When Aaron Simpson came off the bench for the curtain-raiser of his only pre-season with Wolves’ first team, he did so alongside a certain Ruben Neves.
The two were both 20 at the time, born just six days apart.
As they jogged onto the pitch in the 58thminute of the friendly against Werder Bremen, in the sunny and picturesque surroundings of Zell am Ziller in Austria, they did so at very different stages of their Molineux careers.
In what was Nuno Espirito Santo’s first fixture at the helm, Neves was launching a stellar Wolves contribution now numbering 193 games and counting which includes a Championship title, successive seventh placed Premier League finishes, and runs to the FA Cup semi-finals and Europa League quarters.
For Simpson it was very different.
Despite featuring in several more friendlies during that pre-season, and having found himself on the fringes of the first team set-up under previous boss Paul Lambert, he was in the final throes of a Molineux journey which would end without a single competitive appearance.
This isn’t a hard luck story however. Nothing of the sort.
Because last summer, whilst Neves was with the Portugal squad at the European Championships, Simpson was embarking on a new chapter, being watched by millions in the smash reality show Love Island.
Whilst Neves is more used to playing Aston Villa, the games for Simpson were taking place at a very different villa, a very luxurious one near the small town of Sant Llorenc des Cardassar in Majorca.
Life has taken the Canterbury-born 24-year-old in a very different direction, opening up many new and exciting opportunities with more to come heading into 2022.
And yet this time last year, he was still playing full-time football, part of the history-making squad which swept Sutton United to the National League title and the Football League for the first time in their 123-year history.
“It’s been a mad year, for so many reasons,” Simpson reflects.
“Back in May we were celebrating at Sutton and I was hopeful I would get a new contract and get another chance at the Football League.
“Unfortunately the gaffer spoke to me and thanked me for everything but said there wouldn’t be a new deal and it was time to move on.
“It was very disappointing at the time but looking back now, maybe it was a blessing in disguise.
“It all happened very quickly in the summer with Love Island and all of a sudden I was flying out for a completely new experience.
“It was a positive experience for sure, and the amount of opportunities which have emerged since then have been amazing.”
More on Love Island later.
But what of Simpson’s footballing journey, which was very different to the more conventional route of coming through a youth system and a club Academy?
Playing for local teams growing up he learnt his football with the Soccer Elite Academy combined with school, going on to play at senior level at just 16 for Whitstable before joining Maidstone United in the then Ryman Premier League.
Simpson soon became a regular, and was part of the team which drew 0-0 at League Two Stevenage in an FA Cup first round tie – just over six months after Kenny Jackett’s title-headed Wolves recorded exactly the same result, and then won 2-1 in the replay which was the first main draw fixture to be played on a 3G pitch.
The second round wasn’t as memorable, or maybe it was, for all the wrong reasons, as Simpson was sent off for a professional foul as Maidstone were beaten 3-1 at a Wrexham team which had Jon Flatt playing in goal.
Simpson left the pitch in tears, but his FA Cup exploits, and his appearances in the England schoolboys squad, had made their mark, with interest circling among a number of clubs.
The next time he had cause to cry, barely a couple of months later, was for a far more positive reason, as he landed a dream move to Molineux.
“We had such a great cup win against Stevenage, and so when I was sent off against Wrexham I thought it was the end of the world,” Simpson explains.
“I remember walking off the pitch in tears.
“The Maidstone dressing room at the time was unbelievable with some really big characters and they were all bantering me on the coach saying thanks for messing up their chances of getting a big cup draw.
“They knew how hard it was for me and how upset I was, but that is how a changing room works and by the end of that coach trip I was smiling again.
“The next game I started and played really well and while it was a tough one to take to be sent off I think it ended up being an experience which helped me and made me mature more quickly.
“I loved it at Maidstone even if it was for a short time and from there I was invited to a trial at Wolves.
“And that was a different world completely!
“I had always pictured becoming a professional footballer and when I came for the week’s trial I was put up in a hotel and it was like, ‘wow – what is all this about?!’
“I was so nervous the first day, proper, proper nervous, and after a week’s training we had an in-house game involving the Under-18s and Under-23s.
“I knew that was going to be make or break, and they put me up against Connor Hunte, who I had been watching all week and knew he was so sharp, a really strong and powerful player.
“But I managed to do o-k and on the Saturday I was told they wanted to sign me and on the Wednesday I moved into my digs.
“Even now I can remember going back to the hotel and phoning my Mum to tell her the news and I was in tears again – I don’t think I had ever cried happy tears before.
“I was so emotional, and I’m not normally emotional like that, but I think it was just thinking that all the hard work, all the sacrifices – the times of staying at home when all my school friends were out and at parties – it felt like it had all been worth it.
“I hadn’t come through a club’s academy like so many players do and instead I had gone down the non-league route and tried everything that way.
“It was such a mixture of everything, I was an uncontrollable mess, and I think breaking down in tears just showed how much it all meant to me.”
