There is a car park just off Junction 33 of the M1, a short drive from Rotherham. An anonymous patchwork of painted lines but an indelible staging point on Aaron Ramsdale’s journey. Next stop? The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for derby day.
“My father and I would stay at Travelodge Hotels night after night,” the 23-year-old recalled. ‘One night we couldn’t even find a hotel with vacancies. So we both got in his van.’
As a youngster, the goalkeeper was used to life on the road. His mother Caroline, who worked at a nearby school, would drive him from Staffordshire to Bolton for training. Up to three and a half hours on the highway, three or four times a week.
Aaron Ramsdale has spoken to sports post on his journey from rejection to Arsenal No 1
Ramsdale slept in his dad’s van while trying to make it as a young goalkeeper
“Mum would leave work early to take me to Bolton at 6pm in the middle of rush hour,” Ramsdale recalled. “She would work overtime and extra hours to make sure she didn’t get into trouble.”
Then, aged 15, Bolton pulled the handbrake on. “They thought I was too small,” Ramsdale recalled being released. “It was downright devastating…it would have been easy to give up.”
Instead of? “Dad and I have traveled everywhere and everywhere, across the country, just to get a trial,” the Arsenal goalkeeper continues.
‘Leicester also thought I was too small. Rotherham said I wasn’t stuffing my shirt enough. Countless others wouldn’t even give me a trial.’
The star who is now Arsenal was rejected by Bolton, Leciester and Rotherham for being too small
His father Nick, usually a plumber and plasterer, liked to play a driver. “As long as my schoolwork doesn’t suffer,” Ramsdale recalls.
Eventually those long drives led to Junction 33. To that parking lot. Eventually, visits to Yorkshire became less fleeting. Sheffield United offered him a scholarship. “That was a huge turning point,” Ramsdale says. Now, at Arsenal, Ramsdale is one of England’s most promising talents.
Sunday’s North London derby in Tottenham represents another litmus test for him and the young side of Mikel Arteta. But since the goalkeeper’s first Premier League start for the club in September, they have risen from the bottom of the table to the top four.
No one now doubts its quality. No one at Leicester thought Ramsdale was too small in October when he tipped James Maddison’s free kick on the bar with a stunning dive stop. It may have been the save of the season thus far.
Ramsdale was not considered too small by Leicester when he made his miracle win last October
“I saw it didn’t come my way, it just went away,” Ramsdale recalls. “The photos look so good!”
Now, arguably Arsenal’s No. 1, only Manchester City’s Ederson has more top-class clean sheets than his nine this season. A welcome revival, to be sure, of the struggles of the past seasons. Ramsdale experienced three relegations in four years – to Chesterfield, Bournemouth and Sheffield United.
“Chesterfield was easily the most disturbing,” he says. Ramsdale was loaned to the club in January 2018, shortly before Chesterfield fell into the non-league for the first time in nearly a century.
“I was only 18, but it really touches me when your friends pack their things and clear their desks because they lost their jobs.”
Ramsdale worked his way up the football ladder playing for Chesterfield and AFC Wimbledon
The only season of survival in that four-year run came in 2019, when Ramsdale helped AFC Wimbledon finish one place above the drop zone. That teaching in all four of England’s top divisions yielded useful lessons. On and off the field.
‘When I was young I looked at social media. But after the flak that flew around when I was in Chesterfield, I realized it wasn’t right to supervise,” says Ramsdale.
That came in handy last May, when Arsenal called. The prospect of paying £30million for Bernd Leno’s backup proved a tough sell in north London. ‘I got a lot of stick, but luckily I didn’t see that. Thirty million pounds is a lot of money for a No. 2,” he says.
Fortunately, Arteta was steadfast. Mikel’s guidance was invaluable. He was adamant that he wanted me,” Ramsdale says. “Unlike many other managers, Mikel has been a top player lately and this helps him more than some to communicate and understand a player’s needs.”
Ramsdale (right) has spoken of the confidence Gunners manager Mikel Arteta (left) has in him
It was also reassuring to know that pastors have endured similar animosity. “David Seaman has been a great role model for me,” Ramsdale says. He explained how he had a similar reaction from the Arsenal fans when he came to QPR. His advice was very reassuring.”
Now Ramsdale is based in London. He is close to Ben White and Bukayo Saka. The man who usurped Ramsdale also made a tricky situation a little easier. “Bernd has been great,” he says. “He didn’t have to help me get used to it and the last few months won’t have been easy for him.”
Ramsdale also has designs to usurp Jordan Pickford as England’s #1. A first cap arrived in November.
“When you work day in and day out with people like Harry Kane, Kyle Walker and John Stones, you can only become a better player,” he says. “If they come to eat with you, it’s unbelievable.”
Ramsdale (left) also has plans to usurp Jordan Pickford (center) as England’s No. 1 in the future
For now, Ramsdale sticks to what works and that includes sticking to his superstitions.
‘First put on the right sock. Right shin guard first. Right glove on first. Right glove comes off first,” Ramsdale explains. The last part is important. Why? “I take off a glove before shaking hands at the end of a game,” Ramsdale says.
“My father met Bobby Charlton once and father asked if he could shake his hand. Bobby agreed and took off his glove to shake. That touch of respect stayed with Daddy for years – now it stays with me.’ Just like that night of the M1.
Aaron Ramsdale spoke to GK1 magazine, which is published by global management company World in Motion Ltd. (www.worldinmotion.com)