It has been quite some year for Isaac Hayden.
Rewind 12 months and the versatile midfielder’s immediate targets were simply to force his way into Arsenal’s NextGen Series team for the away trip to Athletic Bilbao. He was yet to establish himself as a mainstay of the under-21 side and, while blessed with the attitude, application and ability to progress through the ranks, a first-team spot seemed some distance away.
But the 18-year-old’s drive and determination has resulted in an impressive acceleration, culminating in his debut in September’s League Cup victory over West Bromwich Albion. Since then, he has been on the bench for the games against Chelsea and Liverpool, and, most encouragingly, Arsène Wenger has publicly backed his talent.
If the boss is giving me advice or praising me then I can only take that as a positive, it’s just up to me now to work hard and keep showing him what I can doIsaac Hayden
I like his strengths in the duels,” the manager said. “I like his capacity of concentration and I believe as well that technically he is very focused to do well.
“He is committed and at half-time [in the West Brom game] I told him to behave well because he was on a yellow card and he did that well in the second half. He is maybe not a creative player but everything he does is intelligent. I like his intelligence.”
It speaks volumes for Hayden’s maturity that, rather than let Wenger’s words inflate his ego, he has used them as inspiration.
“Any words like that from the boss are always great,” he told Arsenal.com. “He's one of the most respected men in football and he's worked with some of the best players that have ever played the game, so anything he says about me - whether it's positive or a bit of constructive criticism - I'll take it.
“All I want to do is learn, move forward in my career and try to progress as much as I can. If the boss is giving me advice or praising me then I can only take that as a positive, it’s just up to me now to work hard and keep showing him what I can do.
“Anytime you get named in the first-team squad it's a massive confidence boost for any young player. It's just a great learning experience, you learn from the experienced players how they prepare for matches, how they feel before games, warm-up routines and just those little things that people might not take notice of. You're just soaking in everything that you possibly can and then try to put it into your own game.
“It's most boys' dream to be playing in the Premier League and in an Arsenal squad, for me it's still a dream but it's a matter of putting that dream into reality by progressing and getting better and better. Hopefully in a few years time I could be in a very good position. It's about not getting ahead of yourself and keeping your feet firmly on the ground.”
That may be the case, but the look on Hayden’s face betrays his excitement when he reflects on his debut at The Hawthorns.
“It was an unbelievable night because I didn't think I was starting and then I walked into the changing room and I saw my shirt hanging up with the other starters,” he said. “At first I asked Vic [Akers] where my shirt was and he said over there, Steve [Bould] said 'you're here for the set-pieces' and I asked 'am I starting?' and he said I was.
It was an unbelievable night because I didn't think I was starting and then I walked into the changing room and I saw my shirt hanging up with the other startersIsaac Hayden
“I just took it in my stride and tried to play my normal game. I thought I did OK, I did what the boss asked me to do. West Brom were quite physical but that plays to my strengths because I'm not scared of that side of the game. I played 84 minutes so it was a really good start for me and a night to remember.”
Hayden’s attentions now turn to the Uefa Youth League on Wednesday afternoon, when the Gunners will be looking for a victory at Borussia Dortmund after drawing 0-0 in the reverse fixture last month.
“It was a very tight game,” he said. “If we had scored [Chuba Akpom’s missed] penalty I think it would have been a different game. We would have got on top of them and it would have been more of an open game.
“But it wasn't meant to be, we got the draw and I think when we go to Dortmund they will play more on the attack and certainly will want to go for it more because they’re at home.
“When they came to us they defended quite deeply and it was difficult to get through them. I think it will be more of an open game and with our pace we can definitely do some damage. Unfortunately Chuba is suspended which will be a big loss for us but I'm sure the boys will come together as a team and we'll do well.”
UEFA Youth League - Group F