This story first appeared in the January 2015 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
From the lively streets of Greater London and Essex to the expansive countryside and fresh River Humber breeze of Yorkshire, moving up north has been quite the adjustment for Chuba Akpom and Isaac Hayden on and off the pitch.
The duo left Canning Town and Chelmsford in the summer to join Hull City on loan until the end of the season, where the challenges of playing regular first-team football in the ultra-competitive Championship have been matched by the need for the 20-year-olds to adapt to a slower-paced and more independent way of life away from their families.
Chuba is currently living by himself in North Ferriby, a small village with picturesque views of the Humber Bridge that is home to last season’s FA Trophy champions, sixth-tier side North Ferriby United. The scenic 20-minute drive from Chuba’s house to Hull City’s Cottingham training base meanders through hamlets, rolling hills and farmland, and, as Isaac explains in the passenger seat, is a stark contrast to the young Gunners’ usual journey on the M25 to London Colney.
“It does feel a bit like a different country up here,” he laughs. “It’s always cold, you miss the girlfriend, mum and dad, and the comforts of being at home, but you just have to get on with it and develop a thick skin. The most difficult thing for me is the cooking and the cleaning.
“When you’ve cooked and then you see all the mess that you’ve made, you realise you have to wash everything up. The dishwasher I have at my house here is broken and they didn’t tell me that before I moved in, so I was buzzing about my dishwasher but I can’t even use it!”
Isaac shouldn’t have to worry too much about cooking during his first loan spell. Hull fans have welcomed the talented 20-year-olds with such open arms that a chef at a local restaurant has even offered to cook his meals for him, while Chuba’s neighbours have done all they can to help him feel settled with the move away from home.
It’s a far cry from the striker’s previous three loans, where he only had a matter of months to impress for Brentford, Coventry City and Nottingham Forest. Now with a semi-permanent home for a whole season, the England Under-21 international has produced some eyecatching performances and even repaid the supporters for their warm welcome with a goal in each of his first two appearances for the club.
“This is probably my best loan spell so far because I’ve been with the team since the beginning of the season,” he says. “I’ve got to know everyone really well, start afresh, and I’m really enjoying it. I’m playing and that’s the main thing, to gain experience by getting as many minutes as I can, and I’m doing that. The team are playing well too so I’m enjoying it so far.”
As the striker pulls into the training ground car park, it becomes obvious why Hull are sitting at the top of the Championship, competing for automatic promotion back to the Premier League. Training doesn’t start for another half an hour but experienced internationals such as Abel Hernandez, Ahmed Elmohamady and Shaun Maloney are already kicking a ball around on the new Desso pitch, the same hybrid surface composed of natural grass and artificial fibres that is used at Emirates Stadium.
“The main thing is that we’ve got good facilities and a lot of experienced players who have been at the highest level such as Curtis Davies, Michael Dawson and Tom Huddlestone,” Isaac explains.
"For the under-21s you can be more laid-back but that has helped me take penalties and cope with the pressure a bit more as, when I was stepping up against Leicester, I felt a bit more confident because of all the practice I’d had before. It was such a good feeling to see the ball go in the back of the net"
“They have so many games under their belt that in high-pressure situations they might deal with something better, or clear a ball when we would try to play it out. In terms of training levels or effort, you can’t fault the younger players, the older ones are just a little more used to certain situations.”
As the Tigers begin their possession drills, the familiar figure of Steve Bruce emerges from the changing rooms and prowls around the pitch. The three-time Premier League winner is a hero in this part of the world, having led Hull to promotion in his first season in charge, and coming so close to winning their first-ever FA Cup the following year.
A renowned man manager who is as popular with the players as he is with the fans, Bruce was unable to rescue the Tigers from relegation last season, but the whole club stood behind him and now the supporters are seeing the results on the pitch.
“He’s a funny guy,” says Chuba. “Everybody likes him and he gets along with everyone. He will just come and sit down with you, talk about life in general, have some banter and I think that helps the lads because we want to go out there and repay him. It’s good to have that kind of communication with another manager, where you get along as friends.”
Under Bruce’s leadership, Hull had only lost three games before December, boasting the best defensive record in the league during that period, and the Arsenal youngsters have been a driving force behind that good run of form too.
Chuba has featured regularly this season, often coming off the bench as the Tigers search for late goals, while Isaac has found it more difficult to dislodge the established midfield pairing of Huddlestone and Jake Livermore. However, both Gunners know they are still very much in Bruce’s plans.
“It’s a little bit different to how it was at Arsenal,” begins Isaac. “Not that you don’t feel like you’re part of it at Arsenal but, because of the amount of players there are, you’re always feeling like you’re on the periphery.
