It's not uncommon for young players' careers to stall or drift when they get to Isaac Hayden's age. At 18 it is tempting to be distracted by the lure of success, rather than motivated by the work required to achieve it.
Spend a few minutes with the Gunners' versatile centre back/midfielder, though, and any suggestion that he might follow the former path is erased at lightning speed. His rise towards the top has been anything but ordinary, taking in an intensive regimen of drills with his father - a former youth player with Aston Villa - before winding up at Arsenal via the less illustrious surrounds of Southend United.
Seen as captain material by the Academy coaches last season, while still a first-year scholar, the youngster's drive and determination to better himself have marked him out as a genuine first-team prospect of the future - and, as he told us this month, there will be no resting upon his laurels until the day he retires from the game.
"Some days were hard - he’d sometimes get into me, tell me I wasn’t good enough. Sometimes you’d come back into the house feeling absolutely knackered and even crying"
“There was a Sunday League team I wanted to join when I was eight,” remembers Isaac. “But my dad looked at the coaching setup and said, 'No, that’s not good enough for you'.” Hayden senior had something else in mind - a personalised school of hard knocks that set Isaac fair for the highs and lows that would come his way in subsequent years.
“For a whole year - two hours on Saturdays and Sundays, and maybe one week night - he used to work with me one on one. We’d do different technical drills in the park, dribbling through cones, ball control, everything. Some days were hard - he’d sometimes get into me, tell me I wasn’t good enough. Sometimes you’d come back into the house feeling absolutely knackered and even crying. Other times, you’d think you didn’t want to go out and train but would end up really enjoying it. It was tough work, but all of that has helped me understand how things work now.”
He suggests that it instilled a mentality in him that gave him a thicker skin than some of his peers. “When you’re 13 or 14, you see a coach shouting at his players and their heads go,” he says. “When that eventually happened to me, mine would be stable because I’d already had it from a young age and knew how to handle it.”
His introduction to more structured football was handled carefully - and with plenty of work put in off the pitch, too. “It got to the stage where dad said he’d let me join a Sunday League team. I played in one game and that was it - Southend said they wanted to sign me. He didn’t think I should go there too soon, so I played a season of Sunday football at Under-9 level and began at Southend with the Under-10s.
“My dad bought a tactics board, which we'd use after I’d played in games. He'd explain positions to me, where you should be at certain times - I think we got through every position on the pitch. We'd watch games together and discuss certain aspects, even when I was eight or nine. I’d try to take it all in, and I think that's helped me become multi-disciplined in my positions now. I was talked through them all from a young age. I try to bring all these experiences to the table now.”
His years at Southend added an appreciation that not every young player will experience a gold-paved road to the top. “I think that time was pivotal in my development,” he explains. “Because I'd been at - no disrespect - a smaller club, it helped me to realise how big the opportunity was when I came here and what there was out there for me to achieve. I really enjoyed my time at Southend and have a lot of people to thank there, especially Luke Hobbs and Mark Bonner, my coaches, who really helped me develop in my younger years and gave me that stable base to improve and hopefully become a very good player.
"When a club like Arsenal comes calling you're not going to say no, and I noticed straight away that the quality of player I was surrounded by and the level of competition I was playing in were always going to help me"
“The facilities weren’t great but the team spirit was good and it was a good club. I played at Roots Hall a few times, and enjoyed that a lot. But when a club like Arsenal comes calling you're not going to say no, and I noticed straight away that the quality of player I was surrounded by and the level of competition I was playing in were always going to help me. And there’s the motivation aspect, too. Coming here from a smaller club makes you think, 'This is where I want to be'. Some players have been here since they were really young and when they get to the age of 16, for example, might not always understand what they’ve got here. Sometimes they leave for a lower-league club. I’ve understood what it’s like to be there, and fully appreciate that you have to make the most of every opportunity.”
