The mixture of youthful exuberance, freedom of expression and unexpected quality that has propelled Arsenal into the Premier League title race is arguably best epitomised by goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale.
As the 24-year-old collected his Goalkeeper of the Year prize at the London Football Awards last week, it was easy to forget he faced significant opposition from within the Gunners fanbase after his £24 million arrival from Sheffield United in the summer of 2021. Those supporters, sceptical over his quality after he had twice been relegated from English football’s top flight in a fledgling career, now view him as a cult hero, primarily through the consistency of his performances but also by exhibiting a strength of personality Arsenal have lacked in recent years.
Ramsdale is often a blur of activity on the pitch: racing off his line to snuff out danger or seeking to start attacks with quick and brave distribution, all while engaging with supporters midmatch, to the delight of Arsenal fans and the chagrin of the rest.
There was a moment in January, however, when this badinage turned sour. After the Gunners had won 2-0 at their north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur, Ramsdale kissed his club badge and stuck his tongue out at rival supporters before reaching to collect his water bottle. It is precisely the sort of interaction that endears him to Arsenal fans but one Spurs supporter was sufficiently agitated to run down from the stand, climb an advertising hoarding and kick Ramsdale in the back, sparking a melee involving multiple players from both sides.
The Tottenham fan in question, 35-year-old Joseph Watts, later admitted assault by beating at Uxbridge Magistrates Court and was banned from attending football matches for four years, handed a 12-month community order and made to pay £100 in compensation to Ramsdale. Although Ramsdale was unhurt, that incident challenged the assumption that the pitch is always a safe space.
The Professional Footballers Association subsequently noted in a statement that “absolutely nothing that happens on the pitch justifies a spectator entering the field of play or attacking a player.” Although absolved from any responsibility, it might have been enough to make Ramsdale question his own ebullience.
Reflecting on what happened for the first time since that day, he told ESPN: “It probably made me think about it a lot more off the pitch if anything, which probably worried me the most — that if something can happen on the football pitch and it should be the safest place as a footballer, I’m kind of worried about what it would be like off the pitch walking down the street or with my fiancée and going for a walk and things like that.
“But no, the football side of it, it is one person who made a mistake and has apologised. Out of the 150, 180 games I’ve had previously it’s never happened and hopefully won’t happen again. [Up to] 98% of the stadium take it as goodwill and banter — sometimes they get one up on me, sometimes I get one up them. It’s just that one time it got out of control but, as I said, he apologised and we move on.”
Lost in the maelstrom of that moment was the fact that, despite Arsenal dominating Tottenham in a statement victory, Ramsdale was named player of the match for a string of vital saves. And the flipside, of course, is the strengthening of a bond with those cheering on Arsenal to what they hope will be a first Premier League title since 2004.
“You go away from home like we did [last] Sunday against Fulham,” Ramsdale said. “Obviously we’re shooting away from our fans in the first half, we score three goals and I get to experience the fans celebrating as if I was the one scoring because I’m the closest one to them. We’ve just scored, I’ll celebrate and then even if it’s not the whole crowd, you’ll hear murmurs of ‘England‘s No. 1’ or ‘Aaron Ramsdale, etc, etc.’
“So it gives us such a boost and obviously to have the presence of [ex-Arsenal goalkeepers] David Seaman and Bob Wilson in and around the football ground and being close to me … it puts a smile on David’s face when they sing about a goalkeeper playing for England. So yeah, [it] definitely fills you with so much confidence.”
That confidence was tested in the early days of his Arsenal career. There was widespread consternation at the club’s decision to pursue Ramsdale when they had Bernd Leno as No. 1 and had allowed Emiliano Martinez, who would later win a World Cup with Argentina, to join Aston Villa for £20m in the previous summer.
Ramsdale would later reveal he received “a lot of online negativity; idiots telling me not to sign, threats trying to scare me saying ‘we know where you live,'” as they poured scorn on a football education which took in the youth ranks and first team at Sheffield United, Bournemouth and loan spells at Chesterfield and AFC Wimbledon.
