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Euro 2020: All-action hero Aaron Ramsey is the spark that ignites Wales

Published on: 17 June 2021

It should have been no surprise that Aaron Ramsey was the one who stepped into the broiling 80°F heat here and put in a monumental effort that had left his face sweat-streaked and hollowed out by the time Wales had reached the brink of the knockout stages.

This was the city, 12 years ago, where he anchored a Wales side so ravaged by injury that the team had the feel of an Under 21 side about it. Gareth Bale had injured his knee in a knockabout with his family in the garden shortly before the team flew out and Ramsey had been running a temperature beforehand.

He gave so much in that 1-0 win over Azerbaijan that he couldn't even speak at the end, as he stood coughing at the edge of the pitch. John Toshack saw that match as a defining one for Wales. 'Nights like that built our spirit,' he reflected years later.

If Ramsey had hit his peak as consistently as Bale, they would have found the same superstar status. It would have been the pair of them, not just Bale, being flanked by two burly security men as the squad toured Baku's old city last Sunday.

But it has been a harder road for Ramsey. Just three months after that win in Baku, he sustained the double leg break at Stoke that left Wales a shadow of the team they had been.

Injuries have followed him and the relentless struggles of Arsenal during his time at the club did not help. As Wednesday night revealed, Ramsey has an extraordinary sense of space and opportunity, intuiting where a ball might be played in a way that few can and running from deep to meet it.

The quality of his finishing is also indisputable. This is a player who has scored two FA Cup-winning goals.

As it approached half-time of Wales' 2-0 win over Turkey here, he had missed two good chances yet still had the clarity of thought to run 15 yards, take down a third Bale pass on his chest and clip it into the net on the half-volley.

He has never been a dominant figure, demanding the ball, despite the 'Rambo' nickname. When Gary Speed, seeing something of himself in Ramsey, made him captain at the age of 20, Arsene Wenger admitted he had not seen the midfielder as a leader. Speed did.

'When I stopped worrying about what others might think, it was a no-brainer,' he said.

Speed's untimely death meant that Ramsey never did become the leader of the new Wales that the young manager was building. It seemed inevitable when Chris Coleman came along that he would look to someone else, in Ashley Williams.

But when Wales have fired, Ramsey has generally provided the ignition. The part he played in driving Wales through Euro 2016 was magnified when he missed the semi-final.

His two goals in the qualifier against Hungary put the team in these finals. He has started just four of Wales's past 24 matches and the team have felt it.

Ramsey's run to hug Chris Gunter after he had scored on Wednesday told how Wales has been a sanctuary for players such as them amid the trials of club football.

'When we're sat around the dinner table, very rarely is the chat about what's going on at your club or even anything else football,' Gunter, who was Ramsey's best man, said in a discussion of their friendship a few years back.

'It's more about what's going on in our lives. That helps.'

The uncertainties of club life were no different for Ramsey ahead of this summer. He had made 24 starts across two stop-start seasons at Juventus, not started a game since April and brought a personal physio staff to camp in an attempt to shake off muscular trouble.

'Different environment, different methods and things like that,' he said of his Juventus seasons. 'It's not something I've been used to.'

As the false nine in the warm-up match against Albania, he looked isolated and frustrated. For Wales, it has been a case of finding a system to bring the best from him. To his credit, Rob Page changed the structure to find one for him here.

Page had clearly asked Ramsey and Bale to operate at a greater distance from each other than they had against Switzerland in the opening game.

So when Bale and Daniel James switched flanks, as they frequently did, Ramsey noticeably altered his position, too, ensuring that Bale was able to locate him in a way he had not against the Swiss.

His defensive contribution was no less remarkable. For so many here, there was a double take when Ramsey surfaced from a recovering tackle on Mert Muldur at the death.

Full-back Connor Roberts, who scored the second goal, viewed Ramsey's contribution less strategically. 'For me, when I play for Wales I just say to myself, "Just give the ball to the good players",' he reflected.

'I know where my lane is. I try to stay in it. I try to give it to Rambo and Gaz. They want to carry us. Take us on the ship. We'll do all we can to go as far as we can.'


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