This article was published in the Official Dunfermline Athletic Football Club Match-Day Programme on Saturday, 25th November 2017, versus Dumbarton.
Thanks to DAFC for allowing me to publish my article on my website.
Please Note: This interview was conducted prior to Aaron breaking his leg.
In the summer of 2016, Aaron Splaine was offered the chance to sign with one of England’s largest and most prestigious sides – Leeds United. The midfielder had successfully won a contract after going on trial with the Elland Road side; unfortunately, a kick about with his mates in the close season saw that move fall through.
The midfielder was born in Spain but grew up in Scotland.
“My mum and dad lived out there when I was born in Malaga. I don’t remember anything about it though as they moved back across here when I was one – I think it was to be closer to my family as I have a sister too who is a year older than me. My mum’s side of the family are all from Scotland but my dad’s family live in England and in the end we moved to a place called Newton Stewart which is in Dumfries and Galloway.
As a child, I was into all kinds of sport – from ping pong to motocross; skiing to tennis, badminton… I was into a bit of everything to be honest. My mates played for a local team called Galloway Thistle so I just started playing with them. Then, when I was about 10 my mum phoned up Clyde and they brought me in on trial. I ended up staying there for two or three years; I played there regularly but the travelling was a nightmare so I decided to leave. I then joined Queen of the South which was ideal as it was only an hour away. We only trained two nights a week plus a game at the weekend so it wasn’t as bad.”
Splaine managed to force his way up the ranks at Palmerston Park, making an appearance for the first-team in a friendly aged only 14!
“I started off at right-wing: I played there for ages before they tried me in the ‘number 10’ role and then I went to centre-midfield. When Gus MacPherson was the manager, I first got to know the gaffer as he was a player there. I was in the young team but quickly got put up into the reserves and I played with them every week. I was training with the Under-17’s but I played my first senior game as a 14-year-old in a friendly against Queens Park. I wasn’t daunted or nervous as that kind of stuff has never really bothered me. I wanted to play in those matches as I wanted to play against the best players.”
After Allan Johnston became manager, Splaine seemed to make an impression on the now Pars boss.
“When Allan Johnston ended up leaving, Jim McIntyre and Billy Dodds came in but there was a wee bit of an argument over contracts and things like that so my dad and I ended up phoning up Allan Johnston and he said I could go to Killie: I jumped at the chance as it was a higher league.”
When Splaine walked through the doors of Rugby Park in the summer of 2013, he immediately saw a difference in quality.
“The first couple of days I trained with the first-team but I was only young so I ended up playing with the Under-20’s. He [Allan Johnston] was always keeping an eye out as he would invite me to train with the first-team some days but I was never overawed by that as I had been training with the Queen of the South senior squad too. I used to watch Boydy [Kris Boyd] training, particularly when he done the shooting drills, and he was a joke; the goals he would score was incredible. I didn’t feel any player was better than me as I have a strong confidence within myself that I can play at a good level.
I always remember, however, on one of the first days I was training with them that we were running around the pitch at Broadwood to warm up and I was sure I spotted Boydy but I had to stare at him and squint my eyes to make sure I was seeing this properly! I grew up a Rangers fan so I knew of him but now that I am older I don’t support anyone and to be honest, I don’t really follow football so I am not fully aware of who has signed with which team so it was a surprise for me to see him in our squad! We also had [Alexei] Eremenko who I have probably learnt the most of throughout my whole career. It was simple things I learnt, such as wee movements off the ball; when he came in he was probably one of the unfittest players I have ever seen and he was never fast but all he needed to do was shift his body two or three yards to the side and you just couldn’t get the ball off of him! Just little things like that have helped me improve as a footballer.”
Splaine admits he doesn’t feel he progressed as well or as quickly as he would have liked.
“When teams like Celtic or Rangers came, you were always able to get up for it as you wanted to beat them and impress. One season we were going really well and that helped as we were going into training every day buzzing to do what we all love doing – playing football. It sadly fell away but it was a good experience as it set me up with a winning mentality that you need for senior football. I would have preferred a reserve league, however, purely because it was mainly against men you were playing against.
It was all rough but fair stuff: it wouldn’t matter how old you were or what size you were, there’d always be a competitive edge to the matches with players flying into tackles and such like but, when you are a group of youngsters solely plying your trade against the guys you have played against before, nobody really shouts or commands from their team-mates and anyone who does, will they really be listened to? Most young guys would just let it go over there head, in my opinion, whereas, if you have got a senior professional bawling at you, you know you aren’t going to make that mistake again or you’d be in for it!”
Aaron made only 8 appearances for Killie before being released by Lee Clark in the summer of 2015.
“I kept on going to the manager every week and saying “play me, we are losing every week, give me a chance” and it eventually came against Ross County at the end of the season. I knew about a week in advance I was going to be starting as the manager told me if I didn’t sign my new deal I wouldn’t be getting a chance! I knew he was only joking but it was good to know I was finally getting an opportunity to show what I could do. The funny thing is, I remember being late for the warm-up as I was in his office signing my new deal!