His first season as a scholar at London Colney saw him win a first professional contract on his 17th birthday, in March 2012. A far cry from those cones in the park, but a step he was determined to take in his stride. “It’s like a clean slate, really,” he believes. “Every time I’ve achieved something in football it’s always been a case of 'the slate is clean now' - even when you sign on for two years aged 14 and then when you become a scholar at 16. When the professional contract is done you think, 'OK, I’ve got to this stage so the next level is getting the second pro contract and playing in the first team.' For me, it doesn’t end until the day you retire - that’s the day you say you’ve tried your best and can think you've done it. Until then, every season, every week, every day, you're trying to improve as a player and as a person.”
With an outlook like that, it’s little surprise that Isaac was made captain of the under-18 side last term - a status that he has slowly built up to, but now feels quite natural. “It's funny really, my dad and my coaches always used to say I didn’t talk enough,” he laughs. “I did captain an under-12 team in France and we got to the final, but that was the first time ever and it was a surreal experience. I didn’t understand really what it meant.
“After that, it wasn't really until the later stages of under-16 football at Arsenal that I was given the captaincy again. Since then, I've haven’t wanted to give it up and have improved on the leadership qualities needed. I’ve captained the youth team as a first year, which is a good achievement. I haven’t captained the under-21s yet, but hopefully next season I might get that chance. I love the feeling of being captain. It doesn’t change the way I play, but it gives you a certain mental edge. You know you're the one who needs to take that extra responsibility, to lead by example, do things right and never let the team down.”
"I love the feeling of being captain. It doesn’t change the way I play, but it gives you a certain mental edge. You know you're the one who needs to take that extra responsibility, to lead by example, do things right and never let the team down"
Isaac represented three Arsenal teams - both at centre back and in midfield - this season. The set-up of youth football is such that he is eligible for the under-18, under-21 and the NextGen Series (under-19s) side, and he pinpoints the considerable differences between the three.
“When I came back this season, I was used to under-18 level so getting back into that was fine,” he explains. “After five or six under-21 games I became accustomed to the pace at that level, too. After that, when I dropped back into the under-18s a couple of times before Christmas it felt really different - almost like the pace of a Sunday League game, the gap was that big. The NextGen experience was different again - you’re playing guys roughly your age who are the very best in Europe. You know that every opponent will have really high quality. Getting far in that competition has only helped us, along with playing in the elite group of the Under-21 competition. For a young team, I don’t think we have done badly at all.”
Isaac plans to grow up fast next season. He has a clear idea of what the next stage of his development needs to involve, and that’s regular senior football - whatever the stage. “I'm fully open-minded,” he says. “If the right club came calling and wanted to take me on loan, I think it would be fantastic to be a first-team footballer at 18 years of age. It would be vital in my development. But if the boss said he wanted me to stay here and be part of the Capital One Cup or anything else, obviously it would be a dream come true to put the Arsenal shirt on for the first team. It’s just a matter of getting back after the summer and seeing what happens from there. If it’s looking likely that I'll push for a Capital One Cup place then obviously I’ll stay. If not, then a loan will look more likely.
“I’d be comfortable with that. I’ve seen how other guys have done, like Chuks [Aneke], who’s had a fantastic season and Crewe, and Benik [Afobe], who had made it into the England Under-21 squad before his injury. Even Nathaniel Chalobah, who’s been brilliant on loan at Watford from Chelsea and is only a little bit older than me. It really opens your eyes to what can be achieved if you go out on loan. If you work hard and earn the right opportunities, it’s all there for you.”
Read the interview with Isaac and more in the latest edition
Does he ever assess the first-team squad and weigh up whether an opportunity at Arsenal might present itself sooner rather than later? “You always have to look at that, he admits. “Whenever I've been over there, training with the first team, I've always felt comfortable in the surroundings and it highlights my feeling that I need to make the next step now, wherever it may take me.”
If the remarkable focus he has shown so far in his young career is anything to go by, that might be very far indeed.
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