LESS than four years ago, Max Aarons was a midfielder who was not even playing Sunday league football.
This afternoon, Norwich’s teenage right-back is set to pit his wits against Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the latest big test of his rapid rise to fame.
Aarons’ route to the top has been an unconventional one, to say the least.
His decision to quit Luton’s academy at age 14 and train on his own with specialist skills coach Saul Isaksson-Hurst has certainly paid dividends.
But the short-term consequences led to some difficult moments during nearly two years in limbo before he joined Norwich.
Aarons, 19, said: “That was a weird period. Even my friends who were playing Sunday league, they’d be saying at school during the week, ‘Oh, I can’t wait for our game this weekend’.
“I’d be sat there thinking, ‘I’m not even playing this weekend’.
“I just trusted that the training I was doing was good enough for me. I knew it was a process I had to go through to find the right club.”
Aarons’ dad Mike had hooked him up with Isaksson-Hurst after he announced he wanted to train more than he was at Luton.
Aarons said: “I was looking at some of the Arsenal and Chelsea boys I was friends with at the time, like Callum Hudson-Odoi, and they were in every day training.
“That was in my character — that I wanted to be doing as much as they were doing.
“I had a few places lined up and a few trials, but in the meantime I was working with Saul.”
Isaksson-Hurst spent more than a decade working as a skills coach with youngsters at Tottenham and Chelsea — as well as working in the USA and Spain — before setting up My Personal Football Coach.
Up to three times per week, Aarons’ parents ferried him from the family home in Milton Keynes to Mill Hill, London, for the one-on-one sessions.
Aarons said: “I changed completely as a player. It brought me to new levels. The only real downside was that I wasn’t playing in a team, so I wasn’t getting to put it into practice.”
Isaksson-Hurst said: “Max was very ambitious and keen. He had a great mentality. It’s difficult going in for trials and getting knockbacks.
“But even when he was unsuccessful at Chelsea, he said to me, ‘I know I can play at that level’.
“It is quite amazing that he didn’t have organised football for two years but he just keep working hard on his technical game.
“It was a case of keeping him fresh and sharp and working on high-quality technical outcomes, particularly his one-on-one ability.
“Now it makes him stand out as one of the best attacking full-backs.”
But Aarons still considered himself a midfielder when Gregg Broughton — who had coached him at Luton, invited him to Norwich in 2016.
Aarons explained: “He said, ‘We want to sign you but I think going forward that you’ll be a full-back’
“I was surprised by that and couldn’t see where he was coming from. I played against Ipswich at their training ground and had one of the best games I’d ever had.
“I think I got two assists. I was good going forward and surprisingly, although I hadn’t played in defence before, I was good defensively. From then on I started to really enjoy it.
“I still watch clips all the time of people like Kyle Walker and Dani Alves, so I can try to add things to my game.
“It’s a key position now. People say, ‘Pfft, full-back’. In olden times, people didn’t want to play there.
“I saw it as a chance to go on and kickstart something good for myself.”
And it has. Norwich boss Daniel Farke blooded Aarons in the Carabao Cup at the start of last season and then threw him into the East Anglian derby against Ipswich for his league debut.
Aarons, who is not 20 until January, has not looked back. He was named EFL Young Player of the Season after starring in Norwich’s Championship-winning campaign and became an England Under-21 international in September.
He has been linked with moves to bigger clubs such as Tottenham — possibly as soon as January’s transfer window.
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But Aarons already seems mature beyond his years and can still reply on people such as Isaksson-Hurst to help him keep his feet on the ground.
He said: “In the summer I usually go back and do some training with him, like I did in June, and I work on the same things as I did when I was young.
“He’s a hard taskmaster. If you start thinking, ‘I don’t want to be doing this’, he’s on you — even now.”