When Aaron Ramsey sat down for an interview with The Independent last month he came across as a lovely bloke. Shy and a bit self-conscious, like most 19-year-olds, but every so often in our conversation you could detect the steely self-belief that suggests he has what it takes to be a great footballer.
He still does. It is just that on Saturday evening he suffered the kind of injury that will mean a long and painful absence from the game. He seems the sensible sort who will do everything it takes to come back from his fractured fibia and tibia. He has the advantage of youth – those teenage bones will heal quickly.
There was something truly awful in the moments after Ramsey's injury at the Britannia Stadium. Not just the floppy snapped leg but the shock on the faces of players like Cesc Fabregas and Thomas Vermaelen. Even the usually unflappable Sol Campbell lost it for a few moments and Campbell has pretty much seen it all.
An injury to a brilliant young player hurts everyone who loves football. It makes you contemplate the possibility of unfulfilled potential, the most heartbreaking aspect of sport; of the curtailed careers of players like Brian Clough, Paul Lake or, potentially, Owen Hargreaves.
And so a dangerous game of blame begins. When Arsène Wenger describes Ryan Shawcross's challenge on Ramsey as "horrendous" and "unacceptable" he has to realise that, coming from someone of his status, those words have a lasting effect on the reputation of a young player like Shawcross.
Wenger also said that a culture exists in which it is regarded as acceptable to kick Arsenal players and that the three similar injuries – to Abou Diaby, Eduardo da Silva and now Ramsey – in five years were "no coincidence". He is suggesting that these injuries are symptomatic of the way in which teams approach games against Arsenal. It is an interesting point but impossible to prove.
The basic question that we have to confront is whether, from the evidence available, Shawcross set out to hurt Ramsey in that split-second when both of them challenged for the ball. A personal view is that he did not and that Shawcross does not deserve to be stigmatised by Wenger.
The BBC Match of the Day programme was right to replay the challenge – and in slow-motion from different angles – something that Sky Sports chose not to do. Examining these incidents is crucial to our understanding of the game and, as the BBC demonstrated on Saturday night, it can be done in a manner that is sensitive and intelligent.
As the Match of the Day replays showed, when Shawcross made contact with Ramsey he was attempting to strike the ball with the laces of his boot and not his studs. The tragedy of that moment was that Ramsey was just a second too quick for him and got there first.
The move started when Samir Nasri played the ball inside to Nicklas Bendtner, who flicked the ball up with his left foot and lost control of it, playing it limply with his second touch against the midriff of Shawcross, who was behind him. Shawcross moved past Bendtner, who stuck out a foot and then withdrew it to avoid the foul – which caused the Stoke man to alter his stride.
Shawcross's second touch (after the ball originally hit him) with his right foot was heavy. Ramsey, already moving forward in anticipation of Arsenal's break forward, saw his chance. He burst forward, touching the ball away from Shawcross with his right foot just as the Stoke man swung with his left to clear. But the ball had gone – and he struck Ramsey's leg instead.
The Match of the Day replay showed Ramsey's right leg was grounded when Shawcross's left foot made contact, meaning there was no chance for it to give rather than break.
On the original footage, Shawcross wins the ball from Bendtner with the stop-watch in the corner of the screen showing 65mins 8secs. He makes contact with Ramsey on 65mins 10secs. Just two seconds of a frenetic, evenly-balanced Premier League match. Had it been a quicker player challenging Ramsey they might even have reached the ball at the same time.
None of this is intended to diminish the seriousness of the consequences for Ramsey. But the severity of the injury does not mean that Shawcross can simply be dismissed by Wenger as a dangerous footballer. To Wenger's credit, two years ago he withdrew his remarks that Martin Taylor should be banned for life for his challenge on Eduardo.
I spoke to a former England international on Saturday night just after the game, and he summed up Shawcross's challenge from a professional footballer's point of view. "There's a difference when a player tries to 'do' someone. You can tell. This tackle wasn't one of those. It was pure clumsiness."
Clumsiness is no consolation to Wenger this morning as Ramsey lies in a hospital bed and Shawcross turns up at Arsenal's training ground as part of the England squad. Arsenal play a wonderful brand of football, often much quicker in speed of thought and touch than their opponents. That is not an excuse to injure them but it is part of the explanation why players like Shawcross find themselves a fraction too late in tackles.
Every defender is capable of mistiming a tackle – even William Gallas, as he demonstrated with his challenge on Bolton's Mark Davies last month. When injuries like the one to Ramsey occur, the instinct is to blame someone. But the truth of football is that it can be brutal and cruel without it being someone's fault.
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