Ryan Fraser: Bournemouth winger on Arsenal, Aberdeen & a dog called Maisie
Ah, the memories of playing in Scotland. The tackles at the knees, the trash talk off the ball, the cynical trips, the elbows, the intimidation.
Ryan Fraser was 16 years old when he broke into the Aberdeen first team in the autumn of 2010, and the thought of those days still bring a smile to his face, standing on the side of the pitch at the Vitality Stadium in Bournemouth where the morning paper is speculating for the umpteenth day in a row about the grave implications of his possible move to Arsenal in the summer.
That is where we are at with Fraser - a hugely sought-after player who is in the final year of his contract. More Premier League goals this season than Dele Alli and Mesut Ozil. More Premier League assists than anybody bar Eden Hazard and Christian Eriksen, who he moved level with on 12 after scoring in the 5-0 thumping of Brighton on Saturday. Sell him now and Bournemouth make a lot of of money - so, too, Aberdeen, who will get a sizeable piece of the action if Unai Emery backs up his admiration with a solid bid.
Fraser says he is honoured to be linked with such a big club but he is trying to forget about it for now. The chat first surfaced a couple of days before Bournemouth played Leicester (a 2-0 defeat) and continued into the week of their last game (a 3-1 loss to Burnley).
"Maybe it hasn't helped," he says. "Subconsciously, you might think about it. I'm just trying to get on with my work. Every player says that. The best thing I can do is play well.
"I need to get back to scoring, assisting and winning and then what will be, will be. I love it here. It's not just the football club, but the manager, my team-mates, the town, the beach. I've always said that after football I will live down here. It's special."
'I got kicked a lot at Aberdeen'
At 25, Fraser is about to enter his peak years. The fact that he is being linked strongly with one of the giants of the English game is testament to his talent and his mentality, an illustration of the long road he has travelled since his days in Scottish football.
"I was only a kid at Aberdeen," he smiles. "Every time I got the ball, it didn't matter where I was, I just wanted to take people on.
"I got kicked a lot. I remember a couple of games where the cards were flying about everywhere. Inverness away - [Owain] Tudur Jones kicked me knee-high. I done two flips in the air and he got sent off. Richie Foran, I remember him. The ball wasn't even near me. He could have got sent off as well.
"There was a Hibs guy, I don't know who it was. He could have gone. There were a few more. Maybe it was because I was so young, so direct and my centre of gravity was so low. I suppose it was a compliment that people were kicking me."
Fraser says he will be watching Aberdeen's semi-final with Celtic on Sunday. Sometimes it's difficult to pick up the games down on the south coast but where there's a will there's a way and he will manage it somehow. He is still tight with a few of those boys, captain Graeme Shinnie in particular. They have been pals since way back.
"When we were younger he used to live a couple of streets down from me. We text each other most days. We play Fortnite together sometimes. He's going to be a loss against Celtic. It's a shame, that. I'd still give Aberdeen a big chance, though. Their form in Glasgow is good recently. They've got nothing to lose."
'My dog Maisie keeps me sane'
His time in Scotland ended when he left for Bournemouth at 18, his departure being accompanied by a cacophony of bewilderment as to why this talented youngster would give up the Dons for lowly Bournemouth of English League One. He remembers that time like it was yesterday. People thought he was mad. Bournemouth? Why the hell did he want to go to Bournemouth?
His last game for Aberdeen was in February 2013, his debut for his new club came the following month. He was still only 18. He came off the bench against Sheffield United and lost. He played against Coventry and lost again. Next up, Leyton Orient and another loss. After that, Doncaster. Yes, beaten again.
"I was having fun with the gaffer [Eddie Howe] about this only a few weeks ago," he says. The punchline to this story came when he appeared as a 33rd-minute substitute in his fifth game against Stevenage and then got subbed back off again 22 minutes later.
"I'm not going to lie, I'm not going to say I got injured because that's not what happened. I came on and he [Howe] basically shouted at me from the sideline to go down. 'Why am I going down?' Being so young I didn't really get what was happening. He obviously made the wrong decision to put me on."
Clearly Howe didn't want to publicly humiliate him, so the 'injury' became the reason why he was removed rather than his inability to cope with the demands of football at that level. "That hurt my confidence a lot. To get told by your manager to sit down was hard to take. I phoned my dad straight away.
"I went to the back of the bus and phoned him, told him what happened. I don't think I was in tears, but I was down and didn't want to speak to the lads. I didn't really know the lads that well, to be fair. I didn't have many people to speak to. That was one of my toughest days in football."
Bournemouth played eight more games that season and got promoted to the Championship. Fraser didn't see a bench, never mind a pitch, in any of them. He tells a story now that illustrates what a switched-on kid he was - and is.
He had heard so many cautionary tales of young footballers who struggled to cope with the mental side of the game and all the vulnerability and loneliness that comes with it sometimes. "I'd never lived away from my parents before, so I think I needed something to do outside of football. I didn't want to come down here and start doing things that young lads get up to nowadays. I didn't want to be one of those players."
So he got himself a dog, a Yorkshire terrier by the name of Maisie and to say he dotes over his pet is to put it mildly. "I can send you a photo. When you need her, after a bad day like last weekend when we were pumped by Burnley, she'll come in buzzing and makes you forget about football. You have bad days and she can turn them into good days. I think I needed her. She makes you forget about the negatives. I've seen some young players just lose their bearings a little bit, but she keeps me sane."
There's a dog-walking club at Bournemouth now. Fraser, Dan Gosling, Nathan Ake. They meet down on the beach and away they go. "I looked after Nathan's dog the other week. Never again. Absolute nightmare." Maisie, he says, is the top dog in all of Bournemouth. He is laughing when he says it, but nobody should underestimate Maisie's role in his success. He paints an idyllic picture of going down to the beach on the Friday evening before every home game and letting her off the leash to run about. He has taken to meditation on those nights.
"I'll get a quiet spot and reflect on things. I think you can get caught up in the moment sometimes. When it's going well you can get too far ahead of yourself, when it's going bad you can get a little bit too down. I heard meditation was a good thing and I use an app called MindSpace. I go down to the beach before I go to bed and it's just nice."
'Howe will make any player better'
At 5ft 4in, it has often been said Fraser is the smallest guy in the Premier League, a suggestion he refutes when saying that ballboys and ballgirls are part of the Premier League as well and he knows for a fact that he is taller than some of them. His sense of humour and even-keel temperament is serving him well.
Howe has been a big part of what he has become, of course. The Bournemouth manager is a football obsessive and borderline control freak, but he is a man who cares about his players not just as footballers but as men. Happy off the pitch, happy on the pitch. He has done a lot of work with Fraser. If the winger does, indeed, move to Arsenal he'll miss his mentor in a major way.
"He makes sure you're happy at home, makes sure you have everything you need. He has a thing called one-percenters, little things that can make a big difference. He did one with me after training a while back and it involved me cutting inside and firing it in the far corner. We practised that a lot. About six weeks later I had four goals from that exact move. He'll make any player better. Doesn't matter if it's the best player in the world, he'll find a way. It might not even be on the ball, it might be off the ball, how you press, how you think."
He shoots the breeze a little more about wanting to finish the season on a high with Bournemouth, about getting out of the slump they have been in with just one win from the nine games leading into Saturday's visit to Brighton, about his focus on hitting his pre-season target of 10 goals and 10 assists. "I need two more goals and I'm there."
Right now, he has to be somewhere. An important date with the woman in his life. "Need to collect Maisie from the doggy daycare centre. I'll send you that picture," he says, before vanishing at pace into the distance.