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.
Who has control of the aux at Rugby Park? If it’s not myself, it’s Kirk Broadfoot.
Oh is it? That sounds like two opposite ends of the spectrum! He actually likes a variety of music! Fair play to him, he does have good taste: American, English…. Scottish! (Laughs)
On your Killie teammates, I wanted to ask you about Nicke Kabamba. Like yourself, he is from London and also represents DR Congo at international level - was there that instant connection for you guys? Yeah, it was instant. I didn’t even know he was from Congo so as soon as he told me I was like ‘wow!’. We just took to each other, man.
And on DR Congo, you have the one cap so far, but how much does playing for your country mean to you? It means a lot to me. There have been hurdles to overcome which haven’t allowed me to add to my caps, but I really hope to get a call-up some time in the future and experience it again. Earning my first cap is another one of my biggest achievements in football.
They speak French over there don’t they? How was that for you when you played with the team? I am actually fluent in French so it wasn’t difficult at all, and I understand a lot of the alternative Congolese language as well.
Another element of London culture that might differ to Scotland is dress sense! How has your drip gone down in the Kilmarnock dressing room over time? Some may not fancy it, some do! (Laughs) The guys have their own opinion. That’s the thing with fashion though, not everyone has the same taste and that’s why it’s such a fluid concept. But I like to be different with how I dress. I don’t want to be ordinary. I like to mix-and-match and try new things. If it works then it works, if it don’t, then who cares? (Laughs) I try to express my personality with that stance. I think that’s how I am on the pitch as well: If it works it works, if it doesn’t then go again.
Talk to us about your own brand. Different Views, yeah. I’ve got it on today. That’s my own clothing brand and something I like to work on. Obviously football is my main focus but it’s something that’s in the works and I am passionate about it.
Who inspired you to start up your own clothing range? Virgil Abloh with Off-White, Jerry Lorenzo with Fear of God - those are the kind of high-end brands that I like. I would spend a lot of time and money trying to source these brands to wear myself so I thought about investing that same time in to creating my own clothes.
I also wanted to ask you about your trims. You’ve been fairly experimental with it over the years - who is the inspiration behind that? Paul Pogba is a player that I like and try to learn a lot from on the pitch, but he is obviously a big personality as well who is never shy in trying out new styles. Again, I just want to showcase myself as being slightly different so I thought that, whilst I have the hair there, why not do something fun with it? (Laughs) I’ve added lines, colour, different shapes; that’s just me.
Have you managed to find yourself an afro-barbershop in Scotland to help you continue setting trends? Yeah, I’ve got one in Glasgow. He’s actually from the same country as me which is cool.
Is that Ex? Yeah, that’s the one!
Going back to football, Steve Clarke was the manager at Reading who gave you your chance but he was later replaced by Jaap Stam and, with that, went to Aston Villa to assist Roberto Di Matteo. Do you think Steve Clarke was influential in Villa’s interest in you? I never got an insight into that actually. I remember having a call with the gaffer there at the time and Di Matteo wanted me as I matched the criteria of player they wanted. Steve Clark was the assistant and so wouldn’t have the final say, but I’m not sure how big a role he played in me going there.
Secondly, I read that you actually didn’t want to leave Reading for Villa Park initially. So just talk us through your headspace at that time and the process of the transfer. I felt at home with Reading. I was out injured for a long spell and was desperate to repay the faith the staff had in me during that period. But I actually think the Reading hierarchy didn’t believe I could recover fully from the injury and so were keen to cash in on me at that point. That was upsetting as Reading had been my club from early and that’s where I grew up. Yet, despite being in the Championship at the time, Aston Villa are a Premier League club, so it was the perfect place for me to go to once I realised Reading wanted to sell me.
"That’s the thing with fashion though, not everyone has the same taste and that’s why it’s such a fluid concept. But I like to be different with how I dress. I don’t want to be ordinary. I like to mix-and-match and try new things."
As we touched on, you had four more loan spells at Aston Villa but the first one came only two months after you had signed. What do you remember from that and do you think that you never got a fair crack of the whip at Aston Villa? Di Matteo was sacked quite quickly that season and the transition was crazy. They brought in another manager who brought in his staff who either never knew a lot about me or never believed in me. I felt I should have been given much more time, especially after the club had invested so much in me, to prove my worth. But, at the same time, the club were looking to return to the Premier League and you don’t have time to blood youngsters when you’re doing that, so it just shows how ruthless the game is. I tried to stay focused though; I managed to break into the team in January after I returned from my loan but was in and out of the team a lot. I just wanted to go out and play football, so that’s when I got my next loan move.
