The following is a modified version of the feature interview that appeared exclusively in our official matchday programme for last night’s game against Arsenal.
Describing Gastón Ramírez’s first five months in England as a baptism of fire doesn’t quite do matters justice.
Let’s go back to the start.
Having signed for Southampton on transfer deadline day last August, Ramírez watched on as his new side narrowly lost out to Manchester United in front of a sold-out St Mary’s crowd two days later.
His debut would arrive midway through September, when he came on as a half-time substitute with Saints trailing four-one Arsenal. He showed flashes of brilliance during his 45-minute cameo at the Emirates, but could not prevent two more goals going in as Saints slumped to their worst top-flight result in nine years.
A week later, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction– Ramírez’s first start saw him play a pivotal role in the St Mary’s demolition of Aston Villa that brought his new team their first Premier League points since 2005.
Other positives – goals against Everton and Newcastle, for example – have been countered by progress-restricting negatives, such as the thigh injury that led to the Uruguayan being hospitalised in mid-October.
Nevertheless, Ramírez – 22 a month ago – is quickly becoming the jewel in Saints’ crown of young and exciting footballers. As we enter 2013, though, the attacking midfielder insists the best is yet to come.
“I feel like it is time for me to ‘explode’, if you like,” Gastón exclusively told Saints’ official matchday programme in his first full interview since joining Saints.
“I believe I am getting better with each game. I feel like I’m improving a lot because I’m playing a lot of games, so I’m getting used to the kind of opposition you face here.
“I’ve loved my first five months at Southampton and I feel very happy here.”
Ramírez’s unmistakable enthusiasm for his new club is impressive, not least because of the circumstances in which we meet.
It is the day after Saints’ Boxing Day draw at Fulham, a game played in torrential rain and amid a chilling wind in the capital.
If that wasn’t enough to chill the bones of someone who spent his first 20 years in his native South America before moving Italy with Bologna, this interview is conducted as he prepares to dive into an ice bath as part of his post-match recovery process.
However, Ramírez seems to relish his surroundings. That typhoon-by-the-Thames evidently inspired him to muster one of his most gritty and hard-working showings since joining the Club.
And Gastón admits that – contrary to the expectations and anticipations of some – he has found himself well-suited to life in England.
“I’m enjoying being in this country – I really like the quietness of living here,” he says. “It can take some players a bit of time to settle, but it was OK for me.
“I’ve just moved into my new house, so I am in the process of getting used to things and adapting to my new lifestyle.”
Communication, he concedes, remains a difficulty. Ramírez came to the country unable to speak a word of English, but is clearly improving with the assistance of Spanish- and Italian-speaking teammates such as José Fonte and Guly.
The arrival of a Spanish staff member – Fran Alonso, Saints’ new First Team Technical Support Coach – has helped, too.
“The most difficult thing (about moving to England) is the language, but it’s getting better,” says Ramírez.
“It helps to have others around me speaking Spanish or Italian like Paulo [Gazzaniga], José and Guly, especially when I have a problem.
“During games or in training, I understand almost everything – and, if I don’t, there are people to help me.”
The thigh injury he sustained in the lead up to October’s home game against Fulham threatened to derail Ramírez’s attempts to settle in his new country.
What started as a simple dead leg developed into something far more serious: the playmaker spent three days in hospital, relying on his wife for Spanish-speaking company.
“It was very hard to take,” he says of the injury. “I missed four games, and that felt like such a long time.
“Nobody expects an injury like that. Before it happened, I was feeling really good and my performances were getting better with every game.
“It was very painful, so I went to hospital and ended up there for days. Thankfully I had my wife with me, and Mo [Gimpel, Sports Medicine & Science Manager] was there to help me communicate because he speaks some Spanish.
“The injury itself wasn’t that bad, but it could have been a lot worse – it all depends on your blood pressure. If mine was higher, I might have needed surgery – thankfully I was OK.”
Having returned to the team in early November, Ramírez’s initiation as a Southampton player was hampered by a two-month winless run. “When things don’t go well and we don’t get results, everything looks worse,” he concedes.
Things soon took a turn for the better, with back-to-back wins over Queens Park Rangers and Newcastle forming part of a four-game unbeaten run.
In a cruel twist of fate, though, off-the-field issues meant Ramírez had to return to Uruguay in the lead-up to the visit of Reading last month.
Having been prevented from training with his teammates in the week prior to the game, Gastón started on the bench – but an injury to skipper Adam Lallana meant he was called on earlier than expected.
He put in an instrumental performance in a crucial victory, but admits his testing week made it a difficult afternoon: “There was an emotional tiredness as well as physical.
“When I go back to South America to play with my national team, it’s not that bad – I got used to that during my time in Italy. When you go for other reasons, though, the tiredness is doubled.”
The day before he flew back to his homeland, Ramírez shared a field with compatriot Luis Suárez in Saints’ narrow defeat at Liverpool.
The pair are regulars for their national team, and both played for La Celeste on these very shores at this summer’s Olympic Games – and it was during that experience that Ramírez consulted his friend as he considered a move to England.
“We talk very often – we get on well,” Gastón affirms. “When I was thinking about joining Southampton, I asked him for his advice.
“He gave some very good feedback about English football and the lifestyle here.
“I was very proud to play against him and swap shirts after the game. When you play against great players, it is a privilege – and even more so when you know them personally.”
Life in the English top-flight, Ramírez says, has lived up to expectations: “Quite simply, I love the Premier League.
“There are so many top-quality players, and the football is very fast. Quick play means there can be a lot of space, and that is good for me because that really suits my game.
“And I love the stadiums here because they are always full,” he continues.
“I’ve always followed the Premier League so I generally knew what to expect, but I was surprised by the fans and how close to the pitch they are.
“There are no fences like I had in Italy and in South America. You can hear everything, and the atmosphere definitely has an effect on the game.
“I am very grateful for how the fans have treated me since I got here – I’m very happy with how they support not only me but the rest of the team.
“They’re always with us, even when we were bottom of the table and not getting results. I’d like to pay them back for that support with some points.”
The search for results brought Ramírez up against a tough opponent last night as Arsenal – the side against which he made his Saints bow back in September – came to St Mary’s.
The frontman’s third goal in Saints colours put got his side off to a positive start, but an unfortunate equaliser meant just a single point could be plundered from a Gunners side that hit seven goals in their previous game.
That there is a nagging disappointment at only drawing that game is evidence of how far Southampton have come – and Ramírez says the side in which he is currently playing is a world away from the one roundly beaten at the Emirates four-and-a-half months ago.
“It’s a very, very different team,” he insists. “When we played Arsenal in September, we were a very inexperienced side so we didn’t work so well with one-another.
“That was a bad game for us, but now we know how to play in the Premier League. We understand the opposition and we’re defending much better.
“I think the team is doing well now, and I think we can get even better in the rest of the season.
“Our first target is to stay in the Premier League, but let’s see what happens. We should try to finish as high as possible.
“Personally, I’d like to keep growing and improving – I really want to hit some good form and help the team achieve our goals.
“I also want keep improving my English and getting used to living here because everything is still new for me. I’ve got no doubts about my happiness here.”
Content, settled and determined to impress – if you believe you’ve seen the best of what Gastón Ramírez is capable of, think again. He’s only just getting started.
Remember to pick up your copy of the programme at St Mary’s in future for more exclusive interviews with Saints stars.