As Aaron Ramsey picks up the microphone and the room falls silent, it is safe to assume that the majority of the 120 people taking part in his charity golf day were not expecting the Arsenal midfielder to talk so passionately about the importance of conserving rainforests and saving endangered animals. The clues were there with the World Wildlife Fund leaflets dotted around the tables but it is one thing to be seen to be doing the right thing and quite another to speak from the heart about supporting a cause.
Ramsey is not putting his name to the charity for some positive PR and when he pulls up a chair a couple of hours later, full of apologies for not starting the interview earlier, the panda logo and everything that it stands for sound almost as important to the Welshman as his football career.
“I’ve always been passionate about animals,” Ramsey says. “And with the way things are going at the moment, with all of these helpless animals being killed for their ivory and for what people think are for medicinal reasons, it’s just beyond me. We need to really take a look at ourselves and do something about it before it’s too late because if we don’t, it will quickly be a case of: ‘Do you remember these animals?’”
It is a measure of how seriously Ramsey views the subject that he was considering going to Africa during the close season to make a documentary with the WWF. “I went on safari a couple of years ago and I’d love to do it again,” he says. “It’s brilliant, you have hyenas running around, elephants trampling – it’s crazy. It’s just an amazing experience being out in the wild, in the bush, with all these different animals, the stars, no light pollution or anything.”
In the end the not-so-small matter of helping Wales to beat Belgium in Cardiff in the middle of June – a game that Ramsey describes as the most special he has ever been involved in with his country – followed by a short break before returning for pre-season with Arsenal, made it impossible to squeeze in a trip to Africa.
Spare time is likely to be at a premium again next summer. Wales are on course to take their place in the European Championship finals in France – which would be the first major tournament that they have qualified for since the 1958 World Cup – and Ramsey’s responsibilities at home will soon extend beyond taking Halo and Romie, his two dogs, for a walk in the park near his home in Barnet.
Colleen, the player’s childhood sweetheart he married last year, is due to give birth in a few months and Ramsey sounds thrilled to bits about the prospect of being a father for the first time. “I just can’t wait now until the baby is here,” he says. “We’re really excited about being parents, it’s something that we want and we feel that we’re ready to do.”
Basking in the sunshine on a glorious evening at the Shire London, Ramsey smiles as he reflects on the seven years that have passed by in a blur since he swapped Cardiff for Arsenal and nervously walked into the training ground for the first time, secretly wondering whether the players were thinking: “Who is this guy?”
“It’s gone so quick and a lot has happened,” Ramsey says. “I was a 17-year-old baby coming up to London, didn’t know what to expect and just went with the flow. I’ve turned into a man since I’ve been here. I had to grow up quite quickly.”
From his burgeoning status on the pitch to the multimillion-pound contracts that have brought financial security for life, so much has changed during his time at Arsenal. Yet one of the most striking things about spending time in Ramsey’s company is that so much remains the same about him. He is still the modest, softly spoken kid from Caerphilly who is living the dream, motivated by what he can achieve on the field rather than the number of digits on his payslip.
“It’s unbelievable what the rewards are like with being a footballer, but I’m not stupid – I don’t go around flaunting it,” he says. “I’m quite reasonable and level-headed. I live for football and my real passion is just to go out there and express myself and show everybody what I’m capable of doing. It’s what I’ve always known since I was a kid. All I ever wanted to do was be a footballer. Hopefully I can be one of the best midfielders in the world, that’s what drives me on, to try and achieve that and to try and go on and win many things.”
From a personal point of view, Ramsey outlines two key objectives for the season ahead with Arsenal. He desperately wants to steer clear of injury – he broke down with hamstring problems on three separate occasions last term – and he is also keen to play in the position where he believes he can have the biggest influence on Arsène Wenger’s team.
“It was difficult last season because of the injuries I had again, especially as it wasn’t just one injury,” he says. “It was a month out and then I came back … it was another month out and then I came back. So it’s hard to get a rhythm going. You might feel a yard or two off it when you return and then it takes a few extra games to get going again. So it was a frustrating one for me. But in the games I did play, I did still have an impact, I set up a few goals and got into double figures.
“But I just want to stay fit and healthy this season, have a full campaign and get my place back in the middle of the park, because that’s where I feel that I play my best football. I want to have the freedom to go forward but also, once we’re defending, I’ll obviously have to get back in. I don’t want to be fixed in front of the back four or in the hole, I want to be the one who can do both and get up and down.”
Thierry Henry recently said that he was a big fan of Ramsey and went on to talk about the way the 24-year-old has developed into a player who wants to “command the field” and dominate the centre of the pitch. Ramsey nods in agreement. “That’s obviously really nice of him to say that,” he says.
