During the 13 years since Arsenal’s last Premier League trophy, the club have pointed to a number of flashpoints and what-if moments that could have changed the course of history.
Abou Diaby was never the same after a foul by Sunderland’s Dan Smith in May 2006, robbing Arsenal of a player talented enough to be kept on for years despite repeated injuries, while Martin Taylor’s lunge while playing for Birmingham City hindered both Eduardo’s career and the Gunners’ 2007/08 title challenge.
However, while both of those incidents are still painful to recall, another foul on an Arsenal player has had much more of a lasting impact.
In February 2010, Arsenal travelled to Stoke City’s Britannia Stadium off the back of wins over Liverpool and Sunderland which kept Arsène Wenger’s team in the title race, but one event from that game – while not affecting the result – took all the headlines.
Shortly after the hour mark, Ryan Shawcross’ foul on Aaron Ramsey left the Arsenal and Wales midfielder with a double leg fracture, an injury so severe that concern was visible on the faces of his fellow players almost instantly.
Shawcross himself left the field in tears, distraught by the damage caused by his challenge, and has claimed since that he felt the incident shaped how he was viewed in the public eye. “You seem to get labelled quickly and it sticks sometimes,” Shawcross said six years after the incident. “It was an accident and it wasn’t me who had the broken leg. So no one should feel sorry for me.”
While Stoke already had a reputation for being a forceful and direct side after coming up to the Premier League under Tony Pulis, this incident felt different. It has remained relevant to this day, in part because Shawcross and Ramsey are still with their respective clubs, and in part because a minority of Stoke fans still jeer the Welshman whenever the fixture occurs.
“Personally, I think the booing/chanting towards Ramsey is embarrassing, but exaggerated,” says David Cowlishaw of Stoke City podcast ‘The Wizards of Drivel’.
“’It’s only a minority’ is a standard line in these situations, but it is true and unfortunately every time we and Arsenal play ‘Ramseygate’ rears its ugly head again.”
Cowlishaw cites some of the excuses given by supporters for their actions, such as Ramsey’s alleged refusal to accept Shawcross’ apology and comments made by Wenger close to the time, but accepts that these hardly act as mitigation.
“Whether you believe these reasons or not, there is simply no way you can boo a player who had his leg broken and not look like a tool,” he says.
The relationship between the two clubs had already been fractured before the February 2010 meeting, and it was down to more than a clash of styles.
Had it simply been a case of Arsenal’s intricate football falling short against a Potters side still relying on Rory Delap’s long throws, we might not have seen the same level of uproar in the aftermath of Shawcross’ foul on Ramsey. But it went deeper than that.
“All of the players have been injured deliberately,” Wenger claimed after a 2-1 defeat at the Britannia in 2008, and his comments were not swiftly forgotten. But while there might not be a uniform ‘right way’ to react, there is a sense among supporters that there is definitely a wrong way.
“I believe that there is still a misconception about Stoke that we’re still a “rugby club” and therefore we are too rough, so the Shawcross/Ramsey incident is used as an example as that,” says Alec, a Stoke fan living in Derby.
“The villainising of Ramsey by some of our fans is just them being a bit child-like, using him as a scapegoat for the blame put on Shawcross.”
Cowlishaw concurs, suggesting the booing not only gives off a bad impression, but also detracts from some of the more inventive responses to the fallout the club has received (and continues to receive).
“We’ve seen Stoke fans mimic Wenger’s touchline antics and sing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, which are great displays of partisan mockery, but the booing of Ramsey by some fans is really tedious – because we know the media fallout which will follow,” he says.
It would surely benefit both clubs for a league meeting to pass without incident, or – even better – for something positive to happen that supersedes Shawcross and Ramsey as a talking point.
However, despite Ramsey going on to star at Euro 2016 and Shawcross earning a first England call-up in 2012, the narrative will remain prevalent for as long as the pair remain on opposite sides of this relatively new rivalry.
That Arsenal and Stoke had little in the way of rivalry before the incident also plays a part, at least in the Premier League era – before the 2008 match, the clubs hadn’t met in the league for more than two decades. But that also provides some encouragement that time can help both sets of fans move on and carve a rivalry that is altogether healthier.
Having a rival player as your bogeyman is not necessarily unhealthy, but many Stoke fans would agree that bestowing such an honour on a player from the fallout of a serious injury is something the game can do without.