Aston Villa youngster Jake Doyle-Hayes made an impression on the West Country this season as Cheltenham Town clambered for promotion to League One. Voted the clubs’ Player of the Month for August, the 21-year-old made an instant impact in Cheltenham despite having struggled to pin down a regular spot at Colin Calderwood’s Cambridge last season.
Doyle-Hayes left Villa a week before the club kicked off their 25th Premier League season after a three-year exile away from the top flight. During their struggle to secure promotion from the Championship, Villa went through three head coaches. While Doyle-Hayes made his debut in 2018 — a League Cup victory over Wigan Athletic — Dean Smith has yet to hand Doyle-Hayes a senior appearance. Instead, he points to John Terry’s positive influence on his development.
Champions League and Premier League winner Terry joined Villa as Steve Bruce assembled an experienced group to make a fist of the Championship promotion charge.
Doyle-Hayes said: “I played with him in my first season when I made my debut, and in a few pre-season games and stuff like that, but he was unbelievable to play with.
“Even the way he talks about the game is crazy really, so I really enjoyed that.
“I think when he retired he still could’ve played many more seasons. The lads that are there at the moment are all very good players, but I think Terry could still be playing with them now.”
Prior to the suspension of the league, Villa had conceded more goals after 25 games than in their horrendous 2015–16 relegation struggle. Yet Doyle-Hayes reflects positively on their season so far.
“It’s been tough, everyone knew it was going to be tough, I think they’ve put in some good performances and maybe haven’t got the results they’ve deserved, but I think getting to the League Cup final was unbelievable, against Leicester as well.
“When Villa got promoted you sort of knew that they have to buy players to try and stay in the league, but obviously when I was training, even when they’d bring in new players, training with good players all the time is going to improve you.
In fact, Callum O’Hare, Andre Green and Rushian Hepburn-Murphy all found playing time elsewhere as Villa Park welcomed ten new players last summer. Doyle-Hayes, who still lives in Birmingham, drops into Bodymoor Heath when he can.
“I’ll go in on my days off, do some recovery and see a few of the lads who I keep in touch with but sometimes they’ll be off too.
“It’s unbelievable the difference from where I came from, to coming here and seeing the training ground, it’s mind blowing.
“I went on trial to quite a lot of teams and I could’ve kept going but when I went on trial to Villa, even seeing the Bodymoor Heath, the people there, it just felt like the right place.”
Ballyjamesduff-born Doyle-Hayes’ story is one of humble beginnings. Whilst the journey from Ireland to Villa Park is a well-trodden path, guidance and inspiration from recent Villa legends provided the wisdom a young player needed.
“Stan Petrov was the one, he was around the training ground a lot and sometimes when we were younger he may have trained with the U23s as he tried to get fit after being ill.
“He was unbelievable, the effort he put in to train, even when he was just with the kids, he was inspiring really.”
The unrivalled, emotional account of Stiliyan Petrov’s battle back from leukaemia to Villa’s first team is an excellent example of determination and strength through adversity — one that Doyle-Hayes will not forget.
The midfielder also spoke of the recent mentors who guided him through his first years at Villa — Irish compatriots Conor Hourihane and Glenn Whelan.
“The knowledge of the game that they have is unbelievable, training with the players and them giving you advice was great help.
“They always gave me advice, made me fit in when I first came to train with the group, which is a big help.”
Poster boy, team icon or Villa idol — whatever descriptor is used — Jack Grealish is undoubtedly the shining light guiding any young Bodymoor Heath hopeful.
Doyle-Hayes lauded Villa’s ace captain: He’s just unbelievable, it’s hard to describe what he can do on the pitch.
“Everyone can see it for themselves, and the step from the Championship to the Premier League has not fazed him at all, his performances lately have been off the scale really, I think he’s only going to get better as well.”
Grealish made his presence be known to not only the five Malaysian youngsters he beat on his way to scoring a wonder goal in the Hong Kong Sevens, but to Villa fans back home when he was a promising teenager. The annual tournament has been adopted as the academy’s summer showing of ability that Doyle-Hayes fondly remembers.
“It was an unbelievable experience to go to places like that, and it was a good time with the lads, we all got on well, I can’t describe it, the place was crazy.
“We got a day or two off over there too so we got to do what we wanted, it was just an unbelievable experience.
“They were great memories with the lads, we all keep in touch, even though they’ve gone to different clubs and stuff like that, sometimes I’ll go and play golf with some of them, it’s always good to keep in touch I suppose.”
A promising crop of young Villans, including Mitchell Clark, Keinan Davis and Corey Blackett-Taylor, won the Premier League Cup in 2018.
“There was a few young lads that came through at the same time, me Callum, Mitch and Rushian, there was a few of us at the same time trying to get in and play a few games.
But what Doyle-Hayes remembers most are the nurturing words of wisdom from the likes of Terry.
“When we were training with the first team, Terry came in and helped a lot of the younger lads, in fact I think the whole team was helpful, there wasn’t anyone that wouldn’t help the younger lads, they are all a good group that made you fit in well.”
So, what’s next for Villa’s young Irishman?
“I’m not 100% sure yet to be honest, I know a lot of the lads left because they thought it’d be better for them and their career to get more football, but I’m not 100% sure what I’ll be doing yet.”