Friday 20 July 2018

Ramsey re-emerging as his country's leader

Wales' Aaron Ramsey during training at the Cardiff City Stadium yesterday. Photo : Nick Potts/PA
Wales' Aaron Ramsey during training at the Cardiff City Stadium yesterday. Photo : Nick Potts/PA
James Lawton

James Lawton

Sometimes in football, as in life, there are moments when you have to stand up and say who you are and precisely what you represent. You have to summon up all the best that you have.

Last Friday night in the fiery Georgian capital of Tbilisi nobody, needed to tell Aaron Ramsey, 26, that such an occasion had arrived.

Maybe, given all the achievement that he has promised down the years, and sometimes delivered with thrilling power and authority, it was a little late for such a defining examination.

But there it was in Tbilisi. And just as vitally in Cardiff tonight against Ireland in front of his own people, the most insistent imperative of a career that some, including his fiercest admirers, had come to fear would never be properly fulfilled.

While the slide rules were being applied to the complex question of what Wales and Ireland needed to do to keep their World Cup qualification chances alive, Ramsey had one question wholly of his own.

It asked with quite brutal force whether he had the nerve and the stature and the re-gathered confidence to make the absence of Gareth Bale seem like the merest passing inconvenience. To say that he entirely brought it off in the life-giving win over Georgia might be a stretch, but Wales did what they hadn't done for years.

Thoroughbred

They won without Bale and, while Tom Lawrence scored a superb goal, and Joe Allen was often brilliantly acute in midfield, Ramsey also breathed the fire of a real Welsh dragon. He had one assist, might have had two others, passed the ball beautifully, and his every stride had the bearing of a thoroughbred.

The Arsenal player was asked the question and his answer was deeply impressive.

Ramsey also had to embrace the crucial point of the fact that he along with six of his team-mates was a yellow card away from missing tonight's game - a restraint that had to be discarded as a work-a-day hazard of the competitive life.

If that presented a wrenching dilemma for such a naturally assertive player as Ramsey, it was hardly unprecedented. After all, he performed brilliantly in carrying Wales to their best major tournament finish in the 2016 European Championship finals.

Against the much-fancied Belgians, he was the outstanding creative force as the Welsh came back from a goal down to win 3-1 and secure an historic semi-final place against Portugal.

By comparison, the megastar Bale seemed more than anything well-meaning and it was an impression reflected in the team of the tournament selection made by Uefa's technical panel, which included Alex Ferguson.

Ramsey made the team (along with Allen) ahead of such luminaries as Barcelona's Andres Iniesta and Real Madrid's Luka Modric.

Bale didn't, and the citation for Ramsey could hardly have glowed brighter.

"Ramsey," said the panel, "showed a fantastic reading of the game, coverage of ground, and timing of runs, and quality passing and finishing."

It was pretty to think that Ramsey had joined the pantheon of great Welsh players who 58 years earlier had lost narrowly to eventual champions Brazil in the quarter-finals of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.

John Charles, brutally treated by the famed Hungarian team in a group play-off match, missed the Brazil game decided by a goal from the prodigy Pele, as did Ramsey the Euro semi-final against Portugal.

Ramsey had been yellow-carded rather than bruised black and blue out of the action, and the truth is that there were other differences in the profiles of two players who had made their mark on their nation's football history so many years apart.

Charles, christened the Gentle Giant by the adoring fans of Juventus when he moved to Italy, had phenomenal talent - and consistency.

It is in the latter department that the deepest questions have been asked of Ramsey and inevitably, with Bale wounded, he still carried plenty of them in his baggage for Tbilisi.

The most biting one asked if he has, year by year, lost a little more of the sap which made him seem so certain to become one of the major players of the modern game.

Though his most recent form had been impressive - notably in Arsenal's unexpectedly spirited performance at Chelsea - it had hardly wiped away strongly developing doubts about his capacity to march back to the kind of aura he projected so spectacularly in the 2013-'14 season.

Then his Arsenal predecessor, Patrick Vieira, a man who set such fierce levels of competitive edge, rated him the best midfielder in the Premier League.

"He has everything you want, intelligence, strength, creativity, great finishing. He can only go from strength to strength," said the Frenchman.

It was an assessment that set the bar extremely high and there are many, and quite a number of them on the terraces of the Emirates Stadium, who say it is still too early for a verdict from the jury room.

One suggestion is that he has caught some of the bad habits of the under-performing Arsenal dressing-room.

Last week the old Arsenal stalwart Martin Keown charged that Mesut Ozil had virtually laid down his arms and there was more than a whiff of such criticism of Ramsey after Arsene Wenger's men were destroyed by Liverpool early in the season.

It was said with some anger that Ramsey had simply gone missing in action as the Liverpool horde poured upon the Arsenal goal.

Since then, the Welshman has been impressively faithful to his wounded declaration in the wake of the Anfield slaughter that he would work hard to put things right.

Against Chelsea he was as good as his word. He worked prodigiously hard, not least in defence and, when he went forward, it was with much of his old wit and panache.

It was a performance that did something to counter the idea that career challenges had lost some of their importance to the boy from the valleys who had installed himself in a £5m mansion in a lush suburb of the Welsh capital.

Captaincy

Chris Coleman took the Welsh captaincy away from the then 21-year-old Ramsey after a 6-1 defeat by Serbia.

He felt that the death of former manager Gary Speed had had an emotionally damaging impact on the midfielder, but this week he was emphatic that he saw Ramsey again as an emerging leader.

"When I relieved him of the captaincy I explained that it was because so much had changed so quickly in a young life but that I was sure he would re-emerge as a natural captain."

Wenger agrees and has made it clear that, despite previous doubts, he is keen to sign Ramsey to a new contract.

"I believe he is in a very good moment," said the Arsenal manager.

"Maybe he has reminded himself of how much he can bring to the game, how much talent he has."

For many in the valleys back home tonight, that sounded not so much a piece of speculation as a very solemn prayer. One which, as it happened, had no reason to lose any of its fervour after Ramsey stood up and said who he was in Tbilisi.

He will be aiming to do the same tonight.

Irish Independent

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