Max Aarons has had an unusual route into football. It was not always certain that Norwich’s exciting right-back would make it as a professional. The 19-year-old started out at Luton but his decision to leave them at the age of 14 looked ill-advised when his time at Tottenham ended prematurely.
“I got offered a new deal at Luton but I wanted to come to a club with category-one status, which is where academy footballers get more training hours,” Aarons says. “I was on trial at Tottenham and it didn’t work out.”
Having rejected Luton’s contract offer, Aarons found himself without a club. But when he was wondering what to do next, an intriguing opportunity emerged. Saul Isaksson-Hurst, a coach who used to work at Chelsea, got in touch and asked if Aarons fancied doing some one-to-one training. They hit it off and Aarons took a year away from traditional football, combining his solo sessions with Isaksson-Hurst with his school work. “It was taking my game to another level,” he says. “I felt sharper than doing any group training.”
Aarons does not know anyone who has done something similar. His Norwich teammate Jamal Lewis spent a year exploring a career in athletics, but that was different. Aarons had taken a big risk. There was a danger he would find himself locked out.
“That nearly happened,” he says. “I was going to a few different clubs trialling here and there. There was nothing concrete. It was difficult being so young and going into places where you don’t know anyone.”
Not playing games made it harder. Aarons remembers being exhausted when he first stepped back on to the pitch, but his sharpness soon returned. “Before the last time I came into Norwich, I was just training with MK Dons,” he says. “I was there for about six weeks, just training. I had about six games there, which put me in really good stead.”
His father had contacted Gregg Broughton, who left Luton for Norwich’s academy in 2014. “I was on trial for three or four weeks before signing as a scholar,” Aarons says.
“When I came here it almost felt like home because I knew a lot of the staff here and a lot of the players I played with at Luton who had come here with Gregg.”
Aarons looks around and marvels at Norwich’s new academy complex, which was unveiled during the summer. When he first arrived there were portable buildings everywhere. There was certainly no 3G pitch. Progress has been rapid and Aarons is not the only graduate who has broken into the first team. Todd Cantwell, Ben Godfrey and Lewis are regulars in the first team.
Norwich, who host Manchester United on Sunday afternoon, have not let go of the expansive style that enabled them to win the Championship last season. They did not lose faith with playing out from the back when they lost at Liverpool on the opening weekend. Yet they have not won since beating Manchester City at Carrow Road last month. Their defending was appalling in the recent 5-1 home defeat by Aston Villa and they are in the bottom three.
Nonetheless, Aarons believes Daniel Farke is right to trust in his philosophy. “There were times last year where it wasn’t going well, but we stuck to it and came up as champions,” he says. “We’re all learning but our main focus was not to sway from what got us here. That will be good in the long run.”
Aarons has made rapid progress since his debut in August 2018, earning a spot in the Championship team of the season. He is an England Under-21 international and was linked with United in the summer. Spurs are also likely to need a new right-back soon.
There is no shortage of talented young English full-backs. It might not be long before Aarons, who admires Kyle Walker’s game, is competing with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Aaron Wan-Bissaka for a place in the England side. He loves to attack and it is no surprise to hear he started out as a winger. “You need full-backs to deliver goals and assists and be defensively solid,” he says. “The role now is tougher than ever but it has more rewards.”
Talk of England leads us to the abhorrent scenes in Bulgaria this month. Aarons was on under-21s duty and watched the game with Leicester’s James Justin. He was shocked and angered when he witnessed the racist abuse from the Bulgarian crowd. “It shouldn’t be happening in this day and age,” he says. “It’s disgusting. I couldn’t believe what was going on.”
Aarons has a multicultural background. His father’s parents came to Britain from Jamaica and he has relatives there. He is in touch with his roots and has not forgotten his early struggles. He speaks to Isaksson-Hurst on a regular basis and is determined not to let success change him. “Sometimes you do sit back and think: ‘Wow,’” he says. “It’s been a great 18 months but I need to carry it on. I want to stay level-headed.”
The Guardian Sport