There had been a few complications around my accommodation and things like that so I needed to get it tied up and I ended up missing the start of the warm-up while all of this was going on! As I keep saying, these things don’t faze me. I was always ready for the match, in my own mind as I had got up to speed with the first-team pace and tempo. To be fair, I think I had gotten used to it before I even moved to Killie as I remember spewing all over the pitch at Palmerston when I done my first ever pre-season with Queens under Allan Johnston. Fitness wise, i knew the senior squad was at a completely different level to the Under-20’s so I knew once I had gotten the horrible part done [pre-season running] then it was just a case of doing my best every day in training and taking my chance when it came along. In the end though, I was doing well in training but they [Lee Clark (manager) and Lee McCulloch (assistant manager) at Kilmarnock] weren’t playing me so when I phoned up to ask what was happening with me they told me I wasn’t getting offered a deal but it wasn’t a surprise.”
That summer saw Leeds United offer Splaine the opportunity to join their Under-23’s side but the Scotsman picked up an unfortunate injury during the close season.
“I knew I had that contract there, ready to be signed, so I was just trying to keep fit by playing football with my mates but I ended up breaking my foot! I was out for 4 or 5 months before phoning up Stranraer and asking if I can go and train with them. I remember the first time I kicked the ball my foot was in agony and in the end I had to go see a specialist. I had firstly gone on trial with Middlesborough but they said no so then I trained with Leeds; they phoned me up on Sunday to offer me the contract but on the Saturday I had broken my foot so I tried to tell them it wasn’t as bad as it actually was and they were willing to wait a few weeks but I was out for months and they ended up signing other players instead as they obviously couldn’t wait for me. They then tried to sign me later on in the season but the powers that be above them didn’t sanction it and in the end the move didn’t materialise which is a shame as the standard down there compared to the Scottish Championship, without being disrespectful, is massive and the players down there are just ridiculously good. As they were so good, it raised your own game; the facilities were great and the coaching was excellent so even though I wouldn’t have been in with the first-team initially, it was a massive move for me if it had gone through.”
Despite training with Stranraer, part-time football was never an option for Splaine.
“My dad was encouraging me to sign for them and my mum was dying for me to sign for them but in my own head, there wasn’t a chance. I am not being disrespectful or big-headed here but I believe in my own ability and I had said to them from the off I was only using them for fitness purposes. I was doing my own stuff too: I was in the gym three times a day trying to keep my fitness up and then my agent informed me about the potential to move here. To be fair, though, I already knew the club were interested in me as they tried to sign me last season but I wanted to pursue the trials down south first.
When I looked over the summer at the squad of players and how the club were doing, I was really happy with the quality within the squad. I knew some of them from my time at Kilmarnock and Queen of the South, such as Lee Ashcroft, Nicky Clark, Kallum Higginbotham and Michael Paton so that made it easier for me when weighing the offer up.”
Despite being involved in the sport, Aaron isn’t a football fanatic unlike most other players.
“I really enjoy the competition of being up against an opponent or a team and trying to beat them. I love winning – and I mean at anything! I am not saying I don’t watch football, I would watch Barcelona versus Real Madrid or Chelsea versus Manchester United on the odd occasion but if you asked me things about the majority of Scottish football and I am pretty clueless, to be honest!”
Splaine has praised the impact of Sports Scientist Gary McColl since he arrived at East End Park just a few short months ago.
“I was just happy to have a club again, to be honest. For six months, I had just been going to the gym myself and I hadn’t properly kicked a ball about in ages. I was just happy to be playing football again. Gary has been class with me: he stays back with me after gym sessions until I want to go home and that has really helped me as while my body fat hasn’t went up, I have put on 4kg’s since I joined and I was weighing 70kg in the summer. He has definitely managed to get me fitter.”
When I asked if Aaron was happy with the way his season has went so far, the midfielder said:
“No, not at all. I haven’t played as much as I would have liked – I want to play more, I want to be playing every game from the start but I don’t feel I have reached my best yet so I am not happy personally. I feel I still need to improve on everything: fitness wise, I am fine I would say but my sharpness, especially when the ball comes to me, is still not at the level I want to be at but that will come in time. I have formed a good partnership with Nat [Wedderburn] I feel. I think we compliment each other; we are opposite players and that means we don’t get attracted to do the same things, whereas, if I was to play with Dean Shiels, we both like to go deep to pick up the ball and then there is a big gap left in the middle of the pitch. I liked playing alongside anyone but I would say it is easier playing alongside Nat because of what he does in a game and that balance is more evenly spread.”
Splaine is comfortable hitting the ball with his left and his right foot.
“I was always right-footed but when I was younger, my dad always told me that it’d be beneficial for me if I could use both at the same standard. I used to just batter a ball against the wall at the front of my house every day and then when I was younger I made sure when I trained I kicked the ball with my left foot. These days, I wouldn’t say I have got a stronger foot but I do prefer to pass with my right but shoot with my left!
We started the season absolutely brilliantly but at this stage in the season, every team knows how each other will play so it all just goes down to who is the better side on the day. You know certain players on the pitch are the key men and it is about trying to stop them and making sure the other teams don’t stop our threats at the top end of the pitch, but that is easier said than done! I said when we came in that with the squad we have, we can win the league and I still honestly think that. The fans have been absolutely fantastic so far this season – I have been pleasantly surprised with the numbers we are getting in the stands every week, I didn’t realise the support here was that big. It would be great if that encouragement continues between now and the end of the season and in return we will try our best to get this club back up into the top flight of Scottish football.”