Gladiators had a real sense of what pressure was in their day-to-day work. Sure, you’ve got Tiberius in the crowd calling for your head on a spike, but how about the tiger trying to tear your face off or the fella from L.A. Confidential trying to stab you?
Playing at Elland Road may not have the same life-or-death connotations, but Rome’s Colosseum has become a crutch for Brenden Aaronson to lean on. It’s a reality check when the going gets tough as a Premier League footballer.
Like many of his Leeds United team-mates, the 22-year-old has been seeing the psychologist employed by the club to fill in the gaps at Thorp Arch. When their lives are dominated by playing the most popular sport in the world in the most popular competition in front of tens of thousands of people every week, it’s easy to see why a little brain massage can be helpful.
The players go along to the office at Thorp Arch and just unload on the professional, who would rather stay under the radar. They are asked the right questions and given a safe space to put their heads in the best space possible for high performance.
By the end of Monday night, Aaronson is likely to have taken his 2022/23 pitch time beyond Tyler Adams’s, leaving Robin Koch as the only outfield player with more minutes than the American. Aaronson has certainly featured as much as he would have hoped when he made the summer switch from Red Bull Salzburg, but the more you play the greater the expectations are.
“It’s been massive for me and the person they have in the club right now is an amazing person,” he tells LeedsLive. “She's helped me out. I met with her about three or four times now. She's an amazing person. Every footballer needs it.
“The word she uses for me that's pretty cool is we're the player in the Colosseum. Everybody’s always looking at us all the time, judging us and this kind of thing. It's tough, but this half [of] the season has definitely been a bumpy road for myself. It's been tough, coming back from World Cup, being tired, all these kinds of things that come into you.
“It's been frustrating for me because I'd like to be scoring more. I’d like to be assisting more. I want to help the team as best I can and I put a lot of responsibility on my shoulders at times. It's been tough for me, but going to see her has made everything better and my support system I have around me, it's been great.”
Just last week, Javi Gracia revealed Aaronson was concerned about trying to score more goals for the team. Despite that drought, which stretches back to August 21, the midfielder has been a mainstay for the new head coach.
Aaronson finally ended a 15-match wait for an assist with that sumptuous corner last weekend, but that was still only his third of the season. The spotlight has been on Aaronson for some time, even more so in this run of seven consecutive starts under Gracia.
He knows players in his position on the field have to be bringing the key statistics to the table, but he’s trying to not let it get on top of him. Earlier in the campaign, during compatriot Jesse Marsch’s tenure, Aaronson admits he let himself fall into a self-destructive rut.
“He (Gracia) sees what I'm trying to do and he knows, everybody knows, goals and assists come,” said Aaronson. “It's like this, it's like a rollercoaster throughout your career and that's where I'm at right now.
“During a period of time with Jesse I was getting so frustrated with myself, getting so hard on myself, coming out to training and just finishing every single day [with] like 50 balls. At that moment I don't think that was best for me because I need to come back, relax, don't focus on the goal so much, just go out and play your game.
“That's what you can do for the team. That was definitely a tough time, but having Javi here, he's taught me a lot so far, I really enjoy playing under him. It's been great.”
It’s hard to avoid picturing the backroom staff collecting said balls and having to pump them back up after being caned to within an inch of their stitching by the angry American. Anger was one of the many emotions being sampled in the bowels of Elland Road last Sunday.
“What killed us was that goal before half-time,” he said. “When you're peppering a team, you're killing a team, not taking the chances and they come down, maybe had three chances or two chances, and they take one.
“That’s the way football goes sometimes: you don’t take your chances and we didn't defend well on the day, I don't think, and then that kind of stuff happens.”
He added: “We all knew we played a great half and we all know what we're capable of and I'm positive and I'm confident in the way we've been playing. We’ve got to keep going and we’ve just got to scratch this off.
“S--- happens in football. Everybody knows that. Just moving on to the next game against Liverpool.”
When backs are against the wall and you’re watching one of the worst team collapses of your career unfold before your eyes, it can be easy for players to point the finger. Aaronson said the post-match scene was more akin to shell shock.
What happened after the full-time whistle?
“Silence,” he said. “Complete silence. It was just shell shocked. Everybody was like ‘come on, stay positive’ this kind of thing and we were and the good thing is this group is so strong, we’re so together we just bounce back.
He added: “Both halves were definitely frustrating because the one [we] let in at half-time, that was even more frustrating for me because [it was a] set-piece goal, we can do better than that. Then coming in at full-time you just get hit by like a ‘woah’ factor. ‘Like did that really just happen?’
“We were so confident on the field. I felt confident, I felt good playing and yes, it was tough.”
Aaronson would not be a surprising name to see on Monday night’s teamsheet, such has been Gracia’s cast-iron faith up to now. The midfielder is likely to have that shot at redemption when we all return to Elland Road.