Footballers on Love Island: What it’s like trading the pitch for primetime TV stardom


For non-league footballers in need of a second income, there have always been plenty of options.

Whether it involves getting an office job, taking up a trade or something entirely different, players down the lower-end of the pyramid have been used to getting a day job alongside their football dreams. But, over the past few years, a new option has emerged – Love Island.

The ITV programme has been a huge hit since it relaunched in 2015. Those who appear on the summer show are catapulted into the limelight. One of the many things you can generally expect to see in the villa is at least one sportsman.

Cricketer Max Morley won the first season of the show, which also featured non-league footballer Luis Morrison. Since then, the villa has been graced by a wave of professional and semi-professional players, all of whom has experienced the same transition from the football pitch to a prime time TV slot and instant social media fame.

Former Wolves defender Aaron Simpson rocked up in the Love Island villa last year


Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images)

For some, like former Wolverhampton Wanderers defender Aaron Simpson, actually going on the show was something of a last resort after failing to earn a new deal at Sutton United after their promotion to League Two.

“The whole Love Island process started in January for me, and I was kind of just going along with it as a bit of a joke,” he says. “As the stage progressed I realised there was more and more of a chance of me getting on the show.

“At the end of the season, there was going to be talk at Sutton about whether they would offer me a deal or not. That was the make or break – if I’d gone into that meeting at the end of the season and they’d offered me a new deal, I probably wouldn’t have gone on the show.

“But it turned out I did’t get offered a new deal, so it kind of forced my hand a little bit and I thought, ‘you know what, why not give it a go?’ I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, so I just jumped at it. Football had been tough, especially with Covid and I thought I’d give it a go and see what happens.”

Finn Tapp had a pro contract at MK Dons but was released a year before heading to Love Island


Kieran Galvin/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

For Finn Tapp, applying for Love Island was a drunken decision which escalated to such an extent that he ended up winning season six alongside partner Paige Turley. Tapp grew up dreaming of being a footballer in the MK Dons academy and made his professional debut against Premier League Bournemouth in the League Cup in 2018.

At the end of the season, however, he was released and almost quit the game altogether before opting to recapture his love for the sport in non-league with Oxford City.

“All I’d known is football,” he says. “Everyone would always say, ‘you’ve got to have a plan B’, but us young ones that want to be a footballer, you don’t think of a plan B. You tell everyone you’ve got it figured out, but realistically all we ever think about is football.”

“Honestly, when I got dropped I was like, ‘I hate football, I just want to do a normal job’. All my mates are working a 9-5 and seem happy enough. I don’t know if I’m playing, I’ve got to keep fit, I can’t go out and I was just thinking – ‘I want to be normal’.

Tapp admits he was “done with football” when he first left MK Dons but recaptured his love in non-league


Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

“Most people’s careers were just starting at 18 or 19 yet my career had already ended, that was my mindset. I came out of it thinking, ‘that’s that, I don’t want to play football’, but it took my agent to say, ‘look, drop down into non-league, fall back in love with it’ and, to be fair, I did.

“I went to Oxford City and I was now the player starting every week as opposed to being the player doing runs every week whilst the first-team were preparing for the game. When I was playing every Saturday, that’s when I just fell back in love with it.

“I was working in recruitment in London and doing the semi-pro football with Oxford. It was after a few beers at work that I plucked up the courage to apply (for Love Island). It’s one of those things you never think is going to happen because the probability of you even getting an audition is so small. When I applied I was very naive and thought, ‘I might as well’.

“It wasn’t until a couple of months down the line when they told me I’d got a place on the show that I started thinking, ‘oh god, what about football now?’, because I never thought it’d get that far. I spoke to my agent, told him I was going to have to put football on pause for a bit and that’s when all of the logistics of it sort of came crashing down.”

His arrival in the Love Island villa made headlines, not least because his club where blissfully unaware one of their star players was departing without a goodbye.

“I actually didn’t tell my football club, because of the confidentiality agreements with Love Island and stuff like that,” he recalls. “It was a Tuesday night when I flew out to South Africa, and I was meant to be training. My coaches were messaging me, ‘Finn, where are you?’, that sort of thing.

Oxford City were taken off guard as they were unaware their defender was heading on the show


Daily Mirror)

“I just called my agent and said, ‘can you please deal with this, I don’t know what to do’, because I didn’t want to jeopardise going on the show or whatever.

“That was that, I flew to South Africa, had my phone taken away from me and I didn’t know how they’d dealt with it or anything then. I was in this bubble of no phone for six weeks, so I didn’t have a clue what the reaction was like from my team until I came out and looked on Twitter and stuff like that.

“The lads were all buzzing, I never really got a negative reaction from any of the lads I played with. The WhatsApp group chat is funny because obviously they’re documenting it as it goes on and they’re watching the show.

“They were all buzzing, and they all sent me personal messages congratulating me. A couple of them made jokes that I only went on because I didn’t want to play St Albans away in the p****** rain!”

In stark contrast, Toby Aromolaran, runner-up in the most recent season, went into Love Island with plenty of blessing from his club. He never made it into the academy system, instead working his way up through the lower levels of the pyramid. After graduating from Loughborough University, he joined eighth tier Hashtag United.

As a club famously founded via YouTube and something of a social media phenomenon, his Love Island stint seemed an ideal fit for all involved.

Toby says: “I went to Hashtag knowing it’s like a YouTube team and had a bit of a different element to just a standard semi-pro team. I massively enjoyed being part of it there, then all of a sudden I went to Love Island!

