Aaron Ramsey may have had to grow up faster than your average 22-year-old, but there’s one life skill that he definitely hasn’t quite mastered yet.
“I’m still not cooking very much!” he laughs. “My girlfriend does it all and she’s very good, which is a big plus for me. She went on a pastry course recently, so quite a few cakes have been appearing in the fridge recently for me to get through!”
It’s fair to say that life has been sweeter all round for the industrious midfielder this season. A run of games in his favoured central position has yielded a string of consistent performances that suggest Arsenal’s boy from Caerphilly is back on track after a sometimes difficult couple of years since recovering from long-term injury.
Clearly revelling in the lease of life he has been granted in recent weeks, he told the Official Magazine that the youthful vigour he displayed after his move from Cardiff is back with a vengeance. “Looking back, it seems only the other day that I was playing for Cardiff City in the FA Cup final.”
That might not be a point of reference Arsenal fans would immediately turn to, but it doesn’t seem five years this July since a shy, callow teenager first walked through the doors of the Gunners’ training ground. “It’s gone really quickly for me,” Aaron admits. “I’ve enjoyed all of it, apart from the time I spent out injured. That was a slow, slow 10 months but everything else has just flown.”
Some time next season - in its first few months, fitness and form permitting - he will make his 200th career appearance. If his 2010 hadn’t effectively been wiped out by his well-documented trauma at the Britannia Stadium, he would likely already have surpassed that figure. Add to that 26 Welsh caps, a number as captain, and there’s plenty of evidence that Arsenal have an old head on young shoulders.
“I’ve played a lot of games in the best league in the world now, and against some of the top teams in Europe as well,” he says. “And you’re right that I’ve also missed plenty of other chances to play. I feel I have a lot of experience there, both in the way Arsenal play and just in putting on the jersey at the highest level.”
I started playing rugby with some friends of mine. I had a couple of good years there and won loads of medals, and that’s really exciting when you’re young
It’s taken persistence to get here and that started some 15 years ago, when he first caught the eye in a game in which he shouldn’t even have been playing. “I was six or seven and my parents took me down to a training session at my local club for the first time,” he remembers. “I think it was for the under-9s, so the coaches said ‘Sorry, he’s too young but we’ll let him join in this once’. So I played, and then the guy came up to my mum afterwards. He said I was the best trainer there, even though I was a couple of years younger, and invited me to play with them the following season.
“The thing was, I didn’t actually go. I started playing rugby with some friends of mine - it’s such a rugby stronghold there. I wanted to play with my mates and had a couple of good years there, really enjoying it. I won loads of little medals, and that’s really exciting when you’re young.”
Aaron would take up football again soon enough, although he stood out in both sports to a relatively late age. If that seems unusual, it can perhaps be attributed in part to strong sporting genes. “My mum and my dad had reasonable sporting backgrounds actually. My mum played hockey at county level, carrying on into her late thirties, and my dad was playing for local football teams into his forties. We always went down to watch him – they won plenty of trophies so it was good fun.”
His big footballing break ended up coming through his school - and the ‘Urdd’ Welsh language movement it was associated with - a couple of years after his initial success. He reveals: “I went to a Welsh-speaking school, and the Year 5 and 6 kids had the chance to play at the local leisure centre on a Monday night. I think I was in Year 4, but again I tried my luck. And again, they told my mum afterwards that they’d really like me to come down and play for the local Saturday team.
“So this time I went. I played with them for a while and then the manager, Gary Lewis, was offered a role at Cardiff City. He brought the whole team across to Cardiff’s under-9s, as we were doing pretty well and had some good players. That was how my time at Cardiff began.
A few clubs were interested, I think Manchester City were among them, so it was an exciting time but I knew what I wanted to do
“The rugby had been fun, and I carried on playing at school, but I’d always loved football and it was time to give it a proper go. The two clashed at the weekends, so I had to make my decision.”
Thus began nine years with the Bluebirds, a period that saw the Premier League vultures, along with a few rugby ones who kept an eye on his school activity, gather from an early stage. Aaron was aware of the interest building as his young career gathered pace, but was in no doubt as to where his days in senior football should commence.
“You obviously knew about that sort of thing,” he says. “A few clubs were interested, I think Manchester City were among them, so it was an exciting time but I knew what I wanted to do. Cardiff had looked after me for all those years and I wanted to go on and make my professional debut for them. The interest was nice, but I was always going to stick with Cardiff to begin with. I think things went to plan – if not better than I expected.”
