Early grounding stands Arsenal youngster in good stead
PUBLISHED: 07:29 23 January 2014
For any young footballer, the balance between the natural desire to progress and maintaining a level head can be a delicate one.
It might be tempting for an 18-year-old – especially one who has made his first-team debut for one of the country’s biggest clubs and come within touching distance of Champions League football – to get carried away.
But there is little danger of that happening to Arsenal’s young midfielder Isaac Hayden – and one of the main reasons for that is the influence of his dad.
Sol Hayden, a former Aston Villa youth team player, has kept a close eye on his son’s career, all the way from Sunday league football to Southend United’s Under-10s and signing for the Gunners at the age of 13.
“I wanted to join a Sunday team with my mates from school when I was about eight and I went to one training session,” recalled Hayden junior, who grew up in Brentwood, Essex.
“Dad watched the session and said he didn’t feel it was good enough for me, so he took it on himself to do two hours on a Saturday, two hours on a Sunday and two hours in the week with me, one to one. We did that for a year and then I joined a team.
“My dad’s guidance has been really important. Even when I was about 10, we used to go through things on tactics boards and that gave me a good knowledge of the game which has helped me since.
“He’s always wanted me to take the right steps at the right time and not to get ahead of myself and progress too quickly. When Arsenal came in for me, he thought it was the right time.
“If I had a bad game, he wasn’t one of those parents that reacted in a way that meant you had a problem in the car on the way home! We’d talk through what I did well, what I did badly and move on.
“You see some players who take it really badly when they get criticised, especially at a younger age, and it can affect their performances.
“Even at youth team level, a coach might get on to them about something and you see their heads drop. Because I’ve had a lot of feedback from when I was nine or 10, it helped me to deal with it a lot easier.”
Hayden, who can play at centre-back as well as his preferred defensive midfield role, established himself as a regular member of the Gunners’ Under-21 side last season.
He also helped Arsenal to reach the semi-finals of the now abandoned NextGen Series and has featured in its replacement, the UEFA Youth League.
However, Hayden had to miss the Gunners’ opening match of that tournament in Marseille after a spate of injuries meant he was summoned to join the substitutes’ bench for the first team’s Champions League tie instead.
Just a week later, the teenager experienced one of the key moments of any player’s career – his senior Arsenal debut in their Capital One Cup tie away to West Brom.
“I didn’t actually know I was starting the game,” Hayden admitted. “I was pleased to be in the squad and, even on the bus to the ground, I was thinking hopefully I could get 20 minutes.
“In the changing room, the shirts are all lined up for the starters, then the subs are in the next line. I automatically walked towards where the subs were and saw that [Mathieu] Flamini’s shirt was there but mine wasn’t.
“So I asked [kitman] Vic Akers where my shirt was and he said ‘it’s over there, next to Vermaelen and Mertesacker’. But I still didn’t fully realise I was starting until Steve Bould came over to run through some tactics with me!
“It was a shock, but a good shock. I wouldn’t say I’m a nervous player anyway, but it was good the way it happened and I got 84 minutes under my belt, so I was happy with that.”
Hayden has made no secret of his admiration for former Arsenal skipper Patrick Vieira and cites the French World Cup winner – along with Roy Keane – as the players who have had the greatest influence on his own style of play.
However, in recent months he has had the opportunity to work with some of the current star names in Arsene Wenger’s squad and learn from them as well.
“Since Flamini came back to the club, it’s definitely been a great help watching him play,” Hayden added.
“He’s always looking over his shoulder to block the ball to the centre-forward, he’s always talking and organising – he’s got a great passing range, he can tackle and he can head the ball.
“So I can definitely learn from him and it’s also been an inspiration to see how well someone like Jack Wilshere, coming through the ranks at Arsenal, has moved forward. Those two, especially, are always a help in training.”
As well as picking up valuable tips from individual players, Hayden feels that the first team’s success this season has had a positive knock-on effect for himself and the other youngsters at the club.
“Because the first team are doing so well, it’s not pressure as such but there’s almost a feeling for the Under-21s that we’ve got to keep up, and you have that same sort of feeling throughout the youth ranks,” he said.
“I think when you go over and see the way they train and the team spirit, it generally creates a good atmosphere around the club. Everyone’s happy and it does have an impact.
“You always want more, not in a bad way. You don’t want to just settle for the easy option and say ‘I’ve made my debut now, I’ve been involved with the Champions League’.
“You want to actually play in the Champions League and play in the Premier League. It’s a natural progression to want more things and it’s about working hard for them and giving it your all to get to that level.”