Head to Head: Emile Smith Rowe x Zech Medley
Head to Head bridges the gap between the world’s finest footballers and their best friends by bringing them together to share their stories and experiences as well as giving them the opportunity to find out the answers to the questions they’ve always wanted to ask.
Following on from Ezri Konsa and Yxng Bane and Michael Ward and Rhian Brewster, we investigate the relationship between two of Arsenal’s brightest young stars, Emile Smith Rowe and Zech Medley, in the latest episode of Head to Head.
When Zech Medley was a kid, he used to kick a football around with the other children at church. While the rest of the congregation was catching up and chatting after the sermon, friends and family hanging around in their Sunday best, he was outside dribbling, tackling and shooting, head-and-shoulders above everyone else.
“Some of the parents would say to my dad: ‘Zech’s quite good, you know,’” he laughs. With two football-mad older brothers, he had been schooled in the game from a young age. His dad already knew the junior football circuit well, but as the younger sibling he was under less pressure. “My dad had done it with my brothers, so he wasn’t too fussed if I did it or not,” he says. “But I found a local Sunday League team online, I showed my dad, he contacted them and they said to come down one Saturday. It all pretty much took off from there.”
Coming from a family of Arsenal fans – apart from his dad, who supports Liverpool – he had little choice over who to support growing up. He also had no shortage of role models, with his second-eldest brother Luke having a spell in the Tottenham academy before going on to represent Bradford City, Barnet and various non-league sides. Having moved into coaching, Luke has been a formative influence on him. “He’s definitely helped me and guided me a lot on my journey,” says Zech.
“He’s helped me to learn from his mistakes: what he did well, what he didn’t do so well and how I can improve my game. He helps me analyse my game in so much detail, which really helps. It’s been massive for me, especially going into the new season.”
Like so many other Arsenal fans his age, Zech idolised Thierry Henry as a kid. After Henry left Arsenal for Barcelona in 2007, he started to gravitate towards Sergio Ramos. “Especially being a centre-back now, he’s one defender that I look up to and I’d love to maybe even play alongside,” he says. “It’s just what he stands for, his whole character as a leader on and off the pitch. He’s a fighter, he’s a winner, he’s got that technical side to him as well. He can fight but he can also do the other side of the game… he stops a lot of tough opponents but he does it with quality.”
Born in Greenwich, with his extended family spread across south London, Zech grew up in sleepier surroundings in Kent. Having started out in Sunday League age seven with local side Real 60, he was scouted at a juniors’ tournament and ended up being invited to Fulham’s development centre. “I got offered a six-week trial at their academy to get into the under-9s,” he recalls. “I was on that and doing alright, but we ended up playing Chelsea one weekend. I came on and just had a really good game.
“We went to the Chelsea training ground that day and it was one of the first bigger clubs I’d been to. I went there with my dad and we just couldn’t believe it, the facilities were amazing. When I left I didn’t have a clue I’d get an offer to sign for Fulham, then I found out Chelsea wanted me as well. It was just a crazy day, I could never have expected what happened.”
Zech spent eight years in the Chelsea academy but, age 16, despite getting his scholarship, he started to feel like he was treading water. There was a mutual agreement which allowed him to leave and, while he knew other clubs were interested, he didn’t know where he would end up next. Before long, he got an offer that he couldn’t refuse. “I found out that Arsenal were interested, that was the first place I went to see and I haven’t looked back since,” he says. “I didn’t go anywhere else. As soon as I went to Arsenal, I wanted to stay.”
It helped that he supported the club, naturally, though that wasn’t the only reason for the move. “Going there, the whole set-up, knowing that they were a team that were known for bringing youngsters through as well… they just made a clear pathway for me to know it was possible to break into the first team,” he says. It also helped that he already knew someone there who he could ask, honestly, what it was like at the club. “I met Zech at Chelsea, because I went on trial at Chelsea for a few weeks,” says Emile Smith Rowe, now a close mate. “He was one of the players that welcomed me from the start.”
Having also played together with England under-16s, the pair knew each other well by the time Zech arrived at Hale End. “Zech’s a funny character, one of the funniest guys I know actually,” says Emile. “He’s a good guy, good energy, very competitive like me. Maybe that’s why we get along.”
As well as football, they bonded over fashion, with Emile classing Zech as “swaggy”. Fashion runs in Zech’s family, with his older sister Georgia working as a stylist for Harper’s Bazaar. “It’s great seeing her work ethic, it’s inspiring that she’s got to where she is now,” he says. “That sort of led me into the fashion world… I do like my clothes and I take pride in what I wear.”
He likes to mix streetwear with high fashion, though he describes his personal style as “relaxed” more than anything. “I’ve got a lot of different Jordans I’ve been wearing… some might say I’ve got too much but, nah, you can never have too many trainers,” he laughs. Does he ever ask his sister for tips on what to wear? “Sometimes she tries to take the credit. I’ve learned a few things from her, if I need a bit of help I’ll ask her. But I think I’m doing alright at the moment.”
Having had a religious upbringing, faith still plays an important role in Zech’s life. It wasn’t as easy to get to church when he was playing academy football on Sundays, but lockdown gave him time to reflect and he was introduced to a group called ‘Ballers in God’ founded by John Bostock. He credits speaking to other players about their shared belief with helping him to deal with the intense pressure of professional football. “I think it’s really important that we can have that time together and think about things outside football,” he says. “Obviously we can speak about a lot of things with each other and, all being footballers, we’re all in the same boat and we can relate to each other.”
Zech also credits his upbringing with giving him a strong sense of social responsibility. A vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, he feels that athletes have a duty to use their platform for good. “I think, especially with what’s happened this year, it’s been good to see a lot of people with wider fan bases and high-profile social media expressing how they feel,” he says. “Not even just in football: in basketball, other sports, even the other day in the NBA when they decided to abandon the games, people have been sending out as strong a message as they can. I feel like we can definitely make a change, but that we need to stand together and not let these campaigns keep fading away each year.”
He admires Marcus Rashford for speaking out about food poverty over the summer, which helped to force the government to reverse their decision not to provide free school meal vouchers to kids from low-income backgrounds. “People like Marcus Rashford are setting a great example. What he’s doing shows that people in his shoes are normal people as well, we do care, we do have hearts and we’re here to help.”
Ultimately, that’s a sentiment which wouldn’t be out of place at the church where Zech used to have his kickarounds as a kid. “We’re willing to make a change as well as other people who might not have the same platforms,” he says. “What Rashford has done goes to show we can achieve big things, we just have to do it together.”
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