They certainly did. On April 28, 2007, he became Cardiff’s youngest-ever player when he entered the fray late in a Championship game against Hull City at the age of 16 years and 124 days. The build-up wasn’t completely straightforward, though. “I was still in school at the time, and found out the day before the game. My teacher asked to speak to me, so I walked into his office and he said: ‘I’ve got some good news, you’ve been called into the Cardiff squad this weekend. My reaction was along the lines of ‘How would you know, and why are you telling me?’ but he explained that the club had to ask their permission.
There was one last-minute problem though. I had really long hair at school, but if you dig out some pictures of my debut it was horrendous, like a ‘jarhead’
"I still thought they were having me on, but a few phone calls later I was finally convinced! There was one last-minute problem though. I had really long hair at school, but if you dig out some pictures of my debut it was horrendous, like a ‘jarhead’. What happened was that I’d asked a mate to come over and give me a grade four or five on the morning of the game, just to tidy me up a bit.
"I didn’t have a five, so he went and got one from his house. He put it on my clippers, but it wouldn’t fit properly - so he’s started, gone across the back there, the clippers have fallen off and he’s taken a huge chunk off the side. There was a massive bit of my hair missing, just hours before my debut! To save it, he shaved a zero round the side and a one on the top so you couldn’t tell, but there wasn’t much up there!
"I looked totally different. The guy who was picking me up thought I was my brother when I answered the door, it really threw him at first. Put it this way, I wasn’t tempted to keep it.”
You just want to show everyone what you can do, and enjoy every minute out there. And yes, no fear. You’re just doing what you love to do. I feel that’s coming back to me now
A year, and 21 more highly promising appearances, later the move away from Cardiff did materialise. It came partly from necessity, the club’s finances being in a parlous state back in 2008 and partly from a sense that Aaron would soon outgrow the surroundings in which he had risen.
“Cardiff were in a bit of trouble financially I think, and I was aware of the stuff that was going on,” he says. “I had a great season, as we all did - getting to the cup final and being very unlucky. I enjoyed every minute, but [then-chairman] Peter Ridsdale rang me at the end of the season, said there were a few teams in for me and that they wouldn’t stop my progression. They needed the cash at the time so it was the right decision for everybody.”
Does he look upon that 2007/08 season with Cardiff as a time of joyful abandon? Anyone who saw him in full flight that year would have seen a young man in flying form, brain and feet playing at pace and without fear. “It was a great feeling,” he agrees. “You just want to show everyone what you can do, and enjoy every minute out there. And yes, no fear. You’re just doing what you love to do.
“I feel that’s coming back to me now, especially in the last few months. That routine of nothing else mattering, just playing my own game - I’m getting back into it.”
He has no problem admitting that he has changed, both as a player and a person, since back then. Just 18 months after that big move to north London came about, doubts were raised for his future career when he fractured his leg at Stoke. The two years that followed were difficult, taking in loan spells at Nottingham Forest and back at Cardiff, while never quite establishing himself comfortably in the Gunners’ regular line-up, despite flashes of his best form.
It took time, he says, to get going again, physically and mentally. “It took a lot to get over it, going into tackles and things like that. Yeah, I definitely thought it took quite a while. But I went to the Olympics and felt good, thought things went well. Obviously then I hadn’t been with the Arsenal team during pre-season and wasn’t playing much for the first few weeks.
"I’ve been in and out and playing in a number of positions, which makes it difficult to get the momentum you want, but recently I’ve had the feeling that I’m getting back to my best, back to the player that I was, having no fear and doing the things that I used to. There are still things I can improve on, like scoring goals, but at the moment I’m happy with the way things are going.”
Perhaps at times you don’t think you need to do the standard things that are required when you get a bit older. These days I’m very careful about keeping myself in good shape, because I understand that side of it
His growing-up process was certainly accelerated - and instilled in him some habits that he knows will stand his future career in good stead. “I think I grew up a lot after my injury,” he admits. “I have definitely matured over the last few seasons, become a lot more professional in doing things that people don’t see, trying to keep myself in the best possible shape.
“Back then, I was only a teenager and - as we said before - you feel on top of the world. Perhaps at times you don’t think you need to do the standard things that are required when you get a bit older. These days I’m very careful about keeping myself in good shape, because I understand that side of it.