Arsenal themselves had initially plotted a move for Brentford‘s David Raya and been linked with Ajax‘s Andre Onana (who later joined Inter Milan), but Ramsdale had also been under consideration for some time and a series of personal phone calls with head coach Mikel Arteta convinced him that something special was beginning to take shape.
Arsenal spent £142m to bring in six new players that summer including Ramsdale (£24m), Ben White (£50m) and Martin Odegaard (£40m) as a new-look side emerged with an emphasis on youth, supplemented by academy graduates including Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Eddie Nketiah.
Arteta’s desire for his team to play out from the back — plus Ramsdale’s transfer fee — put pressure on Leno’s place. The Germany international started the first three games of the 2021-22 season before being replaced by Ramsdale against Norwich on Sept. 11. Leno then started one Premier League game for the rest of the season.
However, Ramsdale was not an innate ball-playing goalkeeper, a fact which partly explained how his father, Nick, became an unexpected star of Amazon’s “All or Nothing” documentary on Arsenal, during which he was exasperated as his son tried to evade Norwich striker Teemu Pukki in playing out to build an attack.
“He still hates it, absolutely hates it,” said Ramsdale. “Still threatens to text Mikel. The only problem is if I push it too far saying ‘go on then, you won’t do it,’ he actually will because he’s got his number! I’ve got to play that one really carefully.
“It wasn’t something that naturally came to me. I was released from Bolton for my height and not being able to kick the ball. So it’s not something I’ve always had and a huge credit to Sheffield United and coaches at youth age with England when I first got into the system. They just mentioned training with the outfielders or to sharpen up a little bit more than what you would do at the football club. I used to go and help coach the younger goalkeepers on Tuesday and Thursday nights for a little bit more money when I was a youth-team player and I’d also join in with the U16s in possession stuff and play as an outfielder. That just got me a little bit more comfortable on the ball and being able to play off both feet. It is something which has always been developing.”
It is testament to Arteta’s coaching that every player can provide specific examples of how they have improved under his tutelage, although Ramsdale is drawn to the Spaniard’s idiosyncratic motivational techniques. Having previously played Liverpool anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at training to prepare his players for the intensity of Anfield [although that backfired in a 4-0 defeat] and used a light bulb to illustrate team spirit during a team-talk, Arteta instructed Arsenal to bring a timepiece replica of the Clock End at Highbury (and now Emirates Stadium) into their dressing room at Fulham to make away trips feel more like home.
“He comes up with these things to try to get us going,” said Ramsdale. “We play games in the hotel. Sometimes it can be dodgeball, sometimes it can be spot the difference on the TV to get our brains working. It is just his way of trying to make us to switch on before the game, before the warm-up, making sure we’re living and breathing football when we’re resting. The clock one was another genius idea. Not all things work, but what he’s trying to get out of it, I definitely get to see the benefits of it.
“I did find the ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ one a little bit funny. Obviously, the goalkeepers are out there a lot earlier than the players, so we’re just training and the next thing is you hear this big loud noise, you turn around and they’re walking out to music. It’s become the norm now, so the lads will do their warm-up to a bit of music — that can be any type of music. There’s certain things that have worked and certain things maybe not, but it’s just trying to find that balance.”
Arsenal hold an eight-point lead over Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table going into the international break and are 10 games away from surpassing all expectations to win the title.
Ramsdale, like so many of his teammates, is determined to live in the moment, to embrace the excitement of the opportunity they have created. He has previously spoken about playing each game with a mindset as if Arsenal were 10th or 11th in the table; but can that really endure as the pressure of the run-in intensifies?
“Maybe as a team it’s a little bit different, but for myself, that’s how I see it,” he added. “Some people like the pressure of being No. 1 and getting chased. For me, I’m going out there with a group of friends with a smile on my face, just going through the motions and playing on autopilot.
“It’s just like when you were playing with your mates again. You have a feeling you’re going to win but you don’t take it for granted. Suddenly you can be 2-0 up, 3-0 up and you’re on cruise control. It’s just a great feeling to be around.”
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