I wanted to skip on to leaving Villa Park permanently. You moved to Belgium with Waasland-Beveren, was that a case of just wanting out to play football or was it a conscious decision to experience a different league culture? Both actually. I wanted to play games but I wanted to further develop my understanding of football and continue my education. Playing in Europe is something I had always dreamed of doing as well. I’ve played in the top league in Belgium against massive European clubs who sell players to the Premier League. I would have loved for it to have played out better than it did in the end, but you have to keep it moving.
When you went over, what cultural differences did you spot - both in lifestyle and in football? We had a foreign manager when I joined so it was pretty strict - it was almost like being at school again. We had to abide by certain time schedules, restrictions and rules. I’m not sure if it was to improve the discipline of the younger players in the team, but it was totally new to me and something I hadn’t experienced in England. But that’s a learning experience for me and I enjoyed it. Outside of football, I lived in Antwerp which is the second biggest city in Belgium which was really cool. I was there with my family and I really took to the city. Belgian people are a bit different in their ways but it was interesting.
Could you get by with your ability to speak French as well? In some places I could. If not, it was English, so it wasn’t too bad.
You then swapped Belgium for Portugal in the January transfer window, why was that? I think it was just because I was going through a bad patch in Belgium and I felt that the feeling that the club had for me changed from what it was when I first signed. I believe I was the first person to be blamed when results didn’t improve as I was supposed to the player who was brought in to change things. I didn’t feel that the club showed me the support I needed and it was affecting my mental state and my family, so that’s when I decided I needed to move on to continue my development in Portugal.
I think Aves were struggling at the bottom of the Portuguese league of the time. Was it a difficult environment to go in to as well? It was. At the time I thought that we could do it. I never really considered the environment and the vibe that would be waiting for me when I signed for the club. Having experienced it, I definitely do now! But it can be a toxic place when the team keeps losing. It’s so much better to be in a happy space when, even when you do lose, everyone is still working together. There were so many issues off the field as well at Aves which really conspired against the team.
In July of last year you put out a tweet saying that financial difficulties at the club meant you had to leave and were now a free agent. What can you tell us about the goings on at the club? The club struggled to honour the contracts of the players. That meant players were going months without receiving their wages. That was really tough to deal with. At the end of the day, you need money to survive. If you’re also training really hard everyday to try and get the club out of relegation trouble with no reward, it is hard to accept. It eventually got to the point whereby I couldn’t continue, so that’s when I put out the tweet.
Were you feeling unsettled at that point as you were looking for your fourth club in the space of a year? 100%. I felt extremely unsettled despite taking to both the Belgian and Portuguese cultures. Problems were present at both clubs and they are never easy to deal with when you’re tying to focus on football.
You then completed the Killie hat-trick when you returned to Rugby Park. Did it almost feel like a homecoming for you, especially on the back of feeling so unsettled? Definitely. It was a relief in some ways knowing that I was here permanently and there were no more loans. I know I feel valued here and that is so important to me.
You’ve adapted to Scottish football very well but would you say it differs to the English game at all and, if so, in which ways? It’s very physical up here, very intense. Every player is very honest and hardworking; you never get an easy game in Scotland. I think England has a big focus on trying to be technical - Arsenal were that for a number of years- whereas it’s hard work first and foremost here.
And does that suit you? I’m not a small guy who shies away from that type of battle. The experience I had at Hartlepool set me up for playing in Scotland as well. In saying that, I have my preferred style of play which is to bring the ball down and play football. But you need to be able to do the other side of the game as well.
We’ve chatted about recommending loan spells, but would you recommend coming up to Scotland to any of your English peers? I do. All the time! I tell them it’s one of the best things I’ve done in my career. The fans are so passionate, you get the publicity, you get exposure, certain games are on the TV and, for me, it’s definitely better than the lower leagues in England. But some guys prefer to stay there for one reason or another and work their way up that way; it’s each to their own, I guess.
Lastly, if you had to pick one player that you’ve played with to play centre midfield with you at Kilmarnock, who would you pick? It has to be Jack… Jack Grealish.
Aw yeah, he’s alright… Yeah! We were at Villa together. I’d love to see him on our artificial pitch! (Laughs)
Location: Rugby Park Stadium
Styling: Aaron Tshibola
Photography: Connor Stewart
Words: Scott Kelly