April and May 2019 saw the finales for Game of Thrones and Marvel Phase 3, two of the most significant pop-culture franchises from the past decade. If I wanted to be dramatic, I would suggest that as I entered a new stage in my life, my thirties, much that was familiar had begun to slip away. The departure of Aaron James Ramsey was the final nail in that coffin.
It is only today when he finally changed his social media bios and posted a photo of him wearing the black and white of Juventus, that I realised how closely the last decade of my life is tied to the Welshman’s career in North London. Jaded as I was last summer, by depression, by a sudden questioning of my life’s purpose, by Arsenal’s season and the end of Arsene Wenger’s tenure, I’ll be honest in saying that the first intimation of Aaron Ramsey leaving Arsenal was met by my indifference. Or at least what I took to be my indifference. Until, halfway through the season, all the sneaky emotion barrelled through and I found myself exactly where I didn’t want to be. Missing yet another Arsenal player before he had even left. Missing him suddenly, fiercely, as if the intensity burned through my general apathy to remind me exactly why and how much I loved Rambo even as his eventual exit was all but confirmed.
In June 2008, when Aaron Ramsey arrived at Arsenal as a seventeen-year-old, I was only two years older and preparing to leave home for the first time. On February 27, 2010, not even a week after my 21st birthday, I was unable to believe Ihad just seen at the Britannia Stadium. I have had the bad fortune of experiencing Eduardo’s injury on my actual nineteenth birthday, but this, this was something that burrowed in and hollowed out a space for itself. This was a peer, far too young, too talented for something that devastating. Someone teetering on the cusp of carving a more permanent place for himself in a midfield already glowing with the talents of Cesc Fabregas, Tomas Rosicky, Samir Nasri and Jack Wilshere.
After his long return back from that horrific double-leg break, I felt compelled to write this piece for Football Paradise in support of a guy I still strongly supported even though an outspoken contingent of fans didn’t. I believed in him even when he was out of sorts and underconfident, even when he was playing out of position but never complained. Back then, there was no guarantee of anything. Back then nobody knew the integral part he would play in bringing back silverware to the club after an nine-year-drought.
All he could do, and did, was keep working hard, chipping away at his game and his technique, moulding it into a finer product than what it was before his injury, becoming, what Arsene Wenger called “a complete midfielder” in every sense of the word. I will always wonder where a 21-year-old found the resilience to withstand the incredulous amount of bile spewed at him without it tearing him apart. But, then, this is how he has always gone about things. Quietly, always the consummate professional, letting his actions talk for him. Even through the shambolic management of his latest contract and his decision to leave for Juve, his performances for Arsenal never faltered; he still poured everything there was left in him on that field.
Whether his box-to-box runs to attack or defend, his relentless workrate, his willingness to put the team before him, his intelligent movement and his flair, Rambo never could be accused of “going missing”. Just as Giroud’s backheel assist to the man himself for that goal epitomises the Frenchman for me far more than his outrageous scorpion kick, it is Rambo’s passionate professionalism in each of the 369 games he played for Arsenal that defines him more than two FA-Cup-winning goals or even the stunner at Westfalenstadion (though of course I love them; how could I not?).
Aaron Ramsey is a decent guy in a sport where those seem increasingly rare, the kind who cares about rhinos and wants to fight climate change. The beauty is in just how much his reserved, serious off-field persona contradicts (in the best possible way) the person he is as soon as he steps onto that field–a leader who relishes challenge and competition, never backing down–while, most admirably, managing to retain his own quiet manner of going about things. Which is why, his flashes of feeling, of mischief and passion, when they came, meant so much; made your heart glow at the fact that he was one of your own, this genuine, humble guy who really cared about the club through everything.
It’s a shame that we didn’t win more with him, that his first major injury meant smaller ones that niggled and robbed him of time he could have helped. It hurt that it had to end at all, especially on a free transfer and when it seemed like he wanted to stay, but irrespective, Aaron Ramsey deserved to have the chance to fight for his club until the very end.
The moment he clutched his hamstring in the quarterfinal versus Napoli, my head and gut knew that we had already seen the last of the Welshman, though my heart held out as long as it possibly could. And those last two months showed exactly how much we are going to miss him. We should have sent him off with the club’s first European trophy and a return to top 4. But what’s that about perfectly laid plans and Arsenal?
I haven’t yet had the courage to watch his farewell ceremony which I missed. Because, far more than his post today, that video will make all of this so final. Arsene Wenger’s departure last summer triggered an existential crisis of sorts, but Ramsey’s move leaves me bereft in a way I’m trying but failing to put into words. He was the last remaining player at Arsenal from my formative years as a fan and a person. A player who did his growing up alongside me and so many others from my generation. A player I never gave up believing in and who returned that investment with everything in his power, under the circumstances. How could I ever wish him anything but the best?
“I was a spotty young kid coming in and I’m leaving a man, married, father of three boys and full of pride and good memories that I will treasure.”Aaron Ramsey
How do you explain an association like that? How do you unpack its impact and its resonance and all that it has meant to you over the years? This is a definitive goodbye–to my twenties, to the lad from Caerphilly who is irrevocably connected to them, and the club we knew during those eleven years as fan and player–and while it leaves a sadness quieter yet deeper than I had expected, there’s also excitement at what the next decade will bring, for me and for the club that’s mine no matter what.
Rambo, thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything.