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Features

Isaac Hayden programme interview - in full

Written by Tom Easterby

Isaac Hayden – so often the heartbeat of Newcastle United’s Championship title-winning team last season – made his first ever Premier League appearance against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday. Ahead of the game, he gave an exclusive interview to United – the club’s official matchday programme – which you can now read in its entirety here…

Isaac Hayden sits down in the stalls and takes it all in. There is a certain majesty about the Tyne Theatre and Opera House, befitting the 150 years it has stood at the bottom of Westgate Road, just a short walk from St. James’ Park. It feels a strangely appropriate place to discuss this afternoon’s curtain-raiser.

“I’ve been to the theatre a fair few times,” says Hayden, over the sound of rehearsals for West Side Story on the stage in front of him. It is, he admits, one of the more unusual venues in which he’s been interviewed.

“I’ve been to The Lion King, I’ve been to Stomp in London and a couple of other musical theatre events, so it’s something that I quite enjoy when I get the time to go. I’ll take the missus, or take my mum, something like that. It’s always a decent day or night out.”

Listening to Hayden speak, it is difficult to believe that he is just 22 years of age. His eloquence and conviction of thought is genuine, not forced or for show. There is a maturity about the England Under-21 international that is not only evident in his words, but in his actions too.

Indeed, Hayden – who visited the Newcastle’s West End Foodbank to lend a helping hand earlier this year – arrives early for this interview and is generous with his time. His level-headed demeanour and outlook on life are characteristics he believes emanate from his childhood.

“A lot comes from my upbringing. My parents weren’t rich, but they weren’t poor – it was just a general working-class family, and they always made sure I had the right values and never got ahead of myself,” he explains.

“I think it comes from within the person as well, you know? I understand a lot about where I could be, and the possibilities that I’ve got. The opportunities that I’ve got are amazing, and I don’t want to throw them away or take them for granted, because things could be a lot worse.

“I just have that mindset every single day – that even if I have a bad day or a bad performance, things could always be worse. To be a professional footballer and do what you love every day is a privilege.”

In this city where he works towards seizing those opportunities, there is comfort to be taken from laying down roots. Hayden, born in Chelmsford, is part of a pool of players, all signed permanently, who are largely similar in years, while his loved ones make regular visits north.

“It’s difficult for family members to come up all the time, because it’s quite a long distance, but when they can, it’s always nice,” he says. “I’m quite an independent person so I can deal with things by myself, but then I always know I can have the help of people around me who I know have only got my best interests at heart.

“Family members come and visit me a lot more, because they know that this is my home now, and I’ve taken well to it. They come up and spend a lot of time with me when they can.

“The lads, too – it’s a close-knit group, with a lot of lads who are the same age. Jacob’s 22, I’m 22, Rolando’s 21, Jamaal’s 23, Yedlin’s 24, Pérez is 24, so there’s a lot of players around the same age, and that helps a lot when it comes to time off the field.”

If Hayden arrived on Tyneside last summer as something of an unknown quantity, his value to the Newcastle cause is now perhaps measurable by the energy and tenacity the midfield misses when he is absent.

His qualities have been recognised by those in the stands. He has a connection with the supporters, and is acutely aware of the pedestal on which players are placed by fans. When asked why he has been received as well as he has by the Magpies crowd, he considers his answer.

“I can’t put my finger on it exactly. I think it’s just because I’m not…” Hayden pauses. “I wouldn’t say I’m arrogant, and I’m not a ‘big-time Charlie’. I just go on the football pitch and put 100 per cent effort and commitment in, and play as if I’m a fan. I think that’s the best thing you can do as a football player – play as if you are one of the guys sitting there paying to watch you, because they would kill for the opportunity to be where you are.

“The fans are important. Without fans at a football club, it doesn’t work. To have the fans that we have, we’re very fortunate. They want the best for the football club, and so do the players.

“I think that we worked well together last season. There were times when it was difficult for the fans, which the players understand – we’re fans ourselves, we still love football, so we can understand from their point of view that certain times last season must have been frustrating, but they stuck with us. In the last couple of games, I think we rewarded them.”

Thirty-eight games in all competitions is a total few may have expected the former Hull City loanee to reach in his first year at the club. It was less of a surprise for the man himself.

