lIt wasn’t like Arsenal didn’t tell Emile Smith Rowe to eat right, hydrate right and be professional at all times. It was just that, in his words, he “wasn’t really listening…I was a little too lazy”.
To chart Smith Rowe’s rise to the point where he landed his first England call-up for the World Cup qualifiers against Albania on Friday and San Marino next Monday, it’s easy to gauge the electrical progress he’s made. has booked since Boxing Day.
The 21-year-old attacking midfielder was not scheduled to start against Chelsea that day, but Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta, who was battling illness in his squad, turned to him a few hours before kick-off. Arsenal had taken five points from their previous 10 games and Smith Rowe was the number 10 for his first Premier League appearance of the season.
The nerves were extreme and Smith Rowe is a player who admits to feeling them. But he excelled, Arsenal won 3-1 and he has barely looked back.
This season, Smith Rowe has been fundamental to his club’s rise to fifth place, scoring four goals, including one in each of the last three league games, and providing two assists.
The numbers have advanced his case but are scratching a little deeper and it’s a change in his lifestyle that has yielded the marginal gains. “I didn’t eat very well before,” he says. ‘I didn’t drink very well. Before the games I wasn’t that hydrated. I’ve now tried to focus on it like that.
“Arsenal is strict, but I haven’t really listened, to be honest. I think I went wrong there. Now I listen all the time.”
What was his guilty pleasure? “Chocolate… I really like Nando’s – maybe I’m a little devastated,” he says with a smile. “I have tried to avoid chocolate and takeaways as much as possible.
“The club picked me with a chef. His name is Chris and he comes to my house every day. I live with my mother and she cooks normally, but that is no longer necessary. Chris cooks for me and her.
“With hydration, there are a lot of things we should take before a competition and, yes, before I was a little too lazy.”
There was an irony in Smith Rowe’s top-level breakthrough against Chelsea, as when he was ‘seven or eight’ he was rejected by their academy after a trial.
“I went in for about three or four weeks, but at that point I was quite short, very skinny and kept getting pushed off the ball,” he says. “I wasn’t involved and I didn’t hit the ball enough. That’s how it felt, why I didn’t get in.”
Smith Rowe recalls that Tottenham wanted him when he was “15 or 16”, but as an Arsenal fan there was never any interest. He had joined Arsenal at the age of 10 and he was determined to score at his club.
Smith Rowe grew up south of the river in Thornton Heath, but he followed Arsenal because his older brother did and he remembers being drawn to Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and the other stars of the time.
The Chelsea game was during the part of the pandemic when there were no fans in the stadiums, but Smith Rowe says he “definitely helped him”. “I am always very nervous before the race. And not having the pressure of everyone yelling, that helped me a lot.”
Have his nerves affected his development? “Yeah, maybe just before I got loaned to RB Leipzig [in January 2019],” he says. “I’m okay now. I’m always just really nervous before a match.
“It’s mainly in the dressing room – that’s when I’m most nervous. I have spoken to a number of players and they say the same. Maybe it helps, maybe it’s a good thing.”
Smith Rowe is asked if he has sought help to stabilize himself – hