"When we score, the fans are my teammates"
Just six months into his Gunners career, Aaron Ramsdale has quickly become one of the fans' favourites. And as the England international explains in this exclusive matchday programme interview - the feeling is very much mutual.
The majority of players would be delighted to have been regarded as a fans' favourite at just one club in their career. To have that status everywhere you've played is much less common. And when that list of clubs includes a couple of half-season long loan deals, that tells you even more about the appeal of the player. But that's exactly what has happened to Aaron Ramsdale during his career to date. From Sheffield United, to Bournemouth and now to Arsenal, via Chesterfield and AFC Wimbledon, the charismatic goalkeeper has wasted no time endearing himself to his club's fans wherever he's been.
Still only 23, Aaron hasn't played more than 50 league games for any of his previous four clubs, yet was voted Player of the Season by supporters at three of them.
And it's very much a two-way street. Throughout his career, Aaron seems to have fed off the energy and love of the fans, enjoying a symbiotic relationship with the crowd.
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But it all could have been so different. Aaron's league debut came in January 2018, as a 19-year-old on loan from Sheffield United to Chesterfield. And it didn't exactly go according to plan - he conceded an own goal and was at fault for another in a 4-0 defeat.
"It all began away against Accrington Stanley," Aaron explains. "I basically threw a couple in my own net and had a shocker - and it was my football league debut.
"But after the game the fans clapped me off, and then at the next game, they gave me a big roar when my name was read out before the game.
"I think at that point I realised that there's a connection that can be made with the fans. That's stuck with me ever since and it got even better when I went on loan to Wimbledon."
So were it not for the supportive nature of the Chesterfield fanbase, Aaron's love affair with the paying public could have been over before it began.
Yet even so, having to deal with the home fans in a challenging League Two debut must have been tough.
"Big time," Aaron says. "I had three sides of the stadium singing to me 'it's all your fault'. We were away from home, at Accrington which can be a tough place, but I wasn't that bothered by it. It didn't affect me that much and that's why now things certainly don't affect me.
"Things get said in the crowd at League One and League Two. You can hear it more, the language is a lot more harsh, and basically the Premier League is easier in comparison in that respect. The fans are not as brutal as in the lower leagues. That set me up to deal with it now."
Aaron's resilience started at an early age. He says that the first few games he played in front of a small crowd were in Sunday League, and a county final for his school in Year 9 at a local ground in Stoke. Their presence never affected his performance.
"No, back then I didn't really think about anyone watching," he shrugs. "I wasn't that bothered about it at that age, and I certainly don't ever remember getting nervous because people were watching.
"At that point it was just about playing with your mates who you went to school with, and enjoying the kickabout. Most of that school team played for my Sunday League team, so we all grew up together and it was just fun. It wasn't until I started out at Chesterfield that I began to feed off the crowd more."
Playing with a smile on his face and enjoying the occasion is certainly something we have seen from Aaron during the start to his Arsenal career, and it all stems from him being a supporter himself.
A West Brom fan as a child, he had a huge passion for the game from a very young age. "I was really into it, yes" he confirms. "I watched Match of the Day every Saturday and Sunday night. I'd watch the Football League show all the time too. Then most of my Saturday afternoons, if I wasn't playing, were spent watching Soccer Saturday with my mum. So I knew all sorts of stats and about players from everywhere. I was a bit of a football nerd to be honest.
"I didn't go to a lot games," he continues, "but we went whenever we could. My first memories of supporting West Brom were probably in the great escape season (2004/05).
"They stayed up on the last day of the season when they beat Portsmouth, and that was my first year of really supporting them and remembering it well. That's when it all started. It came from my dad's side of the family. They are from Bloxwich, so they are all West Brom supporters. Me, my dad, and my uncle all supported West Brom, and if it wasn't my dad taking me to games, it would be my uncle. It was quite convenient for us to get to The Hawthorns, so it's a family thing."
And his first memory of visiting The Hawthorns in October 2005 – the venue where he would make his Gunners 17 years later – is particularly appropriate.
"I don't think it was the first game I went to, but it's the first one I can really remember, and funnily enough it was actually against Arsenal," Aaron, who was seven at the time, reveals. "West Brom won 2-1, and I think Arsenal were playing in that burgundy kit. I remember it well - Phillipe Senderos scored for Arsenal, but Darren Carter scored the winner. A sweet left foot volley. It's my first proper memory of being at a game - West Brom had the big man Kanu up front as well.
"That day my uncle took me down to the front when the goalkeepers were warming up and I got Chris Kirkland's autograph. We would always have to get there early enough to watch the keepers warm up. That was one of my main things I liked doing, get there early for that.
"It was great being there, and spending time with my uncle and my dad, but I just loved watching football, and seeing the enjoyment they could bring to thousands of people in the stadium."
Within a few years, the roles were reversed, and Aaron was the one bringing enjoyment to the people in the stadium.
Following his loan spell at Chesterfield (despite that debut, he kept his place and made 18 further appearances) he was then loaned again the following season, this time to League One side AFC Wimbledon.
He joined them at the start of the winter transfer window. Just six months later he had done enough to be voted into the Dons' Team of the Decade.
