Alan Pardew's brutal message worked wonders on Rolando Aarons as Newcastle 'struggles' explained

Quiz Newcastle United fans about their memories of Rolando Aarons and you'll probably receive one answer more than most. That night at the Etihad Stadium.

Rewind to 2014 and an 18-year-old Aarons, who had only trained once in six weeks after picking up a hamstring strain while on England under-20 duty, was thrust into an injury-hit Alan Pardew side before helping himself to the opening goal as Newcastle knocked Carabao Cup holders Manchester City out of the competition in their own backyard.

"I loved playing for Newcastle and I don't think anything that happens in my career will top that goal because I was so young and it felt like I was living like a real life dream - which obviously I was," he told Chronicle Live.

In truth, that shouldn’t be the biggest moment in Aarons’ Newcastle career. That should only have been the start of a very exciting chapter for the player they nabbed on a free following his release from boyhood club Bristol City.

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After being handed the No 16 shirt and heavily praised publicly by Pardew, Aarons was expected to play a big part in Newcastle's future. As with so many 'wonderkids' in the modern game, things unfortunately didn't go to plan.

Injury troubles would follow and when Pardew decided to jump ship to manage Crystal Palace in late 2014, Aarons lost a close confidant who had backed him to shine among the senior stars as a promising, yet inexperienced, teenager.

Many will look back on that era of Newcastle's history with disdain. Apart from one overachieving campaign finishing fifth and a subsequent Europa League run, Pardew is seen as a by-product of the toxic Mike Ashley era. A so-called 'Yes Man' who was often criticised for his tactical decisions, petty excuses and poor results.

Aarons sees it very differently.

"I think if I started out with any of the managers I had later down the line, it would have been a bit more difficult because he was from London and I grew up in Bristol so it's kind of similar the way we are," he added.

"I remember one day he came up and said to me 'Do you like playing football?' I was like 'Yeah...' and he just replied 'Well f****** smile then!'

"I was thinking 'What the hell is going on' - but it just made me realise because growing up I was always having to walk around with that sort of protection. Trying not look weak, trying to look like a grown up. I thought I always looked angry or I didn't look happy. It kind of made me wake up and go 'OK I don't need to be like this, I'm a footballer now, I'm not where I used to be.'

"I respected him because he didn't shy away from any sort of confrontation. I watched him treat some of our best players exactly how he would treat the young players when they did wrong. He wasn't afraid to fall out with anyone, which I thought was very fair. So if I see him shouting at Cheicky [Tiote], god rest his soul, or [Fabricio] Colocinni, I can't have anything to say if he's shouting at me because it's fair."

Steve McClaren would eventually arrive on Tyneside and an injury crisis saw Aarons, an exciting winger with an eye for goal, deployed as a makeshift left-back as Newcastle struggled to pick up points. Then Rafa Benitez arrived.

In Aarons' words, he hardly got a 'sniff' for weeks under the Spaniard until he found the net and grabbed an assist in the season finale against Tottenham Hotspur. A 5-1 win that brought nothing but pride given the Magpies' relegation had already been confirmed.

A season in the Championship promised a lot for Aarons on a personal level. A run of games in this side, fighting at the right end of the table, could have been a game-changing year in his career. Instead, injuries again took their toll, causing both physical and mental struggles for a player who felt a sense of responsibility towards the supporters at St James' Park.

"The problem I used to have was that I used to take responsibility for getting injuries," Aarons continued. "I signed my new deal and did my foot in a game. I was just like 'I've let these guys down again. It's the Championship, it's a big year, I need to get us promoted.'

"I came back in my first training session and I did my ACL. So it's more that I felt like I was letting the fans down because I felt I had a very, very strong relationship with the fans. I genuinely thought they really liked me as a player.

"So I really wanted to just play for Newcastle and when your body doesn't allow you to do that, the mental side of it is very tough. I really struggled with it. So looking back at it, knowing the way I think and how I deal with things now, back then I was really struggling mentally."

Loan spells away brought little joy. Benitez’s former assistant Fabio Pecchia took the player at Hellas Verona. Six months later it was a stint at Czech side Slovan Liberic. Then a period at Sheffield Wednesday, then Wycombe Wanderers and finally north of the border to Motherwell. Aarons would eventually leave for Huddersfield permanently in 2021.

Many may have been a tad surprised to see the player re-emerge in Slovenia, of all places, earlier this year. A strange move for the 28-year-old - but one that really made sense personally.

NK Celje may not possess the type of talent or facilities you find in England’s top flight but they did offer Aarons one thing: the chance at winning a title and subsequently experiencing European football.

Earlier this month the club wrapped the Slovenian top division at a canter. For Aarons on a personal level, he has gone from being a free agent in December, training with Norwich City reserves and National League side Bromley, to lifting silverware and looking ahead to a potential Champions League tilt.

"Obviously I can see why it would be surprising if you don't know me as a person but I struggle to play football for nothing," he says. "Obviously being at Newcastle, apart from the Championship season, a lot of the time we weren't playing for anything. At least you had 52,000 Geordies there, so every every game felt special.

"Whereas when you go and drop down the leagues, apart from when I was at Sheffield Wednesday, you don't feel that thing that you get from playing football - the reason you started - to play with emotion and to win things.

"So when I had the opportunity to come to this club, I didn't have any clue about who they were to be honest, I'm going to sit here and lie. But when I saw they were top of the league and I could win a league title and go into European competitions, why on earth would I go to League One or League Two when I have an option to maybe play against some of the best teams in the world and possible win trophies?

"So that was my decision in coming here. The country has been surprisingly alright to be fair. I never had any expectations, which is probably a good thing. It's not the same level as England but there's not many places in the world that is. More importantly I'm just enjoying playing football again."

NK Celje have the chance to play Champions League football next season but could find themselves dropping into the Europa League. Should things fall right for Newcastle United this weekend, Aarons may well get a reunion with his former club on the European stage next season.