It is exactly a year and a week since Aaron Ramsey flicked the ball away from Stoke City's Ryan Shawcross at the Britannia Stadium.
A fraction of a second later Shawcross crashed into the midfielder's right shin and shattered his tibia and fibula. After nine months' treatment, followed by further rehabilitation on loan to Championship clubs Nottingham Forest and Cardiff City, Ramsey could play his first minutes for Arsenal since that horrific injury in today's Premier League match against Sunderland. It is something he feared, in the immediate aftermath of the sickening collision, might not happen again.
"When it happened and I saw my leg, all kinds of different thoughts were going through my head," he says, as he recalls the incident. That worry, at least, was quickly eased. "When I was on the way to the hospital, the doctor told me straight away that we would get through this, and that I would get back to where I was. That helped me feel sure this was something I could recover from. I believed in it, and the medical staff and specialists believed I was able to handle it mentally. I think I've done that."
Ramsey, who is in Arsenal's squad today, certainly looks relaxed as we speak, and does not seem to be mentally affected by the injury, but the intervening year has not been easy. "Before my injury, I was playing a lot of games for Arsenal, and I thought I was playing really well. So, it was a big blow to be told I wasn't going to play for eight or nine months. That was very hard to take." It did not make it any easier seeing Shawcross, who was dismissed for the challenge, back in action so soon. "I don't think he meant to break my leg, but it was a bit hard to take that he was playing again after a three-match ban, while I was out for nine months." Ramsey says he harbours no resentment, but admits the pair have yet to speak. "He left a few messages on my phone, but I haven't felt able to speak to him yet."
During his long absence Ramsey took comfort from the people close to him. "I had family and friends around me, which helped me through that time. To be around them, and to see them more than I usually do, was really nice. They were a massive help. Besides that I had loads of support from all different types of fans, from all around the world. I think there were 80,000 messages left on the club's website and I got a lot of letters – even from Tottenham fans – saying I was a really talented player, and that they were hoping I would come back as quickly as possible. That helped as well."
What followed were long, monotonous days of gym sessions. Ramsey remained motivated through the boring routine by constantly setting himself goals. "The first three months were the hardest, in that gym, doing little things, where you don't think they are doing much to you. But you had to do them, and I think they have paid off eventually. I just took it day by day at the time, and set myself a target for the end of each week. Every day, I saw improvements. Overall, the rehabilitation period went pretty well."
If there is anything he learnt during his absence, it is how gifted he is, and how fortunate to do what he likes most. "I realised how much football actually means to me. When you are watching all the games, while sitting on your settee, you think: 'I should be there'. That's one of the most difficult parts of it." Ramsey had just begun to be a regular part of it when the injury occurred. Having chosen Arsenal in preference to Manchester United and Everton when leaving Cardiff in 2008, he had spent his first season settling in. "It was a bit strange for me walking in the first day, seeing all these top players, but you have to bring yourself back around, and you have to prove you are good enough to get into that team. The first year went pretty well for me. I played a few games and I learnt a lot, simply by training with those players. My second season went even better. I improved physically and technically, and I was starting games regularly when the injury happened."
The game against Stoke was Ramsey's 29th competitive match for Arsenal that season, impressive for a teenager even given the club's faith in young players. Ramsey, still only 20, said: "Arsenal bring in a lot of youngsters, and give them opportunities. That was a major factor for me. I wanted to go to a place where I would have my opportunity early on. Arsène Wenger has turned a lot of talented youngsters into great players and he showed they really wanted me [Arsenal flew Ramsey to Switzerland, where Wenger was watching Euro 2008, during negotiations].
Arsenal have been similarly solicitous overseeing his recuperation which, apart from a few minor setbacks, has been on schedule. The only visible sign is a scar on his knee from the operation. "They moved my kneecap aside and put a metal rod through the middle of the bone and attached it with two screws up there. From there the new bone started to grow. Now you can see a little lump on my shin."
He has been back on the football field for a while. In October Ramsey resumed training with Arsenal. Although he did not feel any strain at the time it took him a while to regain his familiar levels of skill. "When I came back from my injury, I was just starting to run and jog, when I did some passing drills I noticed that not all aspects of my game were completely there." Wenger sent him to Forest to gain match practice and nine months after sustaining the injury he made his return on the pitch against Leicester City. After five matches he returned to Arsenal but was soon loaned out again, to his former club Cardiff. With his help the Bluebirds won four and drew two to remain Championship promotion contenders.
Ramsey admits it was a relief to be playing again, and felt he regained his fitness and ability in those familiar surroundings. "That is why I went, to get back into the swing of things, back in game situations. And it went well, at every game I felt I got better and stronger." Ramsey distinguished himself at Cardiff with his natural ability to find space, set up other players and beat opponents – the demands required of an Arsenal player.
He was recalled last week and is now looking forward to playing for the Gunners again, his enthusiasm for the club fired anew by watching the recent Barcelona match. "It was a great game. Two teams who just love to play football, and keep the ball on the floor. We are always good on the counter-attack and you could see that by our second goal. One minute we were on the edge of our box, and then the next minute it was in the back of their net. That is my target now – to get back into that team and playing in games like that as quickly as I can."
In the match against Barcelona Jack Wilshere stood out, a player who was behind Ramsey in the pecking order last season. Wilshere, whom Ramsey considers as one of his friends inside the team, was loaned a year ago to Bolton Wanderers, where he spent the remainder of the season. The fact Ramsey was allowed only short-term loan spells indicates that Wenger still sees an important role for him to play at Arsenal this season. With the recent growth in the squad's list of injuries, and games coming in quick succession, the attacking midfielder might prove a valuable asset.
Life can change fast. The rehabilitation period felt endless, but now he is back and he has the same feeling as before his injury. "I have been kicking the ball now for about four months, and I feel like I'm back to where I was. It's going well." And so he finds himself preparing for today's home match against Sunderland, in which he hopes to be involved. With so much still to play for at Arsenal, perhaps, by the end of May, Ramsey may be looking at silverware with his lengthy rehabilitation a dark chapter closed.
Why Wenger believes Ramsey will be fine
Arsène Wenger said that Aaron Ramsey would not struggle to recover from his leg break, as Eduardo had done following his 2008 injury. "Eduardo had problems with the limitation of his ankle mobility when he came back," he said . "He was not able to bend his ankle completely when running at full speed. He needed second surgery, but Aaron has no limitations in his movement." Eduardo scored just 10 goals for Arsenal between his February 2008 injury and his departure in summer 2010. Wenger added he "didn't see any problems with Ramsey's commitment in tackles".