“When you’re here you’re in the mix every week and there might be a situation where you’re the player who is playing Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, Tuesday for five weeks. You don’t know because it’s about team performance. That’s been the difference.
“The manager’s not going to change the team too much if you’re doing well, unless there’s been an injury, but you’ve just got to accept that as it’s football. You’ve got to carry on working hard and make sure you take the chance when you do get it, that you’re the one who stays in the team.”
The duo’s determination and team spirit seems to be the norm at Hull. Once training has finished, some stay outside for extra fitness drills or shooting practice while the rest pile into the warm restaurant to defrost over the chef’s homemade lasagna. Chuba will be the first to admit that he didn’t expect to find himself in Yorkshire after an impressive pre-season for Arsenal.
The striker had scored a hat-trick on the club’s tour of Singapore and was preparing to break into the Gunners’ first-team squad when he heard about Bruce’s interest. “After the Emirates Cup the boss spoke to me in his office and he told me he wanted to keep me this season,” Chuba explains.
“If I had stayed I would have been involved and made a few cameo appearances but he also wanted me to get as much game time as possible, so he gave me the option.
“I’m 20 this season and I need to be playing as much as I can, so he told me that Steve had been enquiring about me and that he wanted me in the squad, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ He’s a good manager and he’s had a few Arsenal players on loan who have gone on to succeed before, and it’s also a good opportunity for me to show what I can do."
Chuba and Isaac aren’t the only Arsenal youngsters to have swapped under-21 football for the Championship. Jon Toral, Wellington Silva and Emiliano Martinez are all currently plying their trade in England’s second tier, while Ainsley Maitland-Niles is also excelling at Ipswich Town.
“It was nice to play against Ainsley but a bit weird as I was playing with my Arsenal Under-21s team-mate,” Chuba says. “I actually scored in that game so we had a bit of banter about that when I caught up with him after the match. He’s getting lots of game time and playing really well so we’re very happy for him.”
Dropping down a division doesn’t mean that the duo haven’t been able to test themselves against Premier League opposition, though. Hull knocked Swansea City and Leicester City out of the Capital One Cup to set up a mouthwatering fifth-round tie at Manchester City.
Both youngsters played a key part in the Tigers’ win over Jamie Vardy and co., with Chuba scoring in the penalty shoot-out and Isaac completing the full 120 minutes, and the midfielder believes Hull’s victories over top-tier sides will give the Tigers the confidence they need to have a successful season.
“We’ve got a Premier League-class squad so on our day, no matter what team we put out, we can match most Premier League teams, especially for effort and endeavour,” says Isaac.
“It was almost a lottery when it went to penalties, as it always is, but even if you asked Leicester they would have told you that we deserved to win within the 90 minutes. I thought we outplayed them and passed the ball really well that night.”
“It was different to take a penalty under that kind of pressure, in front of that number of fans,” adds Chuba. “And there’s so much more pressure than the under-21s as it’s competitive football.
“For the under-21s you can be more laid-back but that has helped me take penalties and cope with the pressure a bit more as, when I was stepping up against Leicester, I felt a bit more confident because of all the practice I’d had before. It was such a good feeling to see the ball go in the back of the net.”
Both players started the following League Cup match against Manchester City, with Chuba going head to head against Argentina defender Nicolas Otamendi and Isaac given the unenviable task of marking David Silva.
Manuel Pellegrini’s side ran out 4-1 winners on the night, ending Hull’s strong run in the competition but, for the Arsenal youngsters, the experience of playing against some of the world’s best players was invaluable.
“It’s important because if you ask every player, no matter who they are, everyone wants to be playing at the highest level,” Isaac says. “The more games you can get against Premier League opposition in the FA Cup or Capital One Cup, the more you test yourself against top-level opposition.”
Having finished training for the day, the duo make the short cross-country drive from Cottingham to KC Stadium, where they sign autographs for doting fans inside the club shop.
The 20-year-olds have been treated like heroes since arriving at Hull and nothing exemplifies that more than Chuba’s shirt being the second-highest selling item in the store, an honour the striker is still getting used to.
“Someone else getting your name on their shirt is a special feeling,” he smiles. “I used to have Thierry’s name and number on the back of my shirt all the time. Even when I played for my local team I used to wear the number 14.
“He’s someone I idolised and it’s weird knowing that now there are kids getting my name and number on the back of their shirts because not too long ago that kid was me.”
In footballing terms Chuba and Isaac are still only kids, but a first full season at senior level has seen them mature on and off the pitch – even if cooking skills continue to elude them.
It seems somewhat ironic that the duo have had to temporarily leave the bright lights of the capital to have their first real taste of footballing stardom but one thing is for sure. When they trade the Humber back in for the Thames this summer, they are bound to want more.
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