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Sunday, June 20, 2021

Aaron Ramsey: lesser spotted Wales maestro aiming to bury frustrations | Wales

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At the last European Championship Aaron Ramsey and Chris Gunter were as inseparable as ever. Rooming together has been a ritual – and superstition – for more than a decade but Wales’s hotel in Lens, where they stayed before facing England, presented a logistical problem: there was not enough space for two beds. So Gunter, best man at Ramsey’s wedding at Caldicot Castle, did what any best friend of almost 20 years would do and jumped on to a springy sofabed that staff had squeezed into the corner at their request. “Yeah, he did draw the short straw over that!” says Ramsey, laughing.

Ramsey, Gunter, and the rest of the Wales squad flew to Baku on Monday before heading to their base on the city’s promenade, although this time the pair will not get their wish, with each player allocated their own room owing to Covid protocols. It was in Azerbaijan where a baby-faced Ramsey won his fourth Wales cap, on his second trip with his country, when a youthful team, including Gunter, earned a 1-0 World Cup qualifying victory in 2009.

It was Ramsey’s double against Hungary that sealed qualification for this summer’s delayed tournament but the midfielder has started only four of Wales’s past 24 matches, including Saturday’s final warmup game against Albania. For his club, Juventus, he has made 24 starts across two stop-start seasons, the most recent against Fiorentina in April. “I feel the last few years have been frustrating,” he says. “Different environment, different methods and things like that. It’s not something I’ve been used to. I was at one club for a very long time and I think adapting took a lot longer. I’ve had to change a few things but now I feel like I’m in a good place.”

Ramsey is one of eight players in this summer’s squad who surpassed all expectations in France five years ago and acknowledges such experience will prove priceless when Wales start their Group A campaign against Switzerland on Saturday, before matches against Turkey and Italy. “Our target is to get out of the group so we’re going to have to be fully focused, hit the ground running and it’s going to be essential not just for me but for the players that have experienced it all before to help the other boys through this. They’re a good bunch with a lot of quality between them so I’m sure they’ll be just fine.”

Ramsey’s fitness looks pivotal to Wales’s hopes and former international teammates consider the absence of him, Gareth Bale and Joe Allen for a chunk of the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign a major factor in the failure to reach Russia. Ramsey, asked whether he could cope with three group games in nine days, replies with confidence. “Yes,” the 30-year-old says. “It’s been a frustrating couple of years to try and get any consistency going. But now, I’ve definitely worked hard over the last few months to get my body back into a good place.”

Aaron Ramsey in action for Wales against Albania last Saturday.
Aaron Ramsey in action for Wales against Albania last Saturday. He says his body is in ‘a good place’. Photograph: Athena Pictures/Getty Images

When Bale was asked about talk of Ramsey assuming an Italian accent, the Wales captain insisted that it was “just a Caerphilly twang”. Wales have carefully managed the midfielder’s minutes in the buildup and anything remotely close to a fit Ramsey would be a major boon. “He hasn’t played too much of late but it’s always good to have good players back in,” Bale says. “He’s done what he has done for Wales in the past and we are hoping he can perform like normal.”

If fit, Ramsey surely starts but where he plays is another question. Robert Page fielded Ramsey as a false nine for the first half against Albania before moving him to a more familiar role behind Kieffer Moore. When Ramsey was grounded 45 seconds into the second half, those in the stands and on the touchline feared the worst but a kick to a shin failed to keep him down. “You don’t want him to jar his knee or twist his ankle, but there was none of that,” Page said. “It would have hurt initially. When I said to him: ‘You’ve got another 13 minutes, then I’m bringing you off’, he said he was fine.”

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It was the No 10 role in which he showed touches of class in the defeat against France, including a delicious pass to free Daniel James, who perhaps should have given Hugo Lloris more to think about. After a frustrating couple of years, just being on the pitch will probably suffice for Ramsey. “I’m a proud Welshman who wants to play for Wales and help my team as much as I can,” he says.

“For me to have missed a few games over the last few years has been very frustrating and difficult for me. Hopefully now that is behind me and I can look forward to all these games in the European Championship. In a different set-up, in a different environment, I am really excited going into a finals. We’re all excited to be going into it so we’ve got a lot to look forward to. Not just me, but a lot of the players who have not experienced this before. They are really buzzing and we just cannot wait for the first whistle.”

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