Sir Alex Ferguson believed he’d got his man - although his man was barely a man at just 17 years old.
Aaron Ramsey, at the time, was one of the most promising teenagers in the world, a midfielder seemingly destined to follow in the footsteps of true greats. It wasn’t much of a surprise then that the Manchester United boss was so keen on the Welshman.
Back in 2008, United were champions, a club on the brink of their third European Cup triumph.
That summer, Ferguson had one eye on the future, adding talented youngsters Anderson and Nani to a squad that was already the strongest in England, maybe even Europe. Ramsey, as he saw it, would be another signing for the long term.
On June 3, 2008, Man Utd issued a statement announcing that a fee for the transfer of the midfielder had been agreed with Cardiff City, but within 10 days he was an Arsenal player, choosing Arsene Wenger’s offer over the Old Trafford club's.
“I flew over to see the boss and I knew straight away that this was where I wanted to be,” Ramsey explained. “I wanted to be in his plans and I was just buzzing. As soon as I came in on the first day I was a bit starstruck with all the faces there, some of the biggest players in world football.”
Now, 10 years later, Ramsey’s Arsenal career appears to be as good as over. His contract is up at the end of the season and the Gunners have made it clear that it won’t be renewed as long as the Welshman’s demands remain the same.
Unless there is a dramatic reversal of Arsenal’s stance, Ramsey will depart the Emirates either in January or next summer, with team he spurned a decade ago reported to be among the clubs interested in a cut-price deal.
Maybe this time, 10 years after they first targeted Ramsey, United will get their man. But should the 27-year-old finally pitch up at Old Trafford, it would only underline how he has largely failed to make the most of the potential that once marked him out at Cardiff City. Ramsey should be coming into his peak years right now, but instead his career so far has been a wasted one.
Ramsey has never been the most natural of fits for Arsenal. He is a midfielder defined by his energy, his physical attributes, rather than his technical ability. This went against the grain of the Gunners’ identity through the latter Arsene Wenger years. Arsenal were a team who played with the ball at their feet, often to their detriment. Ramsey was a stylistic misfit.
Premier League Options
That wouldn’t have been the case at Man Utd. Under Ferguson, they played a fast and furious brand of the game, playing from front to back, not side to side. When fans talk of ‘The United Way,’ this is what they’re referencing, and Ramsey could have been a part of it.
There would have been room for him, too. United struggled for central midfielders in the final years of Ferguson’s reign, with the likes of Darren Gibson and even John O’Shea used as stop-gap solutions. Ramsey would have received game time. Lots of it.
Had Ramsey joined United rather than Arsenal, he would have been a Premier League champion. He likely would have played in Champions League finals, too. But more importantly for the Welshman, he would have found himself at a club stylistically set to make the most of his talent. Ferguson would have embraced Ramsey in a way Wenger didn’t.
This isn’t to say that Man Utd is where Ramsey should head after the expiration of his Arsenal contract. Old Trafford isn’t the place it was 10 years ago. If Jose Mourinho isn’t willing to liberate Paul Pogba as a free-moving, midfield hub of irrepressible energy, then it’s unlikely that he would set Ramsey free.
Liverpool, though, could be the ideal destination for the Welshman. There, Ramsey’s energy through midfield would be harnessed. He’d also be joining a club seemingly on an upward trajectory, with Jurgen Klopp’s side still unbeaten at the top of the Premier League table.
When the Reds visit north London this weekend, they will do so as a team heading in only one direction - forwards.
The issue for Ramsey at Anfield would be competition. Liverpool have already raided Arsenal for one energetic central midfielder in the midst of a contract struggle, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain vindicating Klopp’s faith in becoming a force of nature for the Reds in the second half of last season.
They also have Naby Keita, Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana, Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum competing for a place in that midfield.
Manchester City are another club linked with Ramsey, but he would likely be used as a backup option by Pep Guardiola, unless the Catalan somehow manages to mould the Welshman into a deep-lying Fernandinho successor, which seems unlikely. At 27, would Ramsey really want to be sat on the bench? Would he sacrifice a first team place for a few medals to hang around his neck?
Looking further Afield
Ramsey, reportedly, has other options abroad, with heavyweights such as Barcelona and Juventus monitoring the midfielder’s situation at Arsenal.
The opportunity to play at such a level, with superstars like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, would be understandably difficult to resist, but it’s not where Ramsey can fulfil his potential. He mustn’t repeat the mistake of 10 years ago by picking a team that is at odds with his own identity.
There have been glimpses of the player Ramsey could become over the years. Of the core of homegrown players Wenger wanted to build his new great Arsenal side around, Ramsey has performed at the highest level, outlasting Kieran Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere at the Emirates Stadium.
The goalscoring run strung together during the 2013/14 was the closest Ramsey came to fulfilling his potential as an Arsenal player.
And yet that was a false dawn. Injuries have been a factor in Ramsey’s struggle for consistency, but consider that he has made more than 250 appearances for Arsenal. It’s time that both parties moved on from each other, even if Unai Emery is now implementing a style and system more suited to Ramsey.
The Welshman is best deployed in the central attacking midfield role, and Emery has installed Mesut Ozil there.
Ramsey stands at a critical juncture in his career. Arsenal’s pulling of their contract offer could prove to be exactly what the Welshman needs at this stage, an accidental reprieve after years of underachievement.
Ramsey has stayed longer than he should have at Arsenal, but at 27 there is still time. Like his Arsenal contract, though, that too is running out.