Doyle-Hayes hopes his loan success can turn an outsider into a favourite

The Ireland U21 international has been enjoying a productive season away from parent club Aston Villa.

HE’S UNDERSTANDABLY RELUCTANT to make a fuss of it, but Jake Doyle-Hayes won’t complain if his newly-acquired nickname sticks. 

Football can be ruthless when it comes to the monikers bestowed upon its professionals. Just ask Savo Milosevic, who had a spell during the mid-1990s at the club where Doyle-Hayes has been on the books since the age of 15.

Being likened to a World Cup and Champions League winner would certainly have been more preferable for the Yugoslav striker, who was rather harshly christened ‘Miss-a-lot-evic’ by the British tabloid press after a few barren spells in front of goal for Aston Villa.

While the renowned racing festival isn’t scheduled to begin in the Gloucestershire town until Tuesday, there has already been one Irish success story in Cheltenham this year. 

Large Jake Doyle-Hayes delivers a free-kick for Cheltenham Town. Source: Cheltenham Town Football Club

He was Jake Doyle-Hayes when he joined the club on loan from Villa, but to fans of Cheltenham Town FC, the 21-year-old from Cavan is now known simply as ‘Xavi’.

“I suppose you’d have to be happy with that,” says the midfielder, who can appreciate the compliment while simultaneously laughing off any mention of his name in the same breath as one of the greats of the modern game.

“Without looking too much into it, what I would say is that I do try and play the game the way he did because he was a phenomenal player,” he adds of the Barcelona legend.

“I’ve watched a lot of videos of him. The type of passing and movement he used to do is something I want to base my game around. If the fans are recognising some of that, I might be getting something right.”

After a stint at Cambridge United last season was hindered by injury, Villa sent Doyle-Hayes out on loan again for the current campaign with a view to increasing his exposure to the rigours of the game in a competitive environment.

By his own estimation, his time at Cheltenham has done wonders for his development. He has played 33 times for a club who, if their present form sustains, will be competing in League One next season for the first time in over a decade.

Under the management of former Northern Ireland international Michael Duff, the Robins are the only team in the four divisions of English league football who can currently boast a five-match win streak. Taking maximum points from their game in hand will leave them in League Two’s automatic promotion places.

Doyle-Hayes has made a sizeable contribution for a side who could only manage a 16th-place finish in 2019. He immediately endeared himself to the regulars at Whaddon Road, who voted him as the winner of their first Player of the Month award of the season.

“Since I went there I’ve enjoyed every minute of it and I think I’ve fitted in well. Things couldn’t have gone much better than this,” says the man from Ballyjamesduff, who has featured in Stephen Kenny’s Republic of Ireland U21 squad, having previously been capped during Noel King’s reign as manager.

jake-doyle-hayes In training with the Republic of Ireland U21 squad. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

With his parent club back in the Premier League this season, Doyle-Hayes knew that a temporary move away from Villa Park was the option most conducive to his development.

Manager Dean Smith spent significant sums to bolster his midfield options by bringing in players like Douglas Luiz and Marvelous Nakamba, so the scope for giving first-team opportunities to youngsters narrowed.

There comes a time for almost every aspiring professional at an English club when the shelf-life of U23 football expires. Instead of spending more time going through the motions at that level, Doyle-Hayes went elsewhere to make the necessary improvements to his game.

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“It’s no disrespect to U23s football but it doesn’t compare to competitive matches against seasoned pros,” he says. “I’m learning a lot from the senior players in the team at Cheltenham as well, from the stuff you pick up in training to how professional they are on and off the pitch. Trying to replicate what they do will help me throughout my career and it already has.

“Even to be challenging for promotion where every game is crucial, that’s obviously something I’ve never done. At U23s level, you don’t want to lose any games but it’s not really the be-all and end-all if you do.

“Getting those three points at the end of the week is all that really matters here now. It’s a great feeling when you achieve it and I think these experiences will all stand to me as I go on.”

There were several attractive possibilities in front of Doyle-Hayes when England became a consideration in 2014. Manchester United and Chelsea were impressed by his performances for the Cavan-Monaghan underage teams, but the assistant manager at Aston Villa helped to coax him to Birmingham.

“To have a chat with Roy Keane was a massive deal for me then,” he recalls. “It was great to speak to him about coming across to England, which was obviously new to me at the time. He gave me some great insight about what to expect. It was unbelievable at that age to be able to speak to someone of that stature.

“When he’s on Sky Sports people probably only see one side of him, the way he speaks about the game and stuff. But on a one-to-one basis I found him to be a lot different to how he comes across on the telly. I didn’t know what to expect but he was really helpful to me and down to earth.”

aston-villa-v-middlesbrough-carabao-cup-third-round-villa-park Playing for Aston Villa against Middlesbrough in the EFL Cup in September 2017. Source: Tim Goode

A knock forced Doyle-Hayes to sit out Cheltenham’s 2-0 win at Colchester United last weekend. It also prevented him from travelling to Wembley on Sunday to watch Aston Villa’s 2-1 defeat to Manchester City in the final of the Carabao Cup.

It was in that same competition he made his senior bow for Villa in 2017, starting as an 18-year-old in a 4-1 win against Wigan Athletic. Steve Bruce afforded him two further first-team appearances, and the hope is that there’ll be more to come under Dean Smith.

The outlook for the future will become clearer for Doyle-Hayes in the coming months. The new three-year contract he was rewarded with a fortnight after his debut will expire in June. 

“I had to watch the cup final on TV because I was in the gym to try and get fit for the game this weekend,” he says ahead of Cheltenham’s game at home to Port Vale this afternoon. “It was disappointing as I think they [Villa] put in a good performance and could have nicked a draw to take it to extra-time.

“You’re obviously wishing you were there involved, but to see the lads you’ve trained with playing in such a big game, you’re just hoping that they can pull it off.

“Even seeing Keinan Davis coming off the bench – he came through the academy sort of at the same time as me – it’s a good sign that the manager is willing to trust in young players.

“My aim is to earn a new contract at Villa. Getting into the first-team there has always been what I’ve worked towards and that hasn’t changed. I’ve gotten good experience out on loan so hopefully that’ll benefit me.”

Whether those benefits are reaped at Aston Villa or elsewhere, he’ll remain determined to keep producing Catalan class with a Cavan twist.

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Paul Dollery

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