Simpson’s Dad Delroy was with him as he signed his contract with then Wolves Club Secretary Richard Skirrow, and set out on a four-year stay at Molineux.
And while he didn’t get to grace the hallowed turf in a first team fixture, and indeed spent a fair bit of time on loan elsewhere, he cherished pretty much every bit of the experience.
There were highlights on the pitch, including an impressive 2016/17 when the team finished second in the Under-23 league only to lose in the play-off semi-finals to West Ham thanks to a hugely controversial late penalty decision.
Not to mention being on that first pre-season tour under Nuno, training regularly with the first team, playing alongside them in friendlies.
Above all, it was the learning, and the improving, which Simpson remembers most.
“When I first arrived at Wolves, and started training with the Under-23s at the age of 17, I realised just how far I was behind everyone else,” he recalls.
“There were really technical players like Jordi Ortega from Spain and Declan Weeks, popping the ball around, and I was nowhere near it, I just remember thinking I was miles off.
“But then by the time I left Wolves, I was a completely different player.
“When I signed I was more of a workhorse, giving 110 per cent every game, loving going in for a big challenge.
“When I left I felt I was so much more developed on a technical side, I was calmer, my game understanding was so much better.
“I had the experience of that pre-season tour, and had trained a lot with the first team, especially when Kenny (Jackett) and Paul (Lambert) were there.
“Under Paul in particular, things went really well and I had a good relationship with him and felt there was a chance to break into the first team.
“Then he left and Nuno came in and the club were clearly moving in a very different direction which has been amazing to see, but for a young player like myself probably wasn’t the best timing!
“My Wolves race was run, and it was the right time to leave, which I eventually did with still 18 months of my contract remaining.
“But it was such a great time, in many ways a whirlwind, and I made some great friends, many who I still keep in touch with to this day.
“I will certainly always have a soft spot for Wolves in my heart.”
Even though he didn’t play any minutes, a loan with Portsmouth gave him a first opportunity of being in and around a first team dressing room, but then stays with AFC Telford and FC Jumilla in Spain weren’t to prove quite as valuable.
Wolves were sending young players to those clubs to further their education – Telford at a time when Rob Edwards was boss – and while Simpson could see the merit in those arrangements he didn’t feel they were right for him personally.
“I really didn’t enjoy my time with Jumilla at all, but when I think back now I still realise it taught me valuable life lessons,” he adds.
“Going to live in another country for six months, learning a new language, at least I had something to take away from the experience.”
By that time Simpson had already enjoyed his ‘favourite’ temporary stay, making several appearances in the Scottish Premier League for Kilmarnock under now Scotland boss Steve Clarke.
“It was only a short time, but I really felt part of it at Kilmarnock, and Steve’s man management was excellent,” he recalls.
“He trusted me, he gave me my professional league debut and having not played elsewhere that was a real breath of fresh air.”
Upon leaving Wolves Simpson was on his travels once again, this time across the Irish Sea where he made eight appearances for Waterford in the League of Ireland, before deciding to return closer to home, representing Dover in the National League up until the time that the Covid-19 pandemic took hold.
There followed his most successful footballing spell to date, arriving late to Sutton United for the 2020/21 season but then making a dozen appearances – and scoring a fantastic goal against Solihull Moors – as they won the title to reach the Holy Grail of the Football League.
“An amazing season,” is the verdict from Simpson, who was in a squad featuring several former Wolves colleagues including best mate Will Randall-Hurren, Donovan Wilson and Ben Goodliffe.
“Although I didn’t maybe play as much as I would have liked to I had come into the season a bit late and so the team was already established.
“But I got on well with the manager Matt Gray, and to be a part of a team that took Sutton into the league for the very first time was incredible.
“And to do that with so many friends made it even better.
“Myself and Will are really good friends off the pitch as well and to win a league alongside your best mate is something not many people are lucky enough to enjoy.”
Then though came that exit, of which the initial disappointment was swiftly overtaken by an exciting new opportunity.
It was back in January that Simpson had first been contacted by a casting team who had been scouring social media and asked if he would be willing to apply for a reality show on ITV 2.
“I thought it was a wind-up,” he recalls.
“I remember sending the screenshot to Will and saying, ‘imagine if this was Love Island’!”
Long story short, it was!
After a series of calls, auditions and medicals, Simpson made it through, and went on to appear on our screens this summer, entering the villa on day 42 of Series 7.
To the uninitiated who hoped they were just reading a football interview and may not be fully aware of the intricacies of Love Island, it’s a dating show set in a spacious Spanish villa following the fortunes of a string of fit, healthy and tanned contestants all looking for love.
Making passes of a different kind to Neves, shall we say.
It is watched by millions, the most popular show for 18-34 year-olds, and for all its critics offers a fascinating insight into all manner of human relationships where people are effectively confined to each other’s company albeit with fun challenges, excellent hospitality and luxurious surroundings.
Entering the villa later than others was a challenge for Simpson, with so many relationships already formed, but it was one he relished, and his naturally outgoing and effervescent personality soon came to the fore.
