"I just thank God he's Welsh," said Craig Bellamy. It was October 2008 and Aaron Ramsey's stellar performance against England in the second leg of the European Under-21 Championship qualification play-off at Villa Park had just revealed what the nation had at its disposal. Brian Flynn had always been exceptionally effusive – "a new Fabregas" is what the Under-21 manager believed he had seen in Ramsey – but the sight of the then 17-year-old overwhelming Lee Cattermole, Mark Noble and Tom Huddlestone as England scraped home 5-4 on aggregate lent credence to the idea that this was a talent which eclipsed England's Jack Wilshere.
All that was before a certain day in Stoke in February 2010 when the Ryan Shawcross tackle which put Ramsey out of football for a year allowed his Arsenal team-mate Wilshere – a year and six days his junior – to emerge as the player all of Europe is talking about. As Ramsey prepared yesterday to face England once again, he admitted there have been moments while watching Wilshere's progress in the past year when he has thought it could have been him out there, emerging as one of the continent's finest. "Absolutely," he agreed to that notion. "I thought before my injury I was just starting to kick on. I started six or seven games on the bounce and I felt like I was going to stake a claim for a place in the starting XI for Arsenal. But these things happen. I've just got to bounce back."
Saturday at 3pm might well bring the two young men up against each other – Ramsey for an international comeback, 16 months after he last played for Wales, Wilshere for a competitive debut – but for the Welshman the occasion is seasoned by a desire to demonstrate to the football world that the injury has not diminished him. "Hopefully... I'll show what I'm actually capable of and put it to people that you can come back from injuries like this and still be the same player," he said. This is an assertion which needs to be forcibly prised from Ramsey as he sits, evading eye contact, in a room at Wales' Vale of Glamorgan training base. The spotlight is so clearly a discomfiting experience for an unassuming character whose personality bears no comparison to Wilshere's.
Their football certainly does, though. Both have a preference to operate at the hub, in the No 10 role behind the strikers – the Fabregas role – and both are effectively in competition for the same berth at Arsenal alongside Alex Song in Arsène Wenger's system. Ramsey was ahead in the race before Shawcross so fatefully ploughed into his right shin. The game at Stoke was his 29th competitive match for Arsenal while Wilshere had played seven and been sent on loan to Bolton. Might it have been Ramsey, rather than Wilshere, glittering against Barcelona last month had not the Welshman suffered the broken leg? Quite conceivably.
Ramsey certainly was not about to eulogise Wilshere and his description of what it is like to be up against him in training was rather dismissive. "He's no different to what you see. He's very comfortable on the ball and he's a good player." Words have been said between the two young midfielders ahead of Saturday's match and though Ramsey was not revealing exactly what – "there's been a bit of banter between us but I'll keep that to myself" – their team-mate Johan Djourou suggested yesterday that Ramsey can give as good as he gets, even though the less laid-back Wilshere generally gives more. Ramsey's diffidence belies a steeliness which revealed itself when he was reminded that Glenn Hoddle and Ray Wilkins have suggested this week that Gary Speed's young side may be overwhelmed by the noise generated at a capacity Millennium Stadium. "I don't get that really," Ramsey said. "As a professional player, I think probably all of us have played in front of a full house. So I don't get that comment at all."
Ramsey shares the feeling of many of the Wales players that Speed has imbued the set-up with a Premier League level of professionalism this week. "There's a lot more staff here looking after you," he said. "It just seems to be a lot more professional and, hopefully, that helps us and makes us play better."
The problem for Speed is that when you look beyond the small elite group – Ramsey, Bellamy, Gareth Bale and Blackpool's David Vaughan – the quality level sheers away. Wales' 3-0 defeat to the Republic of Ireland in Dublin last month lends support to the view that there are too many players in the squad who are prone to errors. Ramsey dismissed the point that huge weight falls on his shoulders – "I don't listen to that sort of thing. I'm just concentrating on my game" – but it is a reasonable one.
He can at least allow himself thoughts of that thrilling, if disappointing, night at Villa Park because that is the kind of football Speed has told his players he wants. "We want to play football on the floor with passing and lots of movement," Ramsey concluded. "Hopefully, now we can show that."
Club appearances 69
Goals 4 (Arsenal, Bolton)
International caps 2
Club appearances 71
Goals 7 (Arsenal, Cardiff, Nottingham Forest)
International caps 11
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