The Jake Doyle-Hayes progress that signals Hibs are finally dealing with midfield issues
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The Irish midfielder has had a difficult season, marred by niggly injury and as a result, a lack of gametime. Lee Johnson admitted the former Aston Villa youngster had been ‘frustrated’ by his extended spell on the sidelines, but there was at least one happy moment for Doyle-Hayes and partner Aurelija when they welcomed their first child late in 2022.
But there was good news from the Hibs camp in the lead-up to Saturday’s game as Doyle-Hayes was revealed to be back in training and pushing for involvement against Celtic – and he was handed a perhaps unexpected start in midfield alongside CJ Egan-Riley and Jimmy Jeggo. He made way for Chris Cadden after 64 minutes but it was not unexpected that he was tiring, given his paucity of starts, matches, and the added task of trying to frustrate Celtic in the middle of the park.
Doyle-Hayes has possibly not been universally appreciated by all Hibs fans since arriving from St Mirren in the summer of 2021 but he seems to be thriving under Johnson and combined well with the other central midfield players at the weekend. Like Josh Campbell, it could be that the right combination of players around him is helping to bring out his best form.
Of course, there is a much larger sample size with Campbell, who has played 33 times this season in all competitions bagging nine goals and five assists, but there have been fledgling signs that the coaching staff have figured out what makes Doyle-Hayes tick, and can bring out his best.
Going on his limited appearances this season it is his passing that has been key for Hibs – 86 per cent of his passes per game have been accurate, including 83 per cent in the opposition half and 91 per cent in his own half – although he makes nearly three times as many passes in the opposing half.
One of the most prominent criticisms following Hibs’ 1-0 defeat by St Mirren near the start of the season was that the midfield selection of Campbell, Doyle-Hayes, and Joe Newell simply did not work as a trio. Since then we’ve seen why: Campbell is far more effective further up the park, and and there were no players capable of doing the dirty work and allowing Doyle-Hayes and Newell to play to their strengths.
But the arrival of Egan-Riley and Jeggo has added some dig to the Hibs midfield and is getting the best out of other players. Campbell and Doyle-Hayes no longer have to focus on the dirty work and can instead play their natural game.
There was interest in Doyle-Hayes during the January transfer window with clubs in England and Italy keeping tabs on the player but while Hibs accepted an offer for the midfielder it wasn’t because they were happy for him to leave, but rather that it made sense financially. In the end the 24-year-old remained at Hibs, much to Johnson’s delight.
Speaking in January the manager said: “Jake is a good football player. We’ve missed his quality in certain games. He’s a player I’ve always trusted when he’s been on the pitch, whether that’s off the bench or from the start. I think me and my coaching staff can improve him – can I get him to play forward more, can I get him in positions where he can play forward and dictate the game with the skillset he already has, making sure the blend is right next to him, controlling the middle of the pitch rather than the half-spaces? These are all things we discussed and this is going on on a day-by-day basis with all the players.”
That bit about ‘making sure the blend is right next to him’ is interesting given the January arrivals and his performance. He actually played a different sort of role against Celtic – closing players down further up the pitch, safe in the knowledge that Egan-Riley and Jeggo were lurking behind him for any opponents who escaped the Irishman’s attentions.
Johnson is a fan of Doyle-Hayes, having said as much in January during the transfer interest. The midfielder is working well under the coaching staff and with the manager keen to avoid another season of turmoil, the Cavan man could be a key player next season with his injury problems behind him. It’s not unthinkable that he could have an annus mirabilis next term, similar to Campbell’s exploits this campaign.
He suits Johnson’s preferred style of play but is flexible enough to adapt his game for certain circumstances such as Saturday’s game against Celtic. If he can continue his upward trajectory in terms of consistently putting in an 8/10 performance then there’s no reason why he can’t eventually start thinking about forcing his way onto the Republic of Ireland radar.
Much depends on how Hibs recruit this summer when they will almost certainly need to replace Egan-Riley, who will return to parent club Burnley. Assuming nobody else leaves Johnson will have Jeggo as his enforcer and the returning Nohan Kenneh; Doyle-Hayes and Newell as his conductors, and Campbell, Ewan Henderson, and Kyle Magennis as his options at number ten.
Hibs have struggled to put together the perfect midfield blend since the Allan/McGeouch/McGinn triumvirate and struggled in the early part of the season in the middle of the park but Johnson appears to have recognised the need to fine-tune the engine room and is in the process of doing so, with Doyle-Hayes set to play a key role.
The manager has frequently described Hibs as a ‘fixer-upper’ of a club; a ‘long-term project’ – it seems that we are at last starting to see the fruits of the efforts going on behind the scenes.