Aaron Ramsdale had been at AFC Wimbledon for less than a month when Wally Downes picked up the phone, called England’s goalkeeping coach Martyn Margetson and implored him to come and take a closer look.
The 20-year-old, who was on loan from Bournemouth, had made a strong impression on the League One club, from the ‘firm handshake’ on arrival to his willingness to mingle with fans in the bar and courageous displays to instil new hope of beating relegation.
‘I’d worked with Martyn at West Ham,’ recalls Downes. ‘I told him to come and spend a few days with us and have a close look at Ramsdale because I thought he was just as good as Jordan Pickford. I genuinely could see no difference apart from he was playing for us and Pickford was playing for Everton.’
Aaron Ramsdale has been making waves this season and is part of England’s setup this month
Ramsdale has been in excellent form for Arsenal since joining the club for £30m in the summer
The 23-year-old highlighted that form with this stunning save against Leicester on October 30
One month later, Gareth Southgate summoned Ramsdale from the Under 21 squad to train with his first team and England released him at the weekend to play for Wimbledon as their miraculous relegation escape unfolded.
They were 10 points from safety at the start of February 2019 and survived with a goalless draw at Bradford on the final day, knocking West Ham out of the FA Cup along the way, thanks in no small part to the impact of Ramsdale.
‘He instilled belief and purpose and he’s done the same at Arsenal,’ says Downes, now in charge of the Mount Pleasant football academy in Jamaica.
‘He’s transformed their season because he’s engaged the rest of the defence. He makes a great save and they’re high-fiving him and fist-bumping, proud not to let a goal in. I’ve not seen that in an Arsenal team for donkey’s years.
‘It was a stroke of managerial genius by Mikel Arteta because the season was getting away from Arsenal and the players they were relying on were letting them down. They had a team of young kids and bad role models.
‘What they needed was someone with backbone who would not stand for it if others turned up late and did not put their bodies on the line. The kid is not afraid to do that. He’s a positive voice, very inclusive, and others feed off him.
‘Maybe Arteta saw what he was like, put him in, and he’s changed the chemistry of the place.’
England were first alerted to him when he was on loan at AFC Wimbledon from Bournemouth
Ramsdale’s first loan, at Chesterfield from Sheffield United in January 2018, had not been quite such a success. It started with two costly handling errors in a 4-0 defeat by Accrington Stanley on debut, and ended in relegation.
Bournemouth paid £1million to sign him, however, and by the time he joined Wimbledon, he was limiting mistakes and his talent was shining with saves akin to the one for Arsenal against Leicester, which had legendary goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel drooling about the best stop he’d seen in years.
‘We went to Luton in a game we couldn’t afford to lose, and he made a phenomenal save from a deflected shot,’ says Downes. ‘Goalkeeping coaches always tell me you can’t save deflected shots, but somehow he changed direction in mid-air and got a hand to it. If it had been on Match of the Day they would have shown it over and over.
‘By the time we went to Bradford on the last day, all the team knew the goalie was going to be solid. We pulled the drawbridge up with a quarter of an hour to go. It was 0-0 and it had to stay 0-0, and they’re launching balls into the box but he’s coming and pulling them out of the air, 14 yards from his goal.
‘It didn’t reverberate around the world but I came off that day thinking that for a young kid to know what he had to do in a very critical situation and to do it without getting flustered meant he had a great chance.’
Ramsdale became a hero in 2018-19 as he helped Wimbledon avoid relegation to League Two
Ramsdale suffered another relegation on his return to Bournemouth and the third of his short career last season after returning to Sheffield United for £18m, but continued to impress those in the coaching fraternity.
‘He makes big, eye-catching saves and brave saves, when he comes out and smothers,’ says Paul Heckingbottom, Sheffield United’s Under 23s coach, who stepped up to take interim charge of the first team at Bramall Lane last season.
‘He has a desire to be in the goal. Some goalkeepers just look like they enjoy being there, keeping the ball out and having that confrontation with the attacker. He’s like that, his character is infectious.
‘I really liked his ability with his feet and his understanding of the game when playing out. We set up different goal-kicks and ways to play out to capitalise on that.
‘Some goalkeepers have good technique with their feet but might not understand the game tactically, so you can’t get the best out of them. Rammers has good feet and understands the game so he generally picks the correct pass. Watching Arsenal, they’re doing the same thing and playing to his strengths, and he has proved why they wanted him.’
He suffered relegation with Sheffield United last season but impressed coaches with his style
Ramsdale’s form since making his Arsenal debut in a Carabao Cup tie against West Brom has silenced those who criticised the £30m fee for a back-up keeper with a bad relegation habit. Just as he silenced those who wanted to blame his return to Sheffield United – replacing Dean Henderson, recalled by Manchester United after two years on loan – as a reason for their demise last season.
‘People seem to form opinions about players without seeing them play,’ says Heckingbottom.
‘It was a difficult start for him when he came back to Sheffield United. There was a lot said about him, a lot said to him. He came through it because not only is he a good lad but he’s also got the mental strength to cope with pressures at the top. I’m confident he will continue to get better.
‘I knew of Arsenal’s interest before the end of last season and it made perfect sense to me. I’d have loved him to stay because we would have had the best keeper in the Championship but he’s a great signing for Arsenal. They could have one of the best goalkeepers in the country for years to come.’