“Since I was 15 or 16 I was always a fan of the show, so I always thought I would apply if I didn’t have a girlfriend at that stage in my life. I thought, ‘if Love Island can’t get me a girlfriend, I don’t know who could’! Luckily I got picked for the show.

Love Island was a perfect fit for both Toby Aromolaran and his team, Hashtag United


James Chance/Getty Images)

“I got massive support at Hashtag from the fans, to the owner, to the manager and players. I told the owner and manager, just pulled them up in some filming before pre-season, and I said, ‘look, I want to miss pre-season because I think I might be going into the Love Island villa’.

“The owner, Spencer, was so happy for me, the manager as well. They were sad I was going because I was in the plans, but they saw it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.’

Whilst Toby, Finn and Aaron took different paths on their footballing journey before their roads led to Love Island, they have all emerged to a new life. That meant facing up to a host of big decisions – including whether to return to football.

Toby, as he always said he would, went back and has been amongst the goals against for Hashtag United this season.

“They said to me when I went in, ‘we’re here when you get back, but we don’t think you’re going to come back’, and I was like, ‘look, I’m going to come back, watch’.

“Now I’m back, so I stuck to my word even if they didn’t think I would!”

“There’s so much stuff that pops up that is life-changing and great opportunities, but football is always going to be an important pillar in my life. I’ve been playing since I was six years old, there’s not anything in my control that can get me away from playing football.

“I feel like when you get to that age where you can’t play, I don’t want to regret not playing so I want to play as much as possible for as long as possible. In my head, I was always coming back.”

Aaron Simpson has returned in a part-time capacity for National League South outfit Hemel Hempstead, but has not given up his hope of becoming the first Love Islander to one day return to professional football.

“I always knew I still wanted to play because it’s something I’ve done all my life,” he insists. “But I probably didn’t realise how different it would be.

“I’ve come from being a professional footballer where that was all I was doing to coming out of Love Island and having lots of other things and opportunities going on.

Aaron Simpson admits leaving full-time football was a “bitter pill to swallow”


Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

“It was clear straight away I wouldn’t be able to go back into full-time football, which was a bitter pill to swallow for me personally. I wanted to break the stereotype because there hasn’t been anyone who has gone on the show who has gone back professionally, and I felt I could do that.

“I still think I could probably do that now, but with everything going on career-wise, dropping down a league to the Conference South and playing part-time just allows me the flexibility to do other things.

“Hemel are really good with me if I’ve got stuff going on, letting me do some of the presenting I’m doing now which at a professional club I probably wouldn’t be able to do. In the future, who knows? I’d love to play higher, I know I can and I have done in the past, but we’ll just have to see how things pan out.”

Finn, who has arguably achieved the most off-screen success since winning Love Island, only wants to return to football if he can fully commit. As a result of his many commitments, that is not currently possible.

He says: “I was quite naive to the new world I was stepping into so probably thought I might be able to go back to Oxford. But obviously I didn’t understand the commitment that this new line of work involves really.

“The love for football is still there, and I’d love to think that one day I’d get back into it. The only thing is because I love and appreciate football so much, I don’t think it’s something I could do half-heartedly.

“I’d have to make sure I’m in a position to be 100% committed to football, as opposed to being the player that misses a Tuesday session because he’s got an event in London or misses a Thursday session for a photoshoot.

Finn and girlfriend Paige Turley have had plenty of opportunities since winning the hit ITV show



Toby and injured Aaron are also adjusting to a new world since appearing on Love Island together


John Phillips/Getty Images for NOW)

“I wouldn’t want to have that stigma about me where it’s, ‘he’s playing on the Saturday because he was on a TV show even though he’s missed these sessions’.

“At any team, I wouldn’t want my team-mates to think of me as that player – I’d want to play because I’ve earned my place. I think it will come eventually, but it will have to be at a time when I can devote my all to it.”

Their TV appearances all, inevitably, sent team WhatsApp groups into overdrive. Toby and Aaron famously attempted – unsuccessfully – to show off their skills in the Love Island talent show in a routine which has earned both plenty of stick in football circles.

“Team-mates wise, the first thing I talked about was the talent show,” Toby laughs. “They bantered me about that! They were like, ‘how you doing so badly there, embarrassing us!’, but it’s all fun at the end of the day.”

Aaron reckons his return this season has seen him targeted for some rough treatment by opponents and fans alike – but he relishes the action as a tough-tackler himself.

“Do you know what, it was to be expected,” he laughs. “You get treated a little bit differently and sometimes feel like people are out to get you.

Tough-tackling Simpson says he holds his own when he gets some special treatment


VI Images via Getty Images)

“But if you speak to anyone I’ve played with, they’ll tell you I’m not shy of a big tackle, so I’m more than up for the fight. If anything I kind of thrive off it.

“Especially the fans and stuff, when you go away they get onto you a bit more than your average player but that’s part and parcel of the lifestyle now and it doesn’t bother me too much.”

Toby points out there is also a positive side to taking his new-found fame back to the sport he loves.

“You get stick from other teams, especially in non-league where it’s so raw, and the crowds try and get in your head,” he admits. “But then it’s nice as well, where after the games, even opposing fans ask for photos and people come to watch me play because they’ve seen me on Love Island.

“It’s nice to see more people at the games, asking for pictures – that side of it is really nice.”

One thing is for sure – when Love Island returns to TV screens this summer, you can safely assume there is likely to be a footballer of some level arrive in the villa.

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