“It is quite hard to sum up,” Aaron Ramsdale says, scrambling to find the words to describe his metamorphosis from misfit to mainstay at Bournemouth and being mooted as a future England goalkeeper. “Eighteen months ago I was nowhere near the team here. I was probably annoying a lot of people, especially the manager and the goalie coaches because I wasn’t fulfilling my potential. I’d come in one day and I’d be good and the next day I’d come in and look like I’d been dragged through a bush.”
The trigger for Ramsdale’s rise rests on a clanger 14 months ago, when he was due to be among the substitutes for a Carabao Cup quarter-final at Stamford Bridge, in a matchday squad for the first time since returning from a loan spell at Chesterfield. “I missed the bus. Slept in,” he says, sheepishly. “We had to be in at 9.30am for the pre-match walkthrough because it was an evening game and the bus was leaving at 10.30am. Zeina [the club’s player liaison officer] came and woke me up at the house. I was about an hour late for being on time to training and about 20 minutes after the bus as well.
“That was the penny-dropping moment, because I was at home while they were playing and I couldn’t do anything about it. I was distraught. My dad drove down from Stoke to be with me that night and the night after to check I was all right. That was definitely the turning point where [I realised] it wasn’t all rosy, it wasn’t academy football any more and I’m very grateful the manager gave me a second chance. I think I’ve taken it.”
Ramsdale was fined and sent on loan to AFC Wimbledon, then bottom of League One, for the rest of the season. “It was good for me to go and play the games but I think they probably didn’t want to see me for a few weeks.”
Thrown in at the deep end of a relegation scrap, Ramsdale regards those months as a priceless experience and a blessing in disguise. He made a big impression and Gareth Southgate invited him to train with England in March. “Even if it was just carrying the balls, that would have been fine,” he says. “I went back to Wimbledon, we got beat 4-0 by Gillingham and I dropped one in the goal. All of the lads were giving me stick.
“I got hammered, but I’d do the same in the same situation. I did a lot of growing up on loan, personally and mentally, which has helped me adapt to life in the Premier League.
“My advice to any young player is to try and go to these places because they make you a better person and not just a better footballer. What those six months have done for me, it was a major part in my career.”
The 21-year-old, the youngest first-choice goalkeeper in the Premier League, is an endearing and jovial character. It is a marker of his personality that last month, when forced to miss his first league game of the season through injury, he joined fans in the Steve Fletcher Stand to cheer on his teammates against Watford.
“I didn’t want to go and give it massive, stand up, be really confident and sing the wrong lyrics. If I’m starting a chant, I need to be nailing it. It was just a shame we couldn’t put a performance on because I would have liked to celebrate with the fans.”
Ramsdale acknowledges his mistakes, choosing the wrong time to play the class clown and allowing confidence to spill into arrogance, which he believes stems from when he was released by Bolton at 15, but feels he has matured immeasurably. “Now I’ll go home and cook myself some food or get a snack rather than either not eating or getting chocolate. I’ll do my own washing rather than getting a cleaner to do it, or leaving it and taking it home to my mum; doing my bed; being on time; actually looking presentable when I come in to training. I used to think: ‘I’m getting in for 8.30am, no one is going to see me, I’m just going to turn up and go home,’ but now I’m coming in and, even if it’s just a tracksuit, at least the tracksuit hasn’t got stains or creases. I used to wear odd socks and throw anything together I could find.
“I just looked a scruff. That has taken care of off the pitch but being involved in one relegation [when Chesterfield went out of the Football League] and seeing people lose their jobs and one where we managed to stay up and the euphoria that brought [at Wimbledon] … I now know when to speak and when not to speak, I know situations in a room, and if it is awkward I know not to just come out and try and be funny. It’s growing up, having more experience and more knowledge of situations.”
On Sunday, Ramsdale returns to Sheffield United, who sold him to Bournemouth for £800,000 three years ago, while in League One, on Chris Wilder’s wedding day. “He reminds me of that quite a lot,” says a smiling Ramsdale. He has fond memories of Bramall Lane, but these days he is a key pillar of a Bournemouth side searching for a third successive league win in their fight for survival. At the other end of the pitch will be Dean Henderson, another exciting English goalkeeping prospect.
Ramsdale’s ascendancy has been so sudden that, three days before his league debut against his former club on the first day of the season, and 24 hours before Eddie Howe informed him he was going to be his No 1, he was absent from the Premier League’s Fantasy Football game. The goalkeeper had to ask Bournemouth’s media team to ensure he was available for selection.
“I said: ‘If I get to the stage where I am playing that first game and I’m not on there, my God, I’ll be quite disappointed,’ so I sort of played the guilt-trip card,” he says. “I think I was the only person on the game that had me in their team. I started that first game and got myself two points. I checked the ‘selected’ and it didn’t even say 0.1%, but I had myself so it must have been 0.00001% – and that was me.”
After Bournemouth won at Chelsea in December, Ramsdale was the highest scoring goalkeeper in Fantasy Football. That mantle now belongs to Henderson but what would have been his response to being top of the pile 12 months ago? “I’d have laughed, to be honest,” he says . “Yeah, I’d have come up with something stupid and sarky.”
The Guardian Sport