OK, that would be just me then.
Or at least that is what it often felt like when he was in the team. In his short, peak period, I thought he was God’s gift to the team, and was certain he was going to become one of the all time greats. There’s even a little piece by me about Martin on the Arsenal.com web site. I once even wrote him a letter telling him how great he was. (And yes I was a grown man at the time! (He didn’t reply).
So when Martin hits the news, I have to clear the decks, postpone all other articles, and declare an interest. For today the news breaks that Dover Athletic have signed Martin Hayes as their second new manager in a month. He’s been in charge of Bishops Stortford for 10 years where he got them to the Conference South play-offs in 2007 and the FA Trophy semi-finals in 2005. Then that sacked him. Now he moves on.
So what of Martin at Arsenal, and why did I (a semi-mature gent even in those days) make my mate Roger laugh so much with my unending devotion to the player?
The stats alone don’t show much. He scored 34 goals in 132 appearances. He got a League Winner’s medal and a League Cup medal, and was on the pitch when M. Thomas scored a certain goal at Anfield – which is not that bad for a CV.
His first game was against Oxford United. He set up the pass for Tony Woodcock, to score, but it was not a brilliant game. I was there – sitting in the director’s box at Highbury – my one and only visit to that august position. (A business contact was friends with the vice-chair at Oxford at the time, and he got me in.)
So I remember him for that – but what those of us who have memories or the era really know about was 1986/87.
I remember him as looking like a rambling centre forward, but playing on the left wing, much quicker than you’d ever imagine. The official report for that season says, “He scored outstanding solo goals against Charlton and Leicester and helped Arsenal reach top spot at Christmas.”
Let me tell you about that Leicester goal. Arsenal were attacking the clock end. Martin got the ball in his own half. He beat at least six Leicester players as he meandered his way down the entire pitch. Finding himself on his own he looked for a moment as if he was going to turn round and come all the way back. In fact I swear to this day he beat two players twice. And ultimately with nothing else for it, he beat the keeper as well, and scored.
The crowd went mad, and he looked back up the pitch – to find that he was still on his own. Disconsolate he strolled back towards the north bank looking for all the man who was thinking, “Christ this is a long bloody walk”, and stood there ready for kick off. Eventually the rest of the team managed to find him and congratulate him.
Martin Hayes got 24 goals that season, and got an under 21 cap (although like the rest of his footballing life, it was a bit odd. He wasn’t listed in the under 21 squad, but the match was played at Highbury. Next thing we know he’s on the pitch. I still doubt that the under 21 manager knew who the hell he was, but I think in truth it was a cock up in the list of players.)
And then, and then, and then…
After a summer of telling anyone who would listen (mostly Roger, the guy to whom “Making the Arsenal” is dedicated) that Martin Hayes was the man who was really going to take us forward – him and Alan Smith who could also knock in 20 a season it went wrong.
I still can’t believe that it could go wrong. We had two players scoring 20 goals each!!!! Everything was set fair, but for Martin… well, I don’t know. His self-esteem, which judged from several hundred yards away up in the stands, never looked 100%, seemed to decline even more. Brian Marwood, Paul Merson – they were in the side, and increasingly Martin wasn’t.
He played in that awful League Cup final against Luton. Roger and I were there, and had the ignominy of driving home to the midlands up the M1 with Luton banners over every bleedin’ bridge. I got home at around 8pm, and my daughter greeted me at the door shouting, “Daddy, they lost!”
Martin scored in that game, but also missed a sitter. Gus Ceaser was playing – remember him?
To try and ignite his love of the game (at least that’s how I saw it) Martin went to Celtic, but it didn’t work out. So he worked his way round the lower leagues, and then non-league football, before finally getting to Bishop’s Stortford as player manager.
So why was he so special to me?
We all of us have our favourites, and I think I have always tended to adopt the slightly less fashionable players as my icons. He was never a crowd pleaser, but in that one great season he was brilliant. Why he couldn’t do it again, I have no idea, but I suspect it was his view of the world. As someone who has sometimes suffered real dips in self-esteem I think I could see a little of my erratic personality in him. But who knows – maybe I am on the wrong trail.
He was just so unlikely, and for a short period of time, so utterly special. A player I will always remember, a man who I really hope makes it, and who I really hope has a good time doing what ever he chooses to do.
Martin, I know you are not reading this, but maybe one of your mates will spot it one day and pass it on. You gave me such pleasure in that one year. Thank you so much. I’ve never forgotten.