Mark Edwards Reports…
Gary Hay grew up in New Farm Loch estate in Kilmarnock and attended James Hamilton Academy where he initially signed school boy forms with Killie during his third year at the school. Gary was 14 when he signed for Kilmarnock, which was his boyhood team: “I was a big Kilmarnock fan, I went to all the games at that age – it was always something I wanted to do – play for Kilmarnock”. As Gary reminisces about these early years of his career it is not hard to see the passion he still has for his team, even after decade of running out at Rugby Park.
Yet Hay had to wait some time to make his debut: “I was 21-years-old, so it was actually quite late to make my debut” he says reflecting on the memory. “I came up the youth teams with Alex Burke; he made his debut when he was 18, so I thought I was never going to make the breakthrough”.
It appeared that his chance would never come but a lucky break changed everything. “The funny thing was I played a reserve game for Queen of the South the week before- I was to go on loan with them to gain some first team experience”. The day before Hay’s loan move was to be finalised injury struck Dillon Kerr and Martin Baker: “So the manager told me the loan had been cancelled and I was to play on the Saturday”.
In 1999-2000 season Hay’s debut had finally come and it was to be at Ibrox, the home of the then champions, Glasgow Rangers. Hay remembers this great occasion vividly: “Rangers had won the league the previous season- so their fans were very boisterous- It was an amazing place to play my first professional game”.
Although Rangers ran out winners on the day Hay still felt it was a successful day: “They beat us 2-1 but we played very well considering the names they had in their team and the investment in Rangers at the time”. There was an assortment of talent on the pitch that day under new manager Dick Advocaat with the likes of Giovanni Van Bronckhorts, Arthur Numan and Andrei Kanchelskis strutting their stuff at Ibrox.
Hay was first introduced to Kilmarnock fans at Rugby Park the following week against Aberdeen where he made an immediate impact: “I scored two goals on my home debut against Aberdeen...I got off to a flyer!” This increased the expectation from the home crowd “I think they were expecting that every week!” he jests.
I ask if he ever saw himself leaving Kilmarnock before he made this vital breakthrough: “My Mother and Father used to get a few phone calls from senior clubs when I was young. I was playing for Valspar in Ayr at the time and the likes of Dundee United and Nott’s County would send scouts to watch me play but nothing ever materialised”.
However Norwich City did have a bid excepted by Kilmarnock and Hay did contemplate leaving his boyhood team for pastures new in England. “At the time Norwich were chasing Gary Holden- but they liked me as well and had a bid accepted by the club”.
Hay sat down with his family and girlfriend and discussed the possibility of moving down south but the move was not to be. Norwich City had pulled out of the transfer as they could not afford him along with Gary Holden. Nevertheless Hay was not disappointed “I wasn’t distraught when it broke down- part of me thinks what would happened if I went down there? But I was quite happy to stay”.
I change the subject as I sense Hay is at the place he wants to be and leaving the club was never a realistic possibility for a man who is killie through and through.
During my research it had come to my attention that fans and players alike refer to Hay affectionately as “hooky”. I pluck up the courage to ask him why this is and a wry smile appears on Hay’s face as he explains the nickname.
“My very first manager for New Farm Boys club was Benny Fraser and he coached the under ten’s... I was 7 at the time. He used to put me on the bench and bring me on to play on the right wing and I used to cut inside the full back and hook the ball into the box. So they christened me hooky from then on”. This is a nickname that has stuck all the way through his playing career. Hay tells me he doesn’t mind the name “as long as my mum doesn’t call me it!” he jokes.
The left back is an unusual character in Scottish football in that he is a one club man, making over 300 appearances for his team. Over that decade of football the 33-year-old has played in two cup finals for Killie and made an international appearance for Scotland B against Poland at Rugby Park in 2005. Unfortunately the cup finals against Hibernian and Celtic both ended in defeat. Hay was surprised to be picked in 2001 Cup Final as he had been in and out of the team, vying for the left back position with Martin Baker.
Hay remembers: “Martin had played three or four games leading up to the final, but when the final came around I was given the nod to play at Hampden...we did ever so well”. In the first half hour of the final, Killie dominated with Ian Durrant running the show. But disaster struck with Durrant having to be substituted due to a knee injury. After that it was downhill for Kilmarnock with Celtic legend Henrik Larrson scoring a second half hat trick.
Hay has also captained Kilmarnock on several occasions over the past few seasons. He feels that older players with more experience can lead by example. Yet Hay feels he is different from the captains he played under as a youngster: “Things have changed in that regard...when I was first breaking through captains at the club were very vocal on and of the park... dressing rooms are quieter now.” I sense that Hay is a quiet character who leads by his performance on the pitch, not by screaming at his team.
Yet there have been tough times during Hay’s decade at the club. The Irvine man has the proud record of never being relegated from the Scottish Premier League but last season this record was put to the test. Hay points out that relegation at this level has severe consequences for the players. Several of the player’s contracts, including Hay, were coming to an end last season. With Kilmarnock at the foot of the table battling with Falkirk to stay in the division the pressure was really on the players.
“If we had been relegated last season I am certain I would not have been offered a new contract and I wouldn’t be here anymore” Hay reflects. This smashes the normal image of overpaid footballers who do not have the same problems as the rest of us. Hay agrees “Everybody thinks footballers get paid a fortune but they don’t at this level...all the lads were fighting for their jobs and fighting to pay their mortgages”. The working class footballer I think to myself.
Yet Kilmarnock managed to stay up with two points separating them from Falkirk at the end of the season. This secured Hay’s future with the new manager Mixu Paatelainen offering him a two year deal. The introduction of the new manager seems to have turned around the fortunes of the team with Kilmarnock sitting pretty at 7th in the league this season.
Even though Hay has not played as often as he would like this season, he is happy that things are going in the right direction: “I haven’t played often under the new management but they have been fantastic... it’s early days yet and there will be a lot of rollercoaster rides to come but there’s definitely an improvement around the whole place”.
This attitude is refreshing; Hay is a man who believes in team before everything else. This attitude has been rewarded by Kilmarnock with Hay awarded a testimonial. This is a rare honour and Hay’s name is now up with the Kilmarnock legends such as Gus MacPherson, Alan Robertson and Stuart McLean. I ask how this feels: “It’s weird but nice, it made me think; am I that old?”
Several events were lined up for the Kilmarnock legends testimonial. The game was played against local rivals Ayr United and several golf days were arranged along with a dinner attended by John Gahagan and former Liverpool player Alan Kennedy. Kilmarnock ran out 4-1 winners against Ayr United with Hay scoring a penalty in the second half: “It was a stonewall penalty that one!”.
This was a highlight of Hay’s career and something that he will definitely look back on: “I’m was very humbled to see people turning up for a dinner for me- it was surreal but it just shows you the kindness of people related to the club.”
Hay’s testimonial year has forced him to think to the future. At 33-years-old his playing career is coming to an end. I ask if these will be his final two years at the club: “I don’t know- I am at an age where I need to start thinking of what I’m going to do after football”. Hay has obtained a coaching B license and several youth licenses as well. After coaching the Kilmarnock under 9’s on several occasions, Hay feels this is something he could pursue: “I would like to give something back to the club and coaching may well be an option”.
Could he see himself in management I ponder: “I would never discount anything!” he replies. One thing is for sure, it will be a sad day for everyone connected to Kilmarnock Football Club when “hooky” hangs up his boots.