01 Cover: Emile Smith Rowe
This article is an excerpt from the Emile Smith Rowe feature from Issue 01 of GAFFER: ‘England’s Finest’. Available from our online shop now.
Even in Baku’s tin-hollow Olympic Stadium, Emile Smith Rowe could feel them. The eyes of the crowd weighing heavy on his back, analysing, judging his steps like a TV talent show. The shouts from the stands he’d been told by other players just fizz into a pesky hum like background noise, still to him audible. The lifting cheers, the sinking groans, under his orchestration, tens of thousands waiting on his every reaction.
In the first half, Arsenal’s Bosnian bulwark Sead Kolasinac had stampeded down the left wing, beyond the last of FC Qarabag’s defenders. Smith Rowe, blonde fringe billowing, lurched forward and instinctively attempted to meet the defender’s cut-back. And in that moment, all the air sucked from the stadium like a vacuum.
The 18-year-old’s toe reached the ball by a whisker but wilted without the force to steer it back across the face of goal and into the empty net. “Obviously, I had the chance in the first half and I was gutted I didn’t score,” Smith Rowe said. “Going out in the second half, I was thinking, ‘if I get another chance I’ve got to take it.’ I knew I might not get another one.”
Eight minutes after re-emerging from the tunnel, though, and a second chance came. Alex Iwobi flicked Bernd Leno’s cross into the path of the teenager with an acre of space to gallop. After passing the last defender as though he were invisible, Smith Rowe skewered the ball between the goalkeeper’s legs and into the far corner to claim his first goal for the Gunners. “As soon as I got the ball and scored, I just couldn’t believe it. It was unbelievable,” he said. “I was thinking for all the ways it could be ruled out. I was thinking, is this real? Is the referee going to allow it? So much stuff was going through my head.”
“I didn’t really know what to do but then I celebrated. I was so happy. When I saw all the players running over to me it just made me so happy.”
Since scoring against Atletico Madrid and playing Paris Saint Germain on his birthday in pre-season, Smith Rowe has been lauded by Unai Emery and adulated by Arsenal’s fans.
Trialled and tested across attacking midfield, the U17 World Cup winner has established himself as the club’s most exciting prospect, a feat he feels may never have been possible if it weren’t for the club’s new relentless tinkerer in charge. “I’m obviously grateful for what [Emery] has done for me,” Smith Rowe said. “It’s surreal. I still feel like I’m in a dream. I didn’t get that many opportunities with Arsene Wenger. The faith Unai’s shown me, I just want to show him how good I am.”
It’s been ten years since Smith Rowe, having been turned down after a trial at Chelsea, returned to Sunday League with flickering ambitions of a professional career. The fun he craved from football had ebbed away as he pursued a spot in one of London’s elite academies. “My dad used to say you’re going to be a footballer but I told him I didn’t want to be. I did love football but I didn’t have confidence, I didn’t think I would make it,” he said. “I was very quiet, I didn’t really speak to anyone at the training ground and I didn’t really talk on the pitch.”
But when a chance at Arsenal arose a few weeks later, Smith Rowe would travel straight from school in South London to the club through an hour-and-a-half’s worth of rush hour traffic. “I’d have to get changed in the car from my uniform into my training kit,” he said. “I just remember on my first day, Mum I’m so tired, I feel sick, I don’t want to train today.”
It was only thanks to the coaches in the Arsenal academy that Smith Rowe’s career was extended that day. His attendance duties were scaled down, his potential already clear. Steadily as he soared through the ranks at the club, the shyness left him and the desire which so encompasses him today was nurtured. “Only when I was like 13 or 14, I started thinking, ‘Come on, you can actually make a career out of this’” he said.
That was just five years ago, yet in the past five months those memories have drifted away. The doubts are gone, the confidence there, the desire to prove to himself, to Emery, the senior players in the squad, and those fixated eyes in the crowd, is consuming. “I still feel like I have to prove everything to everyone,” he said. “I feel like I haven’t done nothing yet. I am confident on the ball. When I get touches of the ball that’s when I get into the game and get more confident.”
Although that air of confidence has settled with Smith Rowe on the pitch though, it still hasn’t quite sunk in away from it. Eating at a local restaurant around the corner from where he still lives with his parents at their house in North London, Smith Rowe’s stopped for photos by strangers in the street, asked to signed napkins at the table. “It’s a bit crazy,” he said. “It’s a bit funny as well. I never thought it would happen to me at 18 years old. A lot has changed, but I don’t feel any different. I feel the same as ever.”
Could he imagine this all after seeing his strike swerve into the top corner in pre-season against Atletico Madrid clatter? “Definitely not. I was shocked that I was even there.”
His own ambition for the season has though always stayed the same since that match in Malaysia: to make his Premier League debut. Already, it feels imminent, some even suggest overdue, and just as in the second-half against Qarabag, he said as a steel usurps the old shyness in his eyes, when the chance comes, he’ll take it.