Cast your mind back 18 months and you will struggle to find a lot of positivity on the terraces of the Emirates directed toward Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey.
It would have been optimistic and far-fetched to predict that Wales captain Ramsey would be the Gunners’ FA Cup hero.
Ramsey’s renaissance from object of the fans’ frustration to the player many believe Arsene Wenger, when he signs a new contract, should build his team around has been remarkable. Such has been the ex-Cardiff trainee’s importance, influence and impact on all that has been good about Arsenal’s season that most observers of the game are left be wondering what could have been had Ramsey remained fit for the entire season.
Arsenal were top of the Premier League when Ramsey limped out of their 3-1 Boxing Day win at West Ham. The three months Ramsey spent on the sidelines saw Arsenal’s form slip away and with it the title challenge their early season form threatened. It was more than just a coincidence that following Ramsey’s return as a substitute in Arsenal’s 3-0 defeat at Everton in April, the Gunners went on to win their final six Premier League games and seal a Champions League spot.
That Ramsey found himself in the right place at the right time with a composed extra time finish to end Arsenal’s nine-year trophy drought in last weekend’s 3-2 FA Cup final defeat of Hull was a fitting finale to the season the Welshman has had. There was no Arsenal player more fitting of being the match winner.
While Ramsey’s transformation into a key player this season has been surprising to many and of historical gain to Arsenal, it is an overwhelming personal victory for both the player and his manager.
Let’s not forget the horrific injury that stunted Ramsey’s development for the best part of two and half years. The Welsh international has admitted himself the double fracture in his right leg he suffered at Stoke in February 2010 was so damaging that it took him years to get over it. Part of this was the loss of form that saw him become the target of popular malice among Arsenal supporters and even lose his status as captain of the Welsh national team.
For many young players this combination of events would have finished them off, so it is a testament to the mental strength and determination of the 23-year old that he has come back to be such a pivotal player for Arsenal (and with that find himself occupying a spot on the wanted lists of many of the game’s elite clubs).
It is also a notable moral victory for Wenger; an overwhelmingly positive qualification of his philosophy of sticking with and developing young talent. You have to feel under any other manager, or at another ‘big club’, Ramsey would have been cast aside as he struggled to come to terms with the psychological impact of his injury and the apparent backwards momentum of his own game.
Now Ramsey is the hero of the Arsenal fans, his rise a parable of the dangers of the hubris of football fans. In addition he is shining example that homegrown talent can succeed in the multicultural Premier League if it is nurtured with patience, compassion and a forgiving tutor. Whatever the faults of Arsene Wenger, his possession of these qualities cannot be questioned.
What Wenger must do now is build his Arsenal team around Ramsey. There will be those who urge him to go out and spend in order to capitalise on the club’s success this season. Certainly the Arsenal team has a spine that is need of a bit of strengthening, but in terms of its engine it has no better candidate than Ramsey.
Given his development this season there is no reason why Ramsey cannot now go on to be for Arsenal over the next decade what Steven Gerrard has been to Liverpool and Frank Lampard to Chelsea. Drive, energy, creativity and priceless midfield goals: these are all attributes Ramsey has, along with an ease and style in possession of the ball that is the hallmark of an Arsene Wenger player.
Of course, Ramsey is not yet the finished article. He hasn’t yet proven he can really stamp his authority on the biggest games, but if the upward curve continues it shouldn’t be too long before Ramsey is running football matches in the manner of a truly world class engine room midfielder.
While Ramsey hasn’t quite done it in the biggest clashes, it boils down more to inexperience than shrinking from the challenge. Ramsey, for example, cannot be said to be plagued by the invisibility that seems to afflict Jack Wilshere when it really counts.
The other challenge Arsenal face is warding off potential suitors. Already there has been some (arguably idle) speculation of interest from the continent, and history has taught us that Arsenal has been a club that has sold its best players in the last decade.
That problem, however, seems to stem from the club’s lack of tangible success. With an FA Cup victory to dampen, temporarily at least, suspicions Arsenal are no longer a successful club, Arsene Wenger, when he signs a new contract, may not find this problem so prominent. Instead the concern will turn to how to build wisely yet at a pace that provides additional momentum rather than fostering the state of inertia that has been Arsenal’s forte in recent years.
What I am certain of is that in that puzzle Aaron Ramsey is Arsene Wenger’s most valuable piece.
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