Wednesday 11 September 2013
Arsenal will play their first home match of the Barclays Under-21 Premier League campaign when they take on West Bromwich Albion at Emirates Stadium on Thursday, 12 September at 7pm.
Tickets are on sale for the match against West Brom, priced at £4 for adults and £2 for concessions (over 65s and under 16s). For more information, click here >>
One player set to feature at Emirates Stadium in the fixture is Isaac Hayden, who told the Arsenal Magazine earlier this year about his rise through the ranks.
It is not uncommon for young players' careers to stall or drift when they get to Isaac Hayden’s age. At 18 it's 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 or 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 there’ll be no resting upon his laurels until the day he retires from the game.
"I appreciate that you have to make the most of every opportunity"
"There was a Sunday League team I wanted to join when I was eight," remembers Isaac. "But my dad looked at the coaching set-up and said 'no, that's not good enough for you'."
Hayden Sr 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 weeknight – 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. Sometimes you'd come back into the house feeling absolutely knackered. 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.
"Every season, every week, every day, you're trying to improve as a player and as a person"
"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 – 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 and take it all in, and 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.
"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. The facilities weren't great but the team spirit was good and it was a good club.
"But when a club like Arsenal comes calling you're not going to say no, and I noticed straightaway 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 are 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 upon his 17th birthday, in March 2012.
"It's like a clean slate really," he says. "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'.
"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 is little surprise that Isaac was made captain of the Under-18 side, a status that he has slowly built up to, but now feels quite natural.
"I love the feeling of being captain, it gives you a certain mental edge"
"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 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.
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.
This interview is an abridged version of one that appeared in the June issue of Arsenal Magazine. For more information about Arsenal Magazine, click here.