TWO matches for England Under-21s; two more hugely impressive performances that contributed to an England victory and could easily have seen him named Man of the Match. It has been another impressive international break for Middlesbrough midfielder Hayden Hackney.

Not content with claiming an assist in Serbia as England’s youngsters ran out 3-0 winners last weekend, Hackney caught the eye again on Tuesday evening as he controlled the heart of midfield in another 3-0 win over Northern Ireland at Goodison Park.

Having switched international allegiance from Scotland to England earlier this year, Redcar-born Hackney has used his appearances with England Under-21s to cement his reputation as one of the most exciting midfielders outside the Premier League.

Middlesbrough supporters have grown accustomed to the sight of him running matches from central-midfield, but the rate of his progress nevertheless remains remarkable. A year-and-a-half ago, and the 21-year-old was struggling to get a game for a Scunthorpe United side heading for relegation from League Two.

“I’m delighted for Hayden,” said Boro boss Michael Carrick, who has played a central role in Hackney’s development in the last 12 months. “He’s had another good couple of games away with England. He’s settled in very well when he’s gone there.

“I watched the games, and he looks at home at that level, which is a really good sign. Every time there’s been a challenge or a step up for him, he’s taken to it naturally. He’s done that ever since I came here.

“He’s full of potential, there’s loads more to come from him. He’s doing great and I really enjoy working with him. He’s obviously a big part of the team, and it’s fantastic for the club to have players come through the academy like that and be recognised by their national team. He’ll continue to have a big part to play in the first team, and I think that’s what the academy is all about. Hayden is the shining light of that at the moment.”

Having stepped out of the youth ranks at West Ham to make an instant impact with both club and country, Carrick knows exactly what it is like to be a young play-making midfielder with growing hype and expectation being piled onto your shoulders.


He anticipates there will be highs and lows along the way for Hackney, but is convinced the youngster has the character to cope with whatever is thrown at him, whether good or bad.

“There’s never been any sign of any problems with Hayden,” he said. “He’s coped with everything. Every time there’s been a challenge, he’s stepped up and taken on that challenge head on.

“He’s not changed one bit as a person, as a lad, since I walked through the door. That’s testament to him and his family. It’s not easy to do that. I’ve got a lot of respect for him for that.

“There’s a lot can be thrown at you with how well he’s done. It can turn your head. You’ve got people stopping you in the street, and all of a sudden, it can change you as a person. But it certainly hasn’t done that with Hayden.

“He’s a dream to work with, he really is. He comes in, gets on with his work, and wants to learn and improve with absolutely no fuss. I’m sure he will continue that. I don’t have to worry about him one bit in terms of that side of things. I think whatever is thrown at him, he’ll cope with it because it does it with such an assurance, authority and inner confidence. That’s a fabulous way to be.”

And if Hackney does start to stray down the wrong path, he has the perfect player alongside him in Boro skipper Jonny Howson to keep him on the straight and narrow.

“I’ve said it a lot before – your senior players are so important,” said Carrick, ahead of this afternoon's game with Bristol City. “It’s so important to have good senior pros around the place. It sounds quite an old-fashioned thing, but I certainly had it.

“I was fortunate enough to have really good senior pros around me when I was coming through at West Ham. I had John Moncur and Steve Lomas at the time, who were in the first team, and they helped me when I got in there in a similar way to how Jonny has been helping Hayden.

“I think there’s a number of really good senior lads who look after the young boys here. They guide them in different ways – some speak to them a bit, some set the example – and what the boys see is how to go about your business day in, day out. How to react, how to behave. The performance always comes a little bit from yourself, doing what you’re good at, and the young boys are all thriving here, which is fantastic to see.”

Middlesbrough (probable, 4-2-3-1): Dieng; van den Berg, Fry, McNair, Engel; Howson, Hackney; Jones, Crooks, Greenwood; Coburn.