If there was one Arsenal player who didn’t really want the 2012/13 season to end, it was probably Aaron Ramsey.
The Welshman ended the campaign in some of the best form of his Gunners career, setting the tempo with some tireless and incisive performances in the heart of the midfield and even getting on the scoresheet with an emphatic finish in the win over Wigan Athletic.
Now in the midst of his preseason preparations as he and his team-mates look to pick up where they left off when a fresh campaign commences, he met up with us to talk about what has been an eventful summer both on and off the training field.
“It’s been tough in the heat we’ve had, but you can’t complain about it,” he says, reflecting on the famed double sessions put on by fitness coach Tony Colbert and staff during the early stages of pre-season. “We just have to keep hydrated and get through it - obviously if the fitness coaches saw someone really struggling in the heat they would pull them out but we’ve all been okay so far.
Pre-season is a different animal to that of, say, 20 or 30 years ago. It’s no longer about shedding those pounds put on during the summer; nowadays, players return at pretty much their fighting weight and, if truth be told, would probably be able to return to match action close to full tilt if needs be. Aaron and his colleagues are diligent in following their own, personalised programmes before returning to the training ground in order to ensure that this is the case.
He explains: “I stay the same as when I left. We get programmes to do over the summer, although for the first few weeks we are told to do nothing and just rest. A couple of weeks before pre-season we do our programmes and it’s something you just have to do - you don’t want to start on the back foot.”
"A couple of weeks before pre-season we do our programmes and it’s something you just have to do - you don’t want to start on the back foot"
Indeed, the amount of running required early on during pre-season ensures that Arsenal’s players had no choice but to begin on the front foot. Aaron is well known for his stamina and work rate - so was he among those leading the way when it all began? “Everyone’s given a time and they have to stick to that, but we do have one run where you go to your maximum that your body can handle,” he reveals. “I was fortunate that Carl Jenkinson and I were right at the front on that, and Gibbo wasn’t far behind. He’s not carrying any weight, which helps in the runs - he never puts any on actually, which amazes me when you see some of the stuff he eats!
“It helps that I’ve always been good over a long distance, and ran 800m for the schools and stuff. I ran it in two minutes and four seconds when I was 14 years old and could have taken athletics further, but football commitments took over.”
Aaron was able to concentrate on another of his sporting loves during his time off this summer, though. A very keen golfer, he joined Theo Walcott in competing in a Pro-Am competition at Wentworth late in May, playing with Justin Rose - with Rory McIlroy and Colin Montgomerie among the other professionals taking part. “It was a really good day,” he smiles. “Perhaps you’ve seen the picture of Theo in the trees - he actually made a birdie on that hole. He played from a hazard, chipped on the green and got a birdie. Our team did really well, finishing third overall on minus 12 - you had to better a par to score, and I got three birdies, which Theo did too. I was really pleased.
“I’m a 12 handicapper now and playing with Justin Rose was incredible, seeing how he strikes the ball. It looks effortless and the ball goes miles - some of the shots he played were amazing. He was a really likeable, down to earth guy and I was really pleased he won the US Open a couple of weeks later -
That apart, Aaron enjoyed a relaxed summer - with one particular celebration forming a key part. “I went to Theo’s wedding in Florence, which was really nice, and had a few other breaks too - just chilling out really. I tended to turn off from football, I don’t really watch much anyway. I saw one of the Confederations Cup games, Brazil v Uruguay, but that was about it.”
Other sports, however, did grab Aaron’s attention - and there are no prizes for guessing which success proved particularly to the rugby-loving midfielder’s liking. “We had training on the Saturday morning of the British and Irish Lions’ final game in Australia but I managed to get home in time to watch the last 20 minutes live and I watched the whole match again later that night - it was brilliant,” he beams. “It was a great series and thoroughly deserved in the end, it vindicated Warren Gatland’s selection after he had taken a lot of criticism before the match. Having so many Welsh players on the tour, and 10 starting in the last Test, was a really proud moment for everyone back home.
"Having so many Welsh players on the tour, and 10 starting in the last Test, was a really proud moment for everyone back home"
“Everyone knows how proud Welsh people are of rugby. I’ve met a few of the Welsh guys, we’d share the same hotel when we were both playing internationals - even the little guys are massive! They’re incredibly muscular but they have to be to take those hits.”
Just 24 hours later, Andy Murray was adding to a memorable weekend of British sporting heroics by beating Novak Djokovic in straight sets at Wimbledon. “I guess that took a bit of the attention away from the Lions but what a great achievement - I watched the whole final,” says Aaron. “It’s a huge achievement for him to break a record that’s stood for 77 years. His family and everyone who knows him must be so proud.”
Back to football, and after their friendly win against Manchester City in Helsinki, Arsenal are set fair for the 2013/14 season, and that keenly awaited curtain raiser at home against Aston Villa. “It’s good to start with a home game,” believes Aaron. “It gives us a chance to start well, get out of the blocks quickly and put ourselves in contention. It also allows the fans to get right behind us straight away."
An early-season goal from Aaron wouldn’t do anyone any harm. His only Premier League strike last term came in the form of that fine finish against Wigan, and he is keen not to lose that goalscoring feeling as the new term kicks in. “It’s something I need to improve on, hopefully I can do that in the new season,” he admits. “I’m getting into the positions and just need to be a bit more composed in those areas. I was playing well in that Wigan game, which helps with your finishing. I had confidence last season and hope to take that into the new campaign.”
Read the interview with Aaron and more in the latest edition
As do all of Arsenal’s players - highly confident after that barnstorming late-season run into the top four. Aaron believes that a similar beginning to the forthcoming campaign could put the team in a position to challenge for top honours. “We’ve been a few seasons without winning anything now but hopefully we can take the run that finished last season into the start of next season," he said. "That’s what we’ve lacked in recent years, a good start, and we have ended up playing catch-up. We have a really good atmosphere in the team with good players, and we are experienced now – so we can’t wait to get started."
If a good result against Villa on August 17 happens to include an Aaron Ramsey goal, there might just be a strong sense that good things are afoot for Arsenal over the next nine months or so.
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