Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Aaron Tshibola would certainly testify to that more than most. The London-born Congolese baller has peered through the lens from a magnitude of vantage points within The Beautiful Game. Despite those Different Views, his love and passion for football remains unblemished as he looks to build on an impressive first few months back in his second home of Kilmarnock.
But home is where the heart is. And for Aaron, that is East London. We wanted to explore the reality of his youth in the city before he made his trailblazing rise through the Reading academy system. We also speak to the Kilmarnock midfielder about his relationship with rappers, clothing and his teammates - both past and present. But, for now, let’s go back to the beginning.
You were born and raised in East London, but you never started playing football for an academy until your mid-teens when you signed for Millwall; how did The Lions spot you? Millwall spotted me whilst I was playing for my local district team. They would come along to the county games to identify the best players from each region.
During your time at The Den, the club discontinued their academy in favour of a centre of excellence, at which point you decided to move on to another club with a functioning academy. I read that a lot of big clubs were in for you at that time - Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool - but you chose to sign for Reading as you saw it is as the best place for your long-term development and the best opportunity to break in to the first-team. I thought that was a very mature decision for someone so young - did you make that decision yourself or did you have someone guiding you at that point? You know everything! (Laughs) But I’ve always had a tight-knit family. My dad was away at the time, so he wasn’t there to physically guide me, but my mum was there when I went to trials and was speaking with those clubs. We then got assigned an agent who was going to guide us as, up until that point, we didn’t have anybody close to us who was well connected in that world. So I now had the agent, who was educated in the field, my mum, and my dad on the phone helping me find the right club and Reading just seemed to make the most sense at that time. Reading provided that longer-term guarantee, if you can call it that, and gave me a clear pathway to earn a professional contract. The rest of the bigger clubs weren’t interested in talking about a professional contract; they were more focused on a two-year scholarship programme before reviewing my progress at the end of it.
Just on that, who would you say has been the biggest influence on your career so far? Definitely my dad. He has travelled to see me play at every club I’ve been at - he’d do the long motorway journeys up to Hartlepool which is way up in the North East either every week or every second week depending on who we were playing. Both of my parents did that, to be fair, and still do it to this day. They’ve definitely been my motivation in my career.
When you were coming through at Reading, though, you played a couple of trial matches for Manchester United didn’t you? Firstly, how did that come about and, secondly, did being involved in those matches change your mindset from the previous question? The experience I had at United will stay with me forever; it was an achievement in itself. They scouted a few players from our youth system to contribute to a tournament they were going to play over in Holland - I think it was the AEGON Cup - and I was one of the players chosen. I went back to Reading full of confidence having been at one of the biggest clubs in the world. I had seen what it was like to be at a massive club and I wanted to come back, prove myself, and hopefully reach that level again in the future.
You had your first taste of a temporary transfer at Reading when you moved up to Hartlepool on-loan for the second half of the season as you've already touched on. The club were bottom of League Two and staring relegation out of the Football League in the face. You went in and made a huge contribution to the club’s survival so, firstly, how big an impact did that move have on you with regards to making in-roads in to first-team football? Massive, massive, massive. I remember having reservations about going there as, like you said, they were really struggling at the bottom of the league. I saw it as a big risk for me as I looked to introduce myself to the senior game. But I then spoke with some of the experienced players and they told me not to worry about suffering relegation if it was to happen, the thing that mattered for a player at my age was playing games of football. They told me the experience would be invaluable, so I took that on board and, still to this day, it’s the best choice I’ve made in my career and my biggest accomplishment as well keeping the club up. We achieved The Great Escape which was ever so sweet. But it was a battle and it showed me what Mens football was like.
Secondly, with Hartlepool based in the North-East of the country and Reading being just west of London, tell us about the logistics of your loan move and what that was like to deal with? Hartlepool found accommodation for me which was great and I actually felt really settled up there, which I think contributed to my performances on the pitch. I was really comfortable in my surroundings and that is key, as that's where you go back to after training and after games so it really does help.
And, lastly on loan spells, having gone on loan a further four times in your career, would you say that there are different types of loans and would you recommend going out on loan to a teammate? I definitely would. The loan system offers up opportunities for players to experience different situations and different places. Those experiences really stand you in good stead in your career. You encounter different types of players, staff members, philosophies; that can only make you a better player and gave me a better understanding of the game. I’ve had ups and I’ve had downs with my loan experiences but they’ve all strengthened me and made me the man and the player that I am today.
"I had to step up as that young man and try to be a role model or an inspiration to my friends or other young kids by showing them that you don’t need to follow that life of violence if you’re from that area. I never really had that similar type of role-model when I was growing up so to be able to do that myself has been a blessing and really humbling."
You went on to make the breakthrough in to Reading’s first-team on your return from Hartlepool but just on Reading itself, how would you describe the culture in the area given it’s close proximity to London? It’s definitely a multi-cultural place. It’s a warm place in that people are very nice. I loved my time in Reading as that is effectively where I spent my adolescence. I started to mature as time went on as I grew up in the area and could experience life and culture in Reading fully. I wouldn’t say it was like London, but the place had a good vibe; everything I needed was on my doorstep.
I also read that you saw your move to Reading as a bit of a get-out clause to escape the life that might have lay in wait for you if you had stayed in London; tell us a little bit more about that. Where I come from is full of violence. I was one of the fortunate ones who was able to escape that and do something more positive with my life. But I’ve lost many friends to that type of life who are not here with me today. I almost got my early education in life from that type of environment which made me a young man instead of a young kid. I had to step up as that young man and try to be a role model or an inspiration to my friends or other young kids by showing them that you don’t need to follow that life of violence if you’re from that area. I never really had that similar type of role-model when I was growing up so to be able to do that myself has been a blessing and really humbling.
On London, it is a bit like Scotland in that Londoners have their own slang terms and it can sound like a different language at times! Have you needed to adapt the way you speak when you go to certain clubs? That’s the thing, I think moving to Reading and stepping out of that London lifestyle also allowed me to develop a different type of formal language. All I knew before leaving London was street slang. I had to educate myself on how to interact with people but that only came about because I was able to leave for Reading. The way you speak to people makes up your overall image and that is really important.
How has the language barrier been in Scotland? Having been up here a couple of times before, I don’t struggle to understand Scottish people!
As we touched on, you come from East London; there are a number successful artists that also hail from there such as Kano, J Hus and Lancey Foux, but tell us about your own taste in music. Kojo Funds is probably the one coming out of East London that I listen to the most. We come from the same area and it’s also my type of my music. So he is the main one but I do vibe with the other guys from East too.
Given your status as a footballer, do you have much interaction with any artists? I speak to a good few. I’m very close with Kojo actually. Don EE is another one from East London who I speak to - he is basically family. He’s made a few hits like “You Alright Yeah?”. There’s a few other ones who I know but those are my guys.
What do you think could be done to help bridge the gap between music and football in this part of the UK? There’s definitely a lot more Scottish-baed players who are aware of UK artists and the music scene as a whole. I think that stems from certain players backgrounds and them speaking to other guys in the dressing room. But there’s a lot of Scottish players who listen to that kind of music themselves, so that genre of music is definitely becoming more popular up here.