“I wasn’t nervous at all walking into the villa, certainly not at first,” he recalls.
“Although I didn’t realise how big the doors were, I am not the tallest of people and they certainly don’t look as big as they are on the television!
“Anyway, it was only as I was preparing to walk in that they told me I was going to go on two dates straightaway, rather than having time to settle in and get to know everyone.
“Also whilst they let you watch past episodes before you went in, it was only up until a couple of days before, because they wanted to keep it fresh.
“So when I did go in, I hadn’t realised it was after a huge argument had taken place.
“I could feel a weird tension around, I wondered if it was because I had gone in, and when I asked the boys they were like: ‘what, you don’t know?’
“Being in there is a very different experience and is hard to explain to people who haven’t been through it.
“There are little things, like not knowing the time – imagine going two or three weeks without knowing what the time is every day!
“And you also have to remember what goes out on TV is about 40 minutes of what has actually taken place over 24 hours.
“They have to stick to the storyline a little bit so there is a load of stuff that goes on that you don’t actually see.
“But it’s not scripted, which is another question I have been asked loads.
“If everyone is sitting there and there is nothing going on you might be encouraged to go and speak to other people but it’s not scripted at all.
“It was a really different experience and I loved it to be honest, it was unique.”
There has been a more serious side to Love Island, stimulating conversation around mental health and after-care, with two former contestants having committed suicide as well as former host Caroline Flack.
Simpson acknowledges he has now put himself in a position where his life might come more under the microscope, but feels comfortable in being able to cope with the scrutiny.
“Coming out of the villa there is that increased attention which is part and parcel of this industry and I can see why some people have found it difficult,” he explains.
“The press can be very personal – if I am seen out with a girl now it will be ‘Aaron is dating so-and-so’ or ‘Aaron is doing this’ so you have to second guess what you are going to do a little bit.
“It does take some getting used to and I am still adjusting but I feel I was probably in a fortunate position because having been involved in football, I was already quite self-aware and knew I always had to be careful on social media and stuff like that.
“I feel like I have been in a good place since coming out of the villa and am just taking things in my stride and trying to enjoy it.”
What Simpson is also doing is trying to better himself to make the very most of the opportunities that are now coming his way.
After leaving Love Island, he completed a course in TV presenting, and is already enjoying covering racedays for a Racing Channel as well as working with several different brands.
And the big ambition?
Well there are plenty of similarities between the worlds of football and entertainment, and Simpson would love to transform the one foot he has in each into something more concrete for the future.
“I would love to get into football presenting,” he declares.
“I did the course and getting out there and doing the racing has taken me out of my comfort zone and while I wasn’t that confident at first, I think I am getting better and better the more I do.
“It would be great to get involved in the Premier League somehow, and I also know a lot of people in the EFL as well, so hopefully if I keep going and keep progressing I can see where it takes me and get some more opportunities.”
Those contacts within football have endured for Simpson in the same way as he has remained in touch with many of his Love Island ‘team-mates’.
When he came out of the villa, it took around 45 minutes for his phone to update with all the messages, including reconnecting with many of those from his footballing past.
“Everyone has been so supportive and I got so many great messages when I got out,” he reveals.
“And the best thing about it was catching up with people who I knew but hadn’t spoken to or been in touch with for so long.
“One of those was Kevin McDonald, who I knew from Wolves, and is a top guy.
“He was asking me all about the experience and we were chatting about everything that has been happening with him and his kidney transplant and it was nice to hear he is doing well.
“It was super nice to catch up with so many people when I came out and I was feeling the love for sure!”
Simpson is not only looking forward to new horizons now but also continuing with previous ones, playing football again with Hemel Hempstead in National League South.
It is a flexible arrangement – he may need to miss training or matches for other work commitments and when he does that he knows there is less likelihood of being regularly selected.
But he is relishing getting the boots back on, being in that dressing room environment, enjoying his football.
And he has much to look forward to.
Life is very different this Christmas to last, although for the moment it is one in isolation with Simpson and sister Rianna both ensconced at the family home having tested positive for Covid.
They are feeling o-k though, and Simpson is more than ready for what lies ahead.
“I think it is going to be a chilled Christmas with this going on but there are plans in the pipeline for the New Year which should be really exciting,” he explains.
“I am taking life as it comes as you can never think too far ahead in this industry, but the one thing that won’t change is me.
“Wherever I go, and whatever I do, I want to make sure that people will always be able to say that I am still being myself.
“As long as I can stay like that, not get carried away and just keep on being me, I will be happy with whatever comes along in the future.”
Simpson is right, he hasn’t changed. For those who know him he remains the same affable, confident and engaging personality going about his business with a smile on his face, an approach which is much needed in the current climate.
It’s been quite a year, from winning promotion with Sutton to winning a place on Love Island, completing a rollercoaster career ride from Molineux to Majorca.
And hopes are high for 2022.
Four-and-a-half years on, maybe the next time Simpson is standing next to Ruben Neves, it will be to interview him.