By Nik Brumsack
Isaac Hayden has made a breathless start to the season.
The Chelmsford-born youngster started the campaign for Arsenal Under-18s and featured in the NextGen Series, where a spate of impressive performances earned him a regular spot in Terry Burton's under-21 side.
Nominally a central defender, Hayden has played increasingly in front of the back four where his tenacity and industry allows the academy's more attack-minded midfielders to go forward with freedom.
The high acclaim in which Hayden is held by the Club’s youth coaches is clear and he has clocked up more appearances than any other academy player this season. His versatility has seen him fill a number of positions, even goalkeeper, where he kept a clean sheet after Josh Vickers was injured against Norwich Under-18s in September.
Hayden's form has not gone unnoticed at national level, with a call-up to the England Under-18s. Understandably, the Arsenal youngster feels he is heading in the right direction.
“I think it’s generally been quite a good season,” Hayden told Arsenal.com. “It’s not gone too well with the under-18s, but it’s gradually getting a bit better. As you move up into the NextGen, it’s been a really good experience and we’re doing quite well in that. With the under-21s, we’ve already qualified for the next stage, so that’s going quite well too.
“It’s pleasing, but you just want to try and progress as quickly and as well as you can and show what you can do. Terry [Burton] gave me the opportunity against Blackburn. I took it in my stride and had a decent game. Now I’m just trying to improve on a game-by-game basis.
"I played a lot at centre back last season. I’ve moved forward now, so I’m still getting used to that as well. Overall, I think it’s going quite well and I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly.”
The 17-year-old is not the only member of the youth team to excel this term. Serge Gnabry, Thomas Eisfeld and Martin Angha have all made their first-team debuts, and Hayden is using that as motivation.
“They always talk about what a good experience it’s been and how they want to keep playing at that level," he said.
"When you’re playing week in, week out with those players and they’re getting picked, you think the same can happen to you if you work hard enough and show you’re good enough. It’s kind of an inspiration, because you think that if they are there, you can get there too as long as you put the effort in.”
That hard work is set to continue when Arsenal’s youngsters begin their FA Youth Cup adventure with a third-round tie at home to Newcastle.
Hayden was part of the squad that was knocked out at the same stage by Derby County last year and he has an fierce desire to make amends for that early exit with a victory at Underhill on Tuesday night.
“It’s absolutely massive," he said. "Last season was a huge disappointment for everyone involved. I think it’s almost unthinkable for it to happen again this year.
“Every bit of our body and soul will go into that game, as it does every game, but in this game especially. Everyone’s going to go 100 per cent to try and win the game, and win as best as we can.
“Our team has been gelling quite well. We’ve got great players in our team and I think if we work as a team and play well on the day, we’ll win and go quite far in the competition.”
The ultimate aim is to emulate the 2009 vintage that lifted the trophy. With a determined, in-form Hayden in this year's line-up, Arsenal might take some stopping.
For live updates from Tuesday's game, follow @ArsenalLive on TwitterCopyright 2016 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source