“I think I’ve definitely grown as a player. I feel there’s a responsibility there to perform, to lead the team by driving forward and winning the ball back. I’m a player who always wants to be involved in the game. That’s why I don’t particularly like going on the right because I’m not involved as much. I want the ball every time we have an attack.”
Injury prevention feels like a significant issue. After all, Ramsey was also sidelined for three months with a thigh injury during the 2013-14 season, when he scored 16 goals, including the winner in the FA Cup final against Hull, and was such a revelation. One school of thought is that Ramsey, who seemingly covers every blade of grass on a matchday and has the same work ethic in training, would benefit from sitting out a session now and again, just to give his body chance to recuperate.
“I always give it my everything no matter what, if it is in training or games,” Ramsey says. “But I think especially the back end of last season we improved that a lot, where I did have a few sessions just to recover that bit more. Because I do put in a big shift in games and it’s difficult sometimes, when you’re playing two or three games in a week, to recover fully and go into the game fresh. I definitely managed myself better with that in the second half of the season. And it had to be done, because I was always breaking down, so we needed to look at something and I feel we’ve done that. Hopefully we’ll continue doing that and it will get me fit throughout the season.”
As for Arsenal’s aspirations for the new season, Ramsey believes that now is the time, after winning back-to-back FA Cups, for this group of players to mount a legitimate title challenge. “In the last couple of years we’ve started off well and then we’ve faded. Last season we didn’t start off too well and then we finished really strongly. It’s just a case of being consistent throughout the season, which I’m sure we can do if we keep everybody fit and healthy as well. And then we’ll give it a good go.
“One of the positives from the last campaign was definitely that we improved in the bigger games and got results. Maybe we didn’t play the way that we always play; against Manchester City we sat back and invited them on to us and then we hit them on the counterattack. Obviously the way we tried to go about it before didn’t quite work and we got punished pretty badly at times against some of the big teams in the league, so we changed that.”
The reality, though, is that Chelsea, the Premier League champions, finished 12 points ahead of Arsenal last season. Ramsey believes that the signing of Petr Cech will make a big difference, but is that gap really bridgeable? “I think so,” he says. “Chelsea were so consistent throughout the season, they didn’t really slip up and led from day one. I think it’s important for us to get off to a good start. I feel if we do that we’ll give it a good go. And that gap … that’s a couple of games they have to lose and we have to win.”
Ramsey could be forgiven for thinking anything is possible on the back of what Wales have achieved recently, earning a place in pot one for Saturday’s Russia 2018 qualifying draw. Chris Coleman’s side sit top of their European Championship qualification group, unbeaten in six matches, five points clear of third place and, incredibly, ranked 10th in the world, four years after they languished 117th. “It’s crazy the jump that we’ve done,” Ramsey says, “especially from the last World Cup where we were bottom seeds. Now we’re going into this one as one of the top seeds.”
There are several reasons, Ramsey says, why everything has fallen into place for Wales. “I think there’s more belief now among the players. We trust each other in our responsibilities as a team defensively and we believe that we can go on and hurt teams. Maybe we were a bit naive in the past defensively, we were not mature enough to see out games, or to be solid, and perhaps attacked a bit too much and left ourselves open. But we understand that now and that’s probably why we’ve turned it around.”
With so much attention on Gareth Bale, especially since that £86m world record transfer to Real Madrid two years ago, it feels as though Ramsey’s presence in the Wales team goes under the radar these days. “Maybe I do because of where Gareth’s at, the price that he’s gone for, and what he’s done in the game in general has been remarkable anyway. He’s out there now. He’s a superstar.
“But it’s a team, and the Welsh team have done fantastically well. He couldn’t go out there and win a game on his own against Belgium. He takes the headlines but it’s the whole team that puts in the effort and defends just for him, and myself, and a few other players, to go on and hopefully nick a goal.”
Talk of Bale and Real Madrid leads the conversation into Barcelona and what it feels like for Ramsey to see his name plastered across the back pages as a £50m transfer target for the Spanish champions. “Obviously it’s very flattering,” he says. “They did the treble last year and it’s just really nice to be linked with one of the best clubs in the world. One day I would like to go over to Spain to play just to see what it’s like and to experience that. But at the moment I’m with Arsenal and I feel like this Arsenal team can go and be successful and challenge for things.”
It is starting to get dark at the golf course as an evening that has raised the best part of £35,000 for the WWF draws to a close. Ramsey has a few more autographs to sign and photos to pose for before heading home with his wife. He smiles when it is put to him that he looks like a young man thoroughly enjoying life. “I’m really happy,” he says. “I’m in a good place on and off the field, looking forward to a lot of things this year and this season. Hopefully it will all have a happy ending.”
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