NOT so long ago, Paul Hayes was the experienced old hand and Gary Hooper was the green kid fresh out of Southend reserves.
Paired up front for Nigel Adkins’ Scunthorpe, the deadly duo formed a telepathic partnership that yielded goals galore and promotion to the Championship.
Since then, however, their careers have taken very different paths. Signed by Celtic for £2.4m in 2010, Hooper played against Barcelona in the Champions League, top-scored in the SPL and is now a Premier League star with Norwich.
Hayes? Well, the 30-year-old was relegated with Scun-thorpe, passed through Preston, Charlton and Brentford, and now finds himself on loan at Plymouth, scrapping in the bottom half of League Two.
It is a stark illustration of the tightrope all footballers tread, yet Hayes – who stays in touch with Hooper – is philosophical about his fall from grace.
“That’s the scary thing about football,” he says. “Success or failure depends on the finest margins. Get a good partnership with someone – be it two centre-halves, a winger and a full-back, a midfield pair or the centre-forwards – and you’re going to bring the best out of each other.
“One minute you can play with someone who suits and you look great. The next you play with someone else and you look a terrible player. It’s a game of opinions.”
It works both ways too, with Hayes insistent that Hooper’s blossoming into a top-flight talent is in large part a result of the support network at Scunny.
“I think Hoops was only 21 when he came in, so he was reasonably young,” recalls Hayes. “But you could see straight away that he had something about him.
”But even if you’re a good player, you need the right people around to bring it out – players who complement you, a manager who plays to your strengths. That’s what Hoops had. A manager in Nigel Adkins who believed in him, us lot who knuckled down and helped him out. And his own ability and drive.
“He’s just gone from strength to strength. He joined us from Southend reserves. He wasn’t getting a sniff. Within two years, he was playing for Celtic in the Champions League. That’s phenomenal, and it’s because he believed in himself.
“I watch him in the Premier League and he’s getting fitter, stronger, his confidence is sky high. The way he’s going, who knows – he could be playing for England soon.”
Hayes, meanwhile, just wants to play, period. After leaving Preston in 2011, the former Norwich trainee joined Charlton, but the arrival of French striker Yann Kermorgant saw playing opportunities dry up.
Then, after a prolific run of six goals in six games on loan at Wycombe, Hayes signed a three-year deal with Brentford in the summer of 2012.
Unfortunately, he once again found himself on the bench and, after going on loan to Crawley, Hayes has now joined the Pilgrims having been told by Bees boss Uwe Rösler that he was surplus to requirements.
“I’m a professional footballer,” he said. “Play is what I do. To train all week and then not get to do it is very, very frustrating.
“I’m happy to wait my turn. You have to respect the players alongside you, and respect the job the manager has to do. But there comes a point where you have to get out there and play.
“What makes it frustrating is that I haven’t been injured or suspended. It isn’t that I can’t play. It’s purely that the manager isn’t picking me. I don’t know why – you’ll have to ask him. I’ve trained hard and I’ve been available every game.
“But you can’t take it personally. If you start to doubt yourself or you stop doing the things you do best, you’ll struggle. I’ve had to believe in myself, believe that when I get back playing and enjoying myself, I’ll do a good job.
“It’s a move that has never really developed for me, but you have to take it on the chin and dust yourself off. I’m experienced and I know fortunes can change in days or weeks.”
As Plymouth know all too well. Like Hayes, the Pilgrims were in the Championship in 2010, before a financial meltdown saw them plummet straight through to League Two and only narrowly avoid extinction and relegation to non league.
Now they are on the way back under former Chesterfield boss John Sheridan, but an inconsistent start suggests the road will not be easy.
“It’s a big club,” says Hayes. “Yes, they’re 15th in League Two, but the average crowd here is something like 8,000. On attendances, they would be top half of League One. That shows you what kind of fanbase and history the club has.
“Of course, we all know that means nothing anymore. We’re always seeing big clubs come down – look at Portsmouth, Wolves, Sheffield United and Leeds in recent years. Plymouth are just another one.
“The only way it can change is if players go there and do their bit to help recapture former glories. That’s what I’ve hopefully done. Right now, I just want to take it one day at a time and hope that things change for me, and for Plymouth.”