Issac Hayden says he turned down Premier League clubs to sign for Newcastle United – so Rafa Benitez could turn him into a top-flight player.
Hayden and his team-mates are on the brink of promotion.
A win over Preston North End at St James’s Park tonight would secure the club a place in the top flight.
Hayden – who never played a Premier League game with former club Arsenal – has been an integral part of Benitez’s Championship team.
And the midfielder, signed last summer, is desperate to help United get over the finishing line.
“For me, it would be fantastic to get back there and actually get a proper chance of being a Premier League player, because obviously at Arsenal, it didn’t happen and I have moved on from it,” said the 22-year-old.
“It didn’t quite happen (at Arsenal). I have not played in the Premier League, so, for me, that’s the ultimate goal, to be a regular Premier League player.
“If you ask any young player who is playing football, they would want to be in the Premier League.”
Hayden helped loan club Hull City win promotion to the Premier League last season, and a couple of top-flight clubs made offers for the Chelmsford-born player last summer.
Hayden, however, felt he would learn more playing week in, week out under Benitez in the Championship than by being a squad player for a Premier League side.
It didn’t quite happen (at Arsenal). I have not played in the Premier League, so, for me, that’s the ultimate goal, to be a regular Premier League player.Isaac Hayden
“Yes, I did, I did have a couple of Premier League offers,” said the England Under-21 international.
“But, for me, I didn’t want to go straight from a Premier League club of the stature of Arsenal to then try to get in at a Premier League club again.
“I needed the chance to actually improve as a player to get to the level of being a Premier League player, because you don’t want to go from Premier League to Premier League and then be in the same position and not play because you don’t improve.
“For me, this was the best club for me and that was the most important thing.”
Hayden, schooled by Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, believes Benitez has improved “every aspect” of his game.
“For me, personally, he has improved me as a player,” said Hayden.
“Would I be the same player if I wasn’t here? I don’t think I would be. Tactically, technically, every aspect of my game has improved. That’s also down to having game time as well.
“To get the manager’s trust is not easy, especially as a young player and especially in a team that is fighting to win promotion.
“It’s OK if you are my age playing in a team with nothing to play for. But to get that trust from him is important for me. I can only thank him for that. Hopefully, I’ve repaid him.”
Hayden believed Newcastle had a strong chance of winning promotion from his first converation with Benitez, one of the most experienced and respected coaches in European football.
“It was a club of great ambition, and with the manager we have got here, I knew from the start that the aim was to get into the Premier League,” said Hayden. “That was the ambition.”
Having seen friends Chuba Akpom and Steve Sidwell celebrate promotion with Brighton at the Amex Stadium a week ago, Hayden is hoping for a memorable night for Newcastle at St James’s Park.
“We’ve got to stick to the game plan that we want to execute,” he said. “After the game, whatever happens, happens.”