Aaron Ramsey: 'Wenger wanted me more than Ferguson'
With Arsenal facing the champions tomorrow, Aaron Ramsey – one of Britain's fastest-rising talents – tells Sam Wallace about growing up with the world at his feet
There are very few teenage footballers good enough to join Arsenal. Fewer still who make it to the first team. And only the very best are personally invited to get on a private jet to meet Arsène Wenger to be sold the virtues of becoming an Arsenal footballer.
Aaron Ramsey belongs in the latter category, the kid from Caerphilly who, in the summer of 2008, was flown to Switzerland so that Wenger, working there as a French television pundit at the European Championships, could persuade him to join Arsenal rather than tomorrow's opponents, Manchester United. Now, 19 months on, Arsenal have a teenage footballer who is delivering on his promise already and shaping up as one of the best young midfielders in Europe.
It is hard not to think that the urgency with which Sir Alex Ferguson signed the Fulham defender Chris Smalling this week as Arsenal counter-bid was not unrelated to his frustration at missing out on Ramsey two summers ago. Smalling is one for the future but at 19 years old, Ramsey already looks every inch the cultured, accomplished Arsenal midfielder and he has a good chance of starting in the crunch Premier League title-race match at the Emirates tomorrow.
As Cardiff City's youngest-ever first team player, and a late substitute in the 2008 FA Cup final, Ramsey was no secret in British football: every big club wanted him. But what impressed Ramsey about Arsenal above any other club was not just the plane that flew him, his parents Kevin and Marlene and his agent to Switzerland – it was Wenger's detailed knowledge of how he could improve him as a player.
"I felt more wanted here [at Arsenal]," Ramsey says. "By that I mean they did more things to try to get me. They had a plan set out for me and knew exactly what they wanted to develop me. The sort of thing they said was 'You can improve on this' and 'This is what you are good at, so we will do this'.
"I think that the boss here has brought through a lot more youngsters and given them opportunities on a more regular basis. And that is what he believes in, picking out talented young players and turning them into great players so hopefully I can be in that category."
"It was great having these clubs after me but I am pretty level-headed," he adds. "My parents kept my feet on the ground. I just concentrated on playing football and letting that do the talking. Obviously it was nice to hear that clubs wanted me. I'm where I wanted to be – in the best league in the world. As for the plane trip I was just really looking forward to meeting the boss and hearing what he had to say. It was a great experience. That was a factor in making up my mind."
Like any 19-year-old living away from home, the last two seasons have not always been easy for Ramsey but he has a steely, understated determination about him. He admits with a smile to being "star-struck" when he walked into the first-team dressing room at the training ground for the first time – but not for long. "As a footballer you have to deal with things like this and I quickly realised this is what I want to do and this is where I want to be," he said. "So I got used to it and settled right in."
When it is suggested that his life spent between his home near Arsenal's training ground and regular trips back to see his family in Caerphilly is a bit like Gavin and Stacey, he agrees with a laugh. He can also joke about the first time he saw the Arsenal players' car park and decided that he would have to get rid of the lime green Fiesta that had been his car in Cardiff. "That was the first thing that had to go," he says. "But I hoped nobody knew about it."
The difference between Ramsey and every other 19-year-old is that he has joined one of European football's elite clubs and is more than holding his own. In Cesc Fabregas' absence over Christmas he not only scored in successive games, against Portsmouth and West Ham in the FA Cup third round, but he ran the show. He picked up an injury that ruled him out of the Bolton double-header but he has already started as many games – 10 – as he did last season.
Not bad for a boy from a rugby town who was first introduced to football as an eight-year-old when he attended a training session put on by the Urdd Welsh language youth movement in Caerphilly. He was so good that within a year his coach Gary Lewis took him and a few others down to Cardiff City where Ramsey was immediately signed up for their school of excellence. He stayed until Wenger sanctioned a £5m deal for him in 2008.
"Rugby was my first sport when I was seven," he says. "I played touch rugby and one year of tackling. I used to play either fly-half or on the wing. Then I moved to football when I was nine and have been there ever since. At school we had the odd football game but it was mostly rugby every week. I was lucky that I got that opportunity to play for Cardiff at such a young age."
As part of a very talented young generation of Welsh footballers that includes Ramsey's friend Chris Gunter, Gareth Bale and Joe Ledley, he believes that qualification for Euro 2012 can be achieved. And as a fluent Welsh speaker – one language among many others in the Arsenal dressing room – he is also quietly patriotic about his home country and what it means to him.
"I am very passionate about being Welsh," he says. "It is the culture, the way people are in the community. A lot of people know each other. It is very tight. It has always been like that. It is just different – London seems so busy and people don't have time to talk. They rush off to do their own thing.
"In Wales if you are going to the shop and you see someone you stop and talk for 20 minutes. It just seems a happier environment. Whenever Wales are playing the whole country has a buzz. For example, if Wales are playing England it is like an occasion. It is a good country. My friends treat me the same, I wouldn't like it any other way. I am pretty close to them and I go back whenever I can."
The Ramseys are a sporting family: father Kevin was a good footballer, mother Marlene played hockey for Wales and younger brother Josh represents his country at rugby at Under-18s level, but like his brother he too has rebelled against the norm and opted for league rather than union. As for Aaron himself, it is the immediate challenge of United that absorbs him.
"It is one of the biggest games of the seasons for us and we feel like we owe them [United] because we played so well at their place [the 2-1 defeat in August]," he says. "We felt we should have got something out of that game. We were a bit unfortunate to score an own goal. We are looking forward to the game and everyone is up for it."
His introduction to the first team was smoothed by the younger members of the squad, his best friend at the club Kieran Gibbs, as well as Theo Walcott and Nicklas Bendtner. Ask him who he models his game on and Ramsey's instinct is that he wants to be like Steven Gerrard but as soon as the words are out of his mouth he qualifies it. "Having said that, I don't really look up to anybody and say 'That's who I want to be like'," he says. "I want to be my own player."
When he looks back on those days in the summer of 2008, Ramsey is tempted to describe them as "surreal" but he made a major decision in rejecting Manchester United that seems to have paid off already. Tomorrow United will get to see exactly what they missed out on.
My Other Life
I have been to see The Killers, Razorlight and The Kooks in concert at the O2. I went with my mate Chris Gunter (Nottingham Forest) to see the Arctic Monkeys in Nottingham.
I like to play golf in the summer. We have a little golfing day at the club and the chef Rob Fagg is pretty good, as is John Kelly, the masseur. I have never played with Theo Walcott but he's supposed to be pretty good, too. Nicklas Bendtner will say he's the best but he's not!