By Liam Twomey
Everyone close to Aaron Ramsey will tell you that six years in the lucrative and ruthless world of professional football have not changed the polite, unassuming boy from Caerphilly.
A boy who once charmed and dazzled all who came across him with outstanding skill in almost every sport at school, from gymnastics to shot put, before throwing in his lot with Cardiff City’s youth academy.
But Malky Mackay knows it would be foolish to approach Saturday’s Premier League clash with Arsenal under the illusion that Ramsey is anything other than a changed man.
"He [Ramsey] has really come to the fore this season," the Scot told reporters on Friday. "It has probably surprised some people, even inside Arsenal, in terms of the way he has grasped the game.
|RAMSEY'S SEASON SO FAR
"Sometimes maturity and experience comes at different parts of your career, but the biggest factor as far as he is concerned is the number of games he is getting on a consistent basis and he is beginning to show for club and country what a top young talent he is."
In the five years since Ramsey first left the south of Wales, returns to his first club have marked key twists and turns in a short career which has taken a rollercoaster path.
First, there was an underwhelming individual display in a goalless FA Cup fourth round draw at the now-defunct Ninian Park in January 2009 which saw him replaced by Abou Diaby after 59 minutes and highlighted the unpolished nature of Arsenal’s latest gem.
Then, two years later, came a short but sweet loan spell in which he set up Craig Bellamy for the winner in the Welsh derby against Swansea City and scored himself in a 2-0 win over Leicester City.
The promise of the latter was significant and reassuring, coming barely 11 months after the devastating leg break against Stoke City which still looms large in the collective memory and which, for a long time, many feared might define him. But Arsene Wenger, blessed with superior foresight and unshakable faith, never shared such concerns.
"There is a basic rule in the game that if you have a big injury before the age of 20 you come back and redevelop completely normally," the Frenchman told reporters in September, at the end of a week in which Ramsey had proved the match-winner against Sunderland and Marseille.
|6/1||Aaron Ramsey is 6/1 with BetVictor to score Arsenal's first goal against Cardiff City on Saturday|
Over it he certainly appears - both mentally and physically - and the truly remarkable thing about Ramsey’s revival is that it is startlingly obvious in so many different areas.
Goals and assists – often stylish and crucial ones – have won over a sceptical Gunners faithful and garnered wider recognition, but only Lucas Leiva of Liverpool makes more tackles per game in the Premier League this season, while Ramsey also ranks highly in terms of completed dribbles and distance covered. He may have idolised Zinedine Zidane since youth, but the all-round nature of the 22-year-old’s growing contribution to this Arsenal team is more akin to Patrick Vieira.
Such comparisons are high praise indeed, but also merely a consequence of the level at which Ramsey is now operating. With every new sensational performance in an Arsenal side riding the crest of a wave the feeling grows that, despite Gareth Bale’s summer departure, the Premier League will be privileged to spend another season in awe of a brilliant young Welshman.
Ramsey has also emerged as a leader on the pitch within the British core of players Wenger tied down to new long-term contracts last December as he looks, finally, to realise his next great side. The 22-year-old’s prominence this season is such that Jack Wilshere, resident golden boy for club and country, has been shunted wide and told to look to his team-mate for inspiration.
Yet personal progress will not be the only reason why this particular return is significant for Ramsey. Cardiff are now a Premier League club – albeit a highly dysfunctional one – with an impressive new stadium, considerable spending power and reasonable grounds to hope they will not immediately have to surrender the next jewel to emerge from their youth ranks to a bigger kid in the playground.
The returning star will be granted a warm welcome but, having already taken points off both Manchester giants this season, Mackay would be delighted to discover on Saturday that Ramsey’s excellence is of a kind that can be brought to a shuddering halt by good tactical planning and spirited execution.
The evidence of recent weeks and months, however, suggests otherwise.
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