As the full-time whistle blew on Saturday afternoon, and Wojciech Szczesny started chest bumping his fellow players, a rare sense of pride washed over me. There was a fair amount of relief too, but I was proud of the passion and will to win shown by an Arsenal team whose commitment and desire has often been questioned. In some ways, winning is more satisfying when it’s gained by a resolute defensive display.
Down to ten men, and hanging onto a slender lead away from home at a ground where we have rarely won recently, I spent the last half an hour fearing the worst. Yet this Arsenal team stood up strong, and outstanding displays from both Szczesny and Sagna have rightly earned many of the plaudits.
Yet there was another man whom I believe deserves great credit, not just for Saturday, but for the quiet tenacity he shows every week.
I’ve long held the view that football hasn’t been particularly kind to Aaron Ramsey. Fans and players are so detached these days that it sometimes becomes difficult to find a common emotional connection with players. If something bad happens to a footballer, fans often dismiss any notion of the players hurt, claiming that the money they earn each week makes it impossible to feel a shred of sympathy for them.
Footballers are so built up, and often turned into superheroes, that it’s easy to forget that they too go through the same emotions as many of us on a daily basis, yet they live their life in the public eye and receive great renumeration for playing a game we all love.
But Aaron Ramsey has had a very bumpy ride to his young career, and has handled himself with dignity and determined perseverance throughout.
At 18 he was becoming a mainstay in the Arsenal first team when his leg was cruelly snapped in half by a careless thug. Not only was he put out of action for a year, but sickeningly the media portrayed Ryan Shawcross as the victim in the whole scenario, forgetting that it was Ramsey stuck in a hospital bed. To compound matters, Stoke fans took the appalling decision to make Ramsey a figure of bile and abuse, his only crime being that he’d had his leg broken.
After a year out of action, Ramsey finally made his return to the first team, and with the mental and physical scars still evident, fans expected him to pick right up where he left off, which was never going to be the case after such a serious leg break.
A loan move back to Cardiff, followed by a match winning goal against Manchester United at the end of the 2010/11 season left many fans hoping that Ramsey was ready to kick on, and resume his Arsenal career at the highest level.
Then two things happened which irreversibly changed the trajectory of Ramsey’s young career. Firstly, Arsenal inexplicably didn’t replace either Cesc Fabregas or Samir Nasri, and with Jack Wilshere injured, Ramsey was designated to play in the attacking midfield role vacated by Cesc. It was like we were throwing Ramsey straight into the fire. Arsenal were somehow expecting him, in his first full season back from injury, to replace the most creative midfielder in all of Europe.
During this time, Ramsey scored a last minute winner away at Marseille, which many forget, and it proved to be crucial in our qualification from the Champions League group of death.
Then in November, with a growing number of Arsenal fans starting to get on his back, tragedy struck. For a 20 year old, to be made captain of your country must be a great honour. It may have been a little premature, but it was clear that Ramsey would be a centrepiece in the Welsh national team for the next decade, and Gary Speed made the decision to hand a clearly talented, young prodigy the national captaincy.
Gary Speed’s death must have hit Ramsey hard. He was only 20 at the time, and whilst death still shocks all of us, the older you get, you learn how to deal with it better. Ramsey was a mere twenty year old when the man who made him captain died, and it must have been an incredibly raw time for him.
Yet he carried on playing his football, and with his performances not at the level of Fabregas, or at the level expected of an Arsenal playmaker, fans started to become more and more agitated with him.
It got to the stage where it seemed Ramsey could do nothing right. Just seeing his name on the teamsheet was sending Twitter into a meltdown at the start of the year, and the sight of him warming up is often met with ridicule by those who sit around me at the ground.
Yet those very people that choose to boo Ramsey, are the same people that claim ‘I don’t mind if we lose, as long as the players try their hardest’. Ramsey seems an odd scapegoat under that logic considering he works harder than the majority of his teammates. He never shirks tracking back, and consistently hassles opponents and works hard until the last minute. While his all-round play may need some development, his work-rate is better than many of him acclaimed peers.
And the truth is, we’ve never really had a chance to watch Ramsey play consistently in a central midfield position. He isn’t suited to the Cesc Fabregas role, he’s more of a hustler, a box to box player. Yet he’s been played out of position for the majority of his Arsenal career, so it’s much harder to express his footballing strengths. He’s been played as a wide forward on several occasions this season, and it largely hasn’t worked out. Recently, with Mikel Arteta out injured, Ramsey performed admirably in the defensive midfielder role, and his improvement in that position gives us a fruitful option if we need to rest our ageing Spaniard’s legs.
On Saturday, he slotted in at right back, and put in another very accomplished performance in an unfavoured position. He’s becoming Arsenal’s utility man, and every successful club needs utility men to come in a do a job in a number of positions.
I think back to successful Arsenal sides under Wenger, and they all had players who came in and played in unfamiliar roles yet were pivotal in winning the title. In ’98 Grimandi slotted into midfield and defence, and the much maligned Chris Wreh contributed some important goals. They weren’t necessarily first choice players, but they played a crucial role in winning the title. In the next generation players like Edu, Van Bronckhorst played a variety of positions across midfield and were vital players in our success.
The season is long, and with an injury record like Arsenal’s, we will always be dependent on quality utility players to come in and perform well in unfamiliar positions. Ramsey’s versatility and willing make him the perfect candidate.
Lastly, compare Ramsey’s behaviour at being constantly played out of position with that of Theo Walcott. Do you ever hear Ramsey complain about playing as a right forward? Did he complain when he got shifted to right back on Saturday? Of course he didn’t, he got his head down and got on with the job with minimum fuss. Did he complain when Chris Coleman stripped him of international captaincy. No, he was dignified and professional throughout.
There’s great potential in Aaron Ramsey. He’s a gifted footballer, who clearly isn’t the finished article yet, but he’s a young player who is constantly getting better. He could be a vital part of this Arsenal squad for the next decade. As the Sunderland game on Saturday proved, we require players capable of getting on with the job, in a tenacious but unassuming manner. We need Aaron Ramsey, his versatility gives us a variety of options, and the boo boys would do very well to remember that.------------
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