“That was always the idea. I don’t think I’d have joined if I didn’t think I was going to play my part as much as I did,” says Hayden. “A lot of people were probably a bit sceptical when I joined, thinking I might not have played anywhere near as much as I did or contributed as much as I did.

“But the main thing for me is that I knew the manager had trust in me, and wanted me to sign for a reason. I think it was more a factor of confidence from the manager, and confidence in myself.

“I improved as the season went on, and I was learning about my game. It was the first time, really, that I’d played in the team, week-in, week-out. There were two or three games a week, and you’d always have a game where you’d be involved. The season before, I’d go four or five weeks without playing a minute, then I’d get 90 minutes, and then another four weeks without.

“There’s always going to be times when you’re not on form or not playing at your best, but it’s about riding through those times and making sure that you come out of it stronger, mentally and physically.”

Hayden’s belief in his own ability is easy to detect, and perhaps a large factor in why his first term in black and white was such a success. He explains that, as a product of Arsenal’s esteemed but often stifled youth system, such a level of faith is less of a desirable trait than simply a requisite for the job.

“The thing is, that when you play for a club like Arsenal from the age of 13, it’s almost like you have to have a winning mentality and a belief, otherwise you don’t survive at a club like that,” says Hayden, who joined the Gunners from Southend United.

“If you don’t have confidence in your own ability or faith in yourself then you’re never going to get anywhere in those sorts of environments, because it breeds the best players in the world and the best talents that comes in at a young age. If you haven’t got that mental strength, then you’ve got no chance.

“When you’re going into training at 17 and you’ve got players there like Van Persie and Nasri, if you’ve not got confidence in yourself then how are they going to have confidence in you? Some players might not have it but can develop it, and some players might not have it at all. You generally find that the players that play in the Premier League are all quite confident and they have that faith in their ability, otherwise they wouldn’t be there.”

That Hayden, just 13 months on from his departure from the Emirates, is now back in the top flight and an equal of those in Arsène Wenger’s squad is testament to his own ability. He insists there is no residual desire to prove anything to the Gunners, who handed him his senior debut four years ago.

“Not at all, actually. I’ve been asked that question a few times. It’s not about proving anything to Arsenal, because if I’m being honest with myself and I think if they were being honest, I think at the time they genuinely did want to let me go,” says Hayden, who now has two Championship promotions under his belt.

“It was a situation where I had a year left, they’d brought in Granit Xhaka because he was a proven player the manager wanted, and they couldn’t afford me the game time I needed to improve.

“I said to them, ‘look, I don’t want to go on loan anymore’. I didn’t want to be a player like at Chelsea, where you sign a three-year contract and then go on loan for three years. I want to go somewhere where they’re going to make me feel welcome, and I can contribute. I don’t want to go there for a season, come back, do the same thing again and then repeat it – I wanted to feel like I was a part of the club’s family, rather than just being there temporarily.

“I think they knew that’s what I needed. The manager at Arsenal was very good – I’ve got a lot to thank him for. I don’t really have anything to prove to Arsenal. I think that deep down the manager knew I had ability anyway – it’s just that I needed a chance to show it, which he couldn’t give me.”

Now, with a first real crack at the top flight to come, Hayden has that chance. Helping Rafa Benítez’s men earn victory over Tottenham Hotspur today would be a fine first act on the big stage.

“If I get the opportunity to play and perform, for however many minutes that is, it would be great to beat Spurs, because of the previous I’ve had with Arsenal. I’m an Arsenal fan anyway, so to beat Spurs would be quite nice,” he says, preparing to depart for an afternoon with visiting family.

“But it’s not even just that, it’s just the whole Premier League experience now – the feeling that we’re where we deserve to be, with the club’s stature and the manager and the infrastructure we’ve got. It just gives us that platform now to go on and improve, and to prove that we do deserve to be there.”

"I didn’t want to be a player like at Chelsea, where you sign a three-year contract and then go on loan for three years. I want to go somewhere where they’re going to make me feel welcome, and I can contribute. I don’t want to go there for a season, come back, do the same thing again and then repeat it – I wanted to feel like I was a part of the club’s family, rather than just being there temporarily."

Isaac Hayden

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