Life is changing fast for Aaron Ramsey. Within the space of 18 unforgettable months, he has established himself as one of Europe’s premier midfielders, written himself into the history books with an FA Cup winner at Wembley and tied the knot with his childhood sweetheart. It has been quite a ride.
Not only that, but this naturally reserved character has also seen his profile grow exponentially as his star has continued to rise. Dealing with the unforgiving glare of sudden celebrity is no easy feat, but for this grounded son of Caerphilly it has simply been a case of concentrating on doing what he does best: namely scoring goals and winning games.
However, as he told the Arsenal Magazine with a wry smile, he may have to take some precautionary measures in the future if wants to continue making his annual pilgrimage to Glastonbury.
“I’ll just have to put my shades and a hat on and get in amongst it!” he laughs. “It’s alright – I’m a very down-to-earth kind of guy. I don’t like the [fame] sort of thing. I don’t let it get to me – my family and friends would be the first to let me know if it did. You just have to live your life normally and get on with it.”
One change his nearest and dearest have noticed after six years in London is a distinct softening of his Welsh accent – and they’re not going to let him forget it in a hurry.
“They definitely say that it’s gone! I don’t know what I’ve got at the moment – it’s a mixture. Unless I spend a long period at home [it doesn’t get any stronger again]. It’s just faded!
“But I am very proud to be Welsh – it's just part of you to be patriotic. But I speak very little Welsh now because I haven’t got many people to speak the language to. I speak to my wife in Welsh at home sometimes, but that’s about it really.”
Along with Gareth Bale, Ramsey is one of the poster boys of Welsh football – and the pair’s recent success has helped further broadcast the principality’s sporting prowess to the world. Within the space of one heady May week, pictures were plastered across the globe of firstly Aaron and then the Real Madrid man wrapped in Welsh flags after their respective victories in the FA Cup and Champions League.
It is a period that the 23 year old will never forget, and one that he believes has helped put Wales on the sporting map.
“It was a great feeling to score the winner against Hull. At the time I didn't realise what I was doing – I was just running about celebrating and then collapsed. You could sense the relief from all our fans and the players. I was just so proud of finally winning something after all those years.
“The day after you know what you've achieved. We had all our fans out there for the victory parade on a Sunday morning, it was something like a quarter of a million people, so you know you've achieved something special. Everyone showed their appreciation and we were delighted with that.
“It's been a good period for sport in general in Wales. Gareth won the Champions League, the rugby team are doing really well and hopefully they can continue that into the Rugby World Cup next year, plus we did really well at the Commonwealth Games.
"Football is massive around the world, so if we qualified a lot more people would realise that Wales is a country and not just a part of England!"
“We're very proud and honoured to represent our country. Everybody you speak to from Wales is very patriotic and wants to do the best they can. That's probably why you see so many people and teams doing well at the moment.
“If we can qualify for the Euros, that would be the icing on the cake. We can put ourselves right out there then. Football is massive around the world, so a lot more people would realise that we are a country and not just a part of England!”
Wales made a winning start to Euro 2016 qualifying with a narrow 2-1 victory against Andorra and, with the tournament now extended to 24 teams, Aaron is hopeful of finally fulfilling a lifelong dream and playing in France in two years’ time.
“I think this is one of our best ever opportunities to qualify. We've got a growing group of players who are all on board, we have been together for a few years and we understand each other a lot better. We're really confident and hopefully this will be the one that we qualify for.
“It would be such a big achievement. Wales have never done it and this is our biggest chance so if we did do it, it would be such an amazing feeling, probably up there with one of the best moments [of my life]. I’ve always wanted to play in a major tournament so I'm really looking forward to this campaign.
“I had a taste of it when I played for Great Britain at the 2012 Olympics. It was really good and a learning curve as well because it was new for some of us to play tournament football. I want more of that and hopefully we can do it with Wales.”
Rugby may be the national sport back at home for Ramsey, but he accepts that he has a key role in helping to turn the nation on to football and inspiring a new generation.
“That would be nice,” Aaron says. “We're professional footballers and we want to express ourselves and show what we can do. If that helps any young kids striving to become a footballer, that's great for us as well. I don't feel any added pressure personally, though – we're a good team and we realise what we have and how we can maximise that.
“A few years ago, when Mark Hughes was manager, Wales were selling out the Millennium Stadium every game and came so close to qualifying. The fans are there but we just need to win them back. We've made a good start to our group and hopefully we can now put in a couple of strong performances and get the results to help us into a decent position. Maybe one day we'll be back at the Millennium Stadium.”
Ramsey is no stranger to the venue, often attending Wales rugby games there to support close friends George North, Jamie Roberts and Mike Phillips. And he remains confident the team will be one of the dark horses at next year’s Rugby World Cup.
"I think I made the right decision in the end to go with football but I still think there’s a lot of things we can take from rugby"
“I’ve known Mike for a while and I met Jamie Roberts as well when we went to the Formula One in Monaco. We all get along pretty well and it was a good trip! We see them quite a lot when we meet up with Wales – they have their Six Nations games or internationals and we see them floating about.
“They’re in a good place at the moment, and I think if they reach the levels that they know they’re capable of doing then they’re more than capable of going all the way next year at the World Cup.
“Being a rugby fan is just part of being Welsh. You’ve seen how big the rugby days can be – they’re massive in Wales. Nearly 100,000 people are in the city centre on match days and it’s nice to see everybody getting behind the boys.
“A couple of the staff at Arsenal are into rugby. There’s a bit of banter between me and some of the Irish boys, while a couple of them support England. There’s a bit of banter – especially during the Six Nations and the World Cup next year, I’m sure!”
An all-round athlete while still at school, Ramsey could have chosen a different path and ended up playing rugby himself – but it was league rather than union where the opportunity lay.
“I played a bit of both and it was with rugby league when somebody asked my teacher if I could go up and have a trial for St Helens. There were local teams around us as well such as Newport Gwent Dragons,” he said.
“I think I made the right decision in the end to go with football but I still think there’s a lot of things we can take from rugby. There are examples such as when someone’s down and the physio can just run straight on the pitch and the game’s not interrupted. Maybe sin-bins too, as well as respect towards referees!”
While rugby may be a passion for Aaron, his livelihood is Arsenal and he is fully focused on building on a solid start to the season. Now 23, he is moving into a new phase in his career and he is determined to ensure that May’s FA Cup victory is just the start of a new era of dominance.
“I made my debut when I was 16 so I've been playing for a number of years and been learning my trade if you like,” he says. “I think I've always been quite mature for my age. I moved here when I was 17 and had to grow up pretty quickly.
“Now I feel like I am as mature as I can be. I've got a lot more responsibilities and I've become used to that and it feels good. I just want to improve on last season and try to become the best player I can possibly be. It's about improving on last season now.
“It was nice [to score the winner in the cup final] but hopefully I can have more than that – hopefully it's not the only thing I achieve. I'm confident I can improve and have many more of those wonderful moments. I'm really excited with the way things are developing and about what the future holds.”
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