"When you go on loan it can be easy to not invest in the club," he says. "But like at Chesterfield, I took it upon myself to always be fully invested with the club, the fans and the community too. I knew I was going back to my parent club at the end of the season but that's how I wanted to do it.
"I went there in the January, and we were bottom of the league - 12 points off second bottom, and 14 points from safety. Then we went on a great run, and on the last day of the season we drew 0-0 with Bradford and stayed up on goal difference.
"That was such a special time, and at the final whistle I got carried off the pitch by the fans. That six months at Wimbledon is probably the reason I am where I am today, and the reason I'm playing in the Premier League at all.
"Wimbledon have always had a fond affiliation with their goalies, and I was able to play well there which helped, but just interacting with them after games gives you a better bond on the pitch as well."
So was connecting closely with the supporters a tactic Aaron used deliberately, to help him settle at the club?
"No, it was never a conscious decision to use it that way, it's just part of my make up," he states. "Especially when I was at Wimbledon, we were doing well in the games, getting results and it became natural.
"I knew that if I was giving a bit back to the crowd, then I made a mistake, it was going to be brutal for me! So I knew I had to be on top of my game if I wanted to give a bit of stick out myself. It helped me a lot in that way to concentrate on the game more, but really it came naturally."
As if to prove the point that his was a genuine affection for the club, rather than a fleeting relationship as an on loan player, he still goes back to support them, four years later.
"Yeah I go back to when I can. I was there this season, it's the first time I've managed to get to Plough Lane, which was amazing to see. I loved my time there. I was only there for six months, but was voted into their team of the decade after playing just 25 games. Those six months were definitely an amazing time for me."
Chesterfield fans loved him, Wimbledon fans loved him, Bournemouth Supporters voted him their Player of the Season in 2019/20 as did the Sheffield United fans the following year.
Aaron's undoubted talent was obviously the main factor in those awards – he played for England youth sides regularly from 2016 to 2021 – but the keeper believes that a connection with the fanbase is also built on a player's personality.
"Yeah I think so, that's the main thing for me. I've said before that when we score and the team are all celebrating at the other end of the pitch, while I'm on my own I turn round and celebrate with the fans and they become my team mates for me. I think it's to do more than just ability, it's about passion, and character and things like that. But if we don't win football matches, then I'm not doing my job properly. That's what it comes down to.
"I become a fan at every club I've played at, and when I was at Bournemouth for example, whenever I wasn't playing I would go and watch the games in the stands with the fans. So yes I think it's more than ability, and if you are not a likeable character the fans won't take to you anyway."
It's safe to say that the Arsenal fans have taken to Aaron since he joined from Sheffield United in August, even if there was scepticism from some sections of the fanbase to start with. A series of breath-taking saves and 14 clean sheets from his first 26 games have obviously been the main reason for convincing the fans, and Aaron says it can be more difficult to get your personality across when you are at a bigger club
"It is, but you have to be true to yourself on the pitch and things like the goal celebrations - that comes from the heart. That's me being so excited that we've scored and we're doing well. It's more important what you do on the pitch.
"It's true that it can be more difficult to get that across at a bigger club, but at the same time it can be more rewarding, because of how big those moments can be."
Part of being at a big club is also learning to live with increased attention from opposition fans, but Aaron says there hasn't been an atmosphere yet that he has struggled to cope with.
"I've always been able to deal with it. Leeds away in December was very hostile, but I actually enjoyed it. But there aren’t too many that stand out. I'd say it was probably that Accrington game on my debut, when I struggled with the most. I think that was just because I was new to it all though."
So far when it comes to crowd interaction, Aaron's experiences have mainly been positive - even when the result hasn't gone our way.
"I really enjoyed going to Anfield for the semi-final in January. That was just amazing, the Arsenal fans were absolutely incredible and outsang the home fans for the entire match. But then our fans were top-class in the games away to Man City and Liverpool in the league too, when they could have easily walked out with the way the game was going, but they stayed to the end and we could hear them throughout.
"My favourite so far though has to be the Tottenham home game, and also Leicester away - the fans were brilliant that day. Not even for myself, but when they are all singing the Saka and Smith Rowe song, I just love it. It's brilliant, and I've really enjoyed those games, but I've enjoyed all of them to be honest!"
That game at Leicester seemed to nicely sum up inside 90 minutes what Aaron has brought to Arsenal this season. There was of course the breath-taking save from James Maddison's free-kick en route to another clean sheet, but also the playfulness with the crowd, when he joined in the home side's chants while taking goal kicks. So how does he manage to be just as aware of events off the pitch, as those on it, without it hampering his concentration?
"That's why I do it," he grins. "It helps me keep my focus. I'm the sort of person who if you asked me to sit down and do something for an hour, a test or revision or something, I'd make mistakes because I'd be trying too hard. It's the same with football. I need to be able to switch off, and then when I see the ball coming into our half or something like that, I'm able to switch back on again straight away.
"I can't concentrate on just one thing for too long really. I'm always letting my mind wander, whether that's to what's happening in the crowd or anything really - I could be thinking about all sorts!"
- This interview first appeared in the matchday programme, which can be purchased here.
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