Barry Hayles is busy but he certainly isn’t complaining about it. The more football he gets to play, the better. At the age of 45, a few weeks away from his next birthday, the veteran striker was subjected to the most intense schedule of his career earlier this month – four games in eight days. Despite his advancing years, he didn’t miss a minute of action for Windsor FC of the Hellenic League Premier Division.
“I’m enjoying it. We’ve got a backlog of games at the moment so it’s been a bit hectic. It [was] a hectic week. We played Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday and we’re playing again [on Saturday]. My body’s at its breaking point at the minute but it doesn’t feel as bad as I thought it would have done,” laughs Hayles.
“I’m just really enjoying going on the pitch and playing at a competitive level. I always judge myself on how I do each season and this one’s been fairly good for myself and for the club. I’m just happy to be a part of it.
“I’ve played a lot of football over the year and we’ve been in the quarter-finals of four cups, hence the backlog that we’ve got to catch up on. Apparently we were meant to be finished by the start of April, but we’ve had to extend that by another month to fit in eight games.”
Although Hayles didn’t experience such tight turnarounds between matches when he was competing in the Premier League with Fulham, he knows this is all part of the chaotic non-league experience. It’s one he’s accustomed to, having started his career at lowly Willesden Hawkeye, before eventually signing his first professional contract at the age of 25 when impressive goalscoring feats for Stevenage Borough earned him a move to Bristol Rovers.
His career since then has taken him all over the place, from the first tier of English football all the way down to the ninth. Throughout an eventful journey, which has featured five championship medals and 10 international caps for Jamaica, Hayles has retained that same essential enthusiasm for the game he first began playing as a child.
“I’ve always played football from the age of four or five and I still enjoy it. I’ve just treated it like a hobby and I still do now, regardless of the money that I’ve gained from it. First and foremost it’s a hobby that I really enjoy, and thankfully I can still run around and get about. You’re a long time retired, so if you can still get around the pitch then why would you give it up?
“A lot of my mates who I’ve played with over the years have said they wished that they’d carried on playing because when they try to get back into it, they can’t. Their body doesn’t allow them to. I’ve never really stopped so my body’s still allowing me to play on and not feel the adverse effects of doing so too much. I can still play again a couple of days later.”
While some goalkeepers continue into their 40s due to the relatively low physical impact of the role, it’s rare to see outfield players carrying on for so long. It might be more than a decade and a half since Hayles was tussling with world-class defenders such as Marcel Desailly, Jaap Stam and Sol Campbell, but he still has plenty to offer both on the pitch and in the dressing room.
This season he’s scored 13 goals for Windsor, even though he missed more than two months with a broken hand, and the feeling of hitting the back of the net remains just as sweet as it always has. Hayles proudly recounts the way opponents half his age have commended him on giving them another difficult afternoon.
Since dropping out of the Football League after a stint with Cheltenham Town in 2010, Hayles has had three spells with Truro City and one each at St. Albans City, Arlesey Town and Chesham United. Last summer his contract at Chesham came to an end and he was left contemplating his future.
“If the phone doesn’t ring then I’m not going to go chasing people,” says Hayles. “I had a couple of options to consider last year but once I spoke to the manager and the chairman here at Windsor, they were keen to get me on board. It was a new league for everybody and we were just trying to find our feet. We did that but we’ve had a lot of games and because we haven’t got a massive squad I think that’s caught up with us.”
Windsor are currently eighth in the Hellenic League Premier Division with two games remaining. Hayles is also helping out with coaching at the club; having previously thought it was something he wouldn’t enjoy, he’s now considering it as a long-term option. He has his UEFA B Licence and is keen to keep learning and see where it takes him.
Hayles has plenty of experience to draw on, and cites three managers as the most influential of the many he has played for. Kevin Keegan and Ian Holloway were great motivators who encouraged the forward to express himself and enjoy his football, while the tactical nous of Jean Tigana left a lasting impression. The Frenchman took Fulham to the Premier League in scintillating style.
“We held our own in our first season at that level. It was very pleasing to be involved, to score goals in the Premier League and play in the biggest stadiums in the country. We had a great balance to that team and it was the best one I’ve been a part of. I remember our first game was against Man United, who were champions. They beat us 3-2 but we left there feeling like we’d won the game. It was such a proud achievement to go there and give a good account of ourselves. I think that spurred us on,” he recalls.
Despite the arrival of Steve Marlet, a France international who joined from Lyon for £11.5m, Hayles was often chosen to play up front alongside Louis Saha. Their prolific partnership in the second tier was a major factor in Fulham’s dominance of the division, as the Cottagers scored 90 goals and amassed more than 100 points.
Hayles remembers it as the most enjoyable period of his career, and his love of football shines through as he recalls it. It’s an important lesson for him to pass on to his younger team-mates, many of whom weren’t even born when he started playing professionally. They might joke about Hayles’ lack of pace and the way his inclusion skews the average age of the team, but underpinning it all is respect for his achievements. The 45-year-old has been there and done it, multiple times over.
Hayles is waiting until the end of the season before deciding what happens next, but as long as he feels fit and able to contribute, he’s inclined to continue playing. When he does finally call it a day, it will be with a heavy heart but no real regrets.
“Walking out on the pitch and the buzz of crossing that line ready to do battle, that’ll be the thing I miss most,” he says.