By David Wilson
As many people welcomed back the global juggernaut of the Premier League at the weekend, Thursday evening saw the League Two Play-Offs take eminence. Cavan midfielder Jake Doyle-Hayes was lining up in central midfield as his Cheltenham Town side took on Northampton Town away from home in the first leg of their two-legged play-off.
Pre-pandemic Cheltenham had been in irresistible form, winning five games out of the last six and aiming to make a late surge into the automatic promotion positions. As the public health crisis affected every facet of life, the football was put on hold along with everything else.
League Two is a world away from the financial heavyweights in the premier league. There is an ever-growing disconnect between the Premier League, the Championship and the EFL (English Football League). The pandemic has emphasisedthis, as both League One and Two face a major hole in their finances, numbering in the tens of millions.
Players who play in League Two are constantly thinking about the next contract, or the next transfer move. The risk of free agency or long-term injury is always of concern, the football at this level is perhaps even more cut-throat than the top divisions, an injury or spell out of the team can make it difficult to secure a contract elsewhere.
Doyle-Hayes who has spent the season on loan from parent club Aston Villa at Cheltenham has found a team which suits his dynamic, possession orientated style who are coached by ex-Burnley and Northern Ireland defender Michael Duff.
Duff has implemented a 3-5-2 formation at Cheltenham, allowing Doyle-Hayes to occupy a central midfield role as part of a trio. The Ballyjamesduff native has excelled in the role, making 33 starts so far along with numerous cameos from the bench in a positive season for the Robins.
Since his days coming through the Cavan/Monaghan emerging talent programme, Doyle-Hayes has always displayed an appetite to get on the ball and influence the game with metronomic passing. At Sixfields Stadium on Thursday, Doyle-Hayes ability to manipulate and manoeuvre the ball bolstered his sides possession stats, allowing them to take control of the tie.
Just 26 minutes in, a delicious curling corner from the left taken by Doyle-Hayes was met at the near post by Charlie Raglan where his header flew past the Northampton ‘keeper as the Robins went one up. Doyle-Hayes continued to show his class as well as impressive fitness levels as he covered every blade of grass. In the 86th minute again Doyle-Hayes was involved in the build-up as Conor Thomas placed his effort beyond the clutches of Steve Arnold in the Northampton net, giving Doyle-Hayes’ side complete control of the tie.
The second leg played at a sun-drenched Whaddon Roadshould have been plain sailing for Cheltenham but was anything but. The game started at a blistering pace with Northampton pressing forward and pulled a goal back after nine minutes as Vadaine Oliver nodded home. The home side struggled to assert their influence as Northampton swarmed all over their play-off rivals.
Parity was restored when Callum Morton notched after 57 minutes before putting his side into the lead 20 minutes laterafter a horrendous defensive mix-up. The substitution of Doyle-Hayes did little by way of reasserting control of the game as the Robins could not find an equaliser.
Exeter City will provide the opposition for Northampton after an incredible comeback on next Monday’s play-off final at Wembley which will unfortunately take place without spectators but will be shown live on Sky Sports.
With the news that Doyle-Hayes is set to be released by Aston Villa, Cheltenham will be very keen to hold on to the Cavan midfielder, however with many suitors in the league abovekeen to sign the Irish underage international, Cheltenham will do well to entice Doyle-Hayes back on a permanent basis.
This is sure not to be the last we see of Doyle-Hayes on the big stage as a season of first team football is sure to aid his career development. Newly appointed Irish under-21 boss Jim Crawford will surely be encouraged by the Cavan playmaker making a good impact at senior level which will surely see Doyle-Hayes as a potential candidate for the next squad.