James Hayter has gone. Released at the end of the season, he this week joined Yeovil Town amidst generally wistful clattering from Rovers fans; tweets and forum posts wishing him well and commenting on how he’ll always be remembered for THAT goal. Because James Hayter didn’t score a goal at Wembley against Leeds, he scored THAT goal. His place in Rovers’ folklore seemingly defined by randomly deployed capitalisation.
There are some footballers whose spell at one club, or perhaps even their entire career can be defined by a single goal. Roy Essendoh is one. Theo Streete another. Whatever else they have gone on to achieve in the professional – or in Theo’s case semi-professional – game, their respective careers peaked in one unexpected goal, an FA Cup Quarter-Final winner, the last goal at Belle Vue. James Hayter does not belong in this group. And so let us not wedge him ungraciously into the same pigeon-hole, because his five years at Rovers were far from a fleeting moment.
The chief issue I have with folk saying “he’ll always be remembered for THAT goal”, is that his play-off winner is only third on my own list of goals to remember James Hayter by. When it comes to the play-off final, I remember the occasion and the significance before I remember the goal. Indeed, had I not watched it multiple times since then I’d have struggled to describe Hayter’s winner. I knew Stock crossed it, but only because it was a corner and Stock took corners, and I knew Hayter headed it home, but in the euphoria of reaching the second tier I’d have been hard pressed to have offered any greater detail than that. No, instead I remember two other Hayter goals with more fondness and much greater clarity.
I have only ever seen one bicycle kick scored by a Rovers player; James Hayter scored it. At home and struggling to break down the League leaders Leyton Orient in November 2007, Sean O’Driscoll threw on Jason Price at the break and Rovers romped home to a glorious 4-2 victory. Hayter’s goal put Rovers 3-2 ahead; a scramble in the South Stand penalty area saw Paul Green drill a shot goalwards, it bounced back off the Orient ‘keeper and in a split second Hayter managed to react to execute a perfect overhead bicycle-kick to send the ball into the roof of the net. It’s perhaps not the most aesthetically pleasing overhead you’ll ever see, and it’s scored from just four yards out, but the speed of reaction to recognise the opportunity and then execute the volley perfectly is genuinely stunning, and perhaps encapsulates Hayter’s opportunism as a forward. Before Billy Sharp arrived he was our opportune fox in the box, with an intelligence to find a half second or half chance, and the strength and composure to turn that into a goal.
I have never seen a braver player than James Hayter in a Rovers shirt. I have seen harder men (Colin Sutherland), I have seen players who displayed significant physicality (Mark Albrighton, Darren Moore), but there have been none braver than Hayter. He will throw his head at absolutely anything; awkward bouncing balls in a penalty area that you’d struggle to get a toe at, become, in the eyes of James Hayter and he alone, heading opportunities.
The standard line amongst our group in the stands should Hayter ever miss the target with his feet is “He should have put his head on it”, and it’s often meant with greater sincerity than we perhaps let on. He is capable of the sort of headers only previously scored in comic strips; thunderous, unstoppable, flying horizontally to meet the ball, Exocets beyond the capability or even the comprehension of us mere mortals. His finest demonstration of this skill came not at Wembley, but at Victoria Park. Rovers broke forward, from the right edge of the area James Coppinger stood up a cross, and Hayter, charging at full-speed somehow made up ten yards during his flight to hurl himself inhumanely at the ball. No care for the looming boot of the Hartlepool centre-half, all that existed in Hayter’s mind was his head, a football and a goal. No other Rovers player in my time watching could have scored that goal.
In five years with Rovers Hayter was rarely the main man, the majority of his 170 appearances coming in the shadows of Paul Heffernan or Billy Sharp, but when given half a chance, be it in the box, or in the team, he rarely failed to deliver. He brought determination, an intensity, and as mentioned, bravery which we would truly have struggled to find in any other Championship striker over the past four years, all assets which helped him become the first Rovers player to pick up the second tier Player of the Month Award in November 2010.
Perhaps now was the right time for Hayter to move on, time for a new challenge, time to be closer to family, and so I join those in wishing James Hayter well for the future. But remember that Yeovil have signed a thirty-three year-old striker rather than a four-year-old goal, and so let us not define five years of commitment and service by a single header, no matter how satisfying or well taken. Hayter may have scored THAT goal, but he gave Rovers much, much more.
The two personal Hayter highlights I’ve picked out above can be found in the video below; his bicycle-kick against Leyton Orient 33 seconds in, and his Roy-of-the-Rovers-esque diving header against Hartlepool after 1min 23 seconds.