To date, Doyle-Hayes is the only one that has come close to replicating McGeouch's work at both ends of the pitch.
What does the future hold?
If Doyle-Hayes maintains this level of performance then the sky is the limit. There is a reason he was on Aston Villa’s books as a youngster and it’s not unthinkable that he's looked at McGinn’s route to the top and harbours hopes of emulating the Scotland internationalist.
And on that note, what of a senior call-up to the Republic of Ireland squad? The national team isn’t exactly brimming with midfielders of Doyle-Hayes’ ilk, and Harry Arter and Conor Hourihane, who have filled that role, are both on the other side of 30.
Jamie McGrath’s call-up after his performances for St Mirren last season suggests that involvement for Doyle-Hayes in the relative near future is not such a fanciful idea.
If the 22-year-old keeps catching the eye in a Hibs team hoping to at least equal, if not improve on last season then the Easter Road side could have a fight on their hands to hold onto him.
Should Doyle-Hayes continue to impress then it will be another feather in the cap for the club’s recruitment department and, most likely, a sign of good things happening on the park.