"You look at someone like Ryan Giggs, see how he keeps up such a high level of performance at his age, and it inspires you to go for as long a career as possible.” Does that mean regular sessions on the yoga mat, then? “Ha, no! That’s one thing I don’t do. I haven’t the patience or attention span for that - even in school I’d always lose concentration. I’d rather do something where I can see the benefits straightaway, where I’m in the gym and can feel my muscles burning - something that I know is having an effect.”
Last season wasn’t the easiest for Aaron. By his own admission, his form was up and down, not always helped by the need to deputise in relatively unfamiliar wide positions when the team’s need dictated – and barbs from the terraces became audible. If he is disappointed to have been subject to criticism, his focus on proving the doubters wrong is much more intense.
“That was very frustrating for me,” he says. “I had a bit of stick, but I wasn’t playing in my main position and had obviously been through a lot. I think people are starting to realise now that I’m coming back, looking sharp again - and there’s no better feeling than winning people over, proving you are capable of doing a good job and are a good player. I’m confident in myself, and think I can push on to the next level now."
The same applies to his international career. From the rich promise suggested when he was named captain by the late Gary Speed, the former manager’s tragic death led to a period of darkness. Welsh football needed to mourn, and results suffered accordingly. New manager Chris Coleman opted to give the armband to Swansea’s Ashley Williams, adding to the profound sense of change. There are signs of a revival, though. A 2-1 defeat to Croatia in late March may have rendered hopes of a World Cup appearance futile, but the win against Scotland that it followed - in which Aaron both scored and was sent off for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity towards the end - gave cause to believe that they might be on the road to recovery.
“The red card was unfortunate but I had to do it. It was a sloppy moment from me as I gave the ball away from a short free kick, and I had to bring James McArthur down really otherwise he was going to score a goal. We still had a chance if we’d have beaten Croatia at home so I couldn’t let Scotland score. I’ll learn from it, I should have looked up and seen the time, let the ‘keeper take it or just smashed it towards the corner flag.
“But that aside, I’ve been enjoying it. You can see things are starting to come back to where they were. Obviously Gary Speed got us playing some fantastic stuff and what happened is going to take a bit of time to get over and adjust to. Chris Coleman came in and has made some little changes but mainly kept the same sort of style. Of late we’ve started to show what we can do again.”
Is the captaincy less important when things are going well? Aaron suggests so, but makes no secret of the fact that he’d love to regain the armband. “There was a lot of talk about it,” he explains. “When I was captain under Gary we were winning games comfortably, shot up the world rankings and nobody was saying a thing. When we lost a few, there were a few questions. But that’s the way things work and it is the manager’s decision. Obviously I was disappointed but am not going to dwell on it, and it’s not an issue. Hopefully I can get it back one day.”
The idea of ‘Welshness’ is important to Aaron. One of a significant number who speak the country’s mother tongue, he is as passionate about the national cause as anybody. “It’s something I am very proud of,” he says. “And I’m glad to have learned how to speak Welsh. I think any Welshman is very patriotic, always behind whatever team is competing for the country. Rugby is still the number one sport, of course - the number of supporters and everything that goes on during a rugby day just sums up the Welsh attitude towards things. They just want to support the team and are proud to be Welsh.”
Read the interview with Aaron and more in the latest edition
Can the nation’s football learn something from the attitude that surrounds Welsh rugby - a sport in which the country has traditionally punched far above its apparent weight? “I think so. But we’ve shown that it’s possible to get everyone behind us. Under Mark Hughes, Wales were getting crowds of 72,000 at the Millennium Stadium - there was a big buzz. Then Welsh football had a bit of a slump for a few years, and I understand that fans don’t want to pay the money to watch their team suffer. We were getting some good results but it wasn’t consistent enough. Slowly they’re coming back again, though, and can see we’re going in the right direction. Hopefully we can continue it - we’ve been selling out the new stadium at Cardiff so it’s looking good again.”
The immediate task for Aaron is to help ensure that Arsenal secure Champions League football next season. He pinpoints the collective, hard-working attitude evinced by the Gunners in recent weeks as a reason to be optimistic that a top-four berth will be secured. “I think people can tell, especially with the way we’ve been playing of late, that everyone is doing their jobs for each other now. We’re working as a team, winning the ball back in dangerous positions high up the pitch - and everyone, not just one or two of us, is doing that. We’re playing good stuff and everyone’s putting the work in, communicating, enjoying themselves out there.”
It’s that ‘enjoy’ word again. It’s coming easily into Aaron’s vocabulary again now, both verbally and in the manner of his performances. After a tough few years, he exudes a conviction that his - and Arsenal’s - time is now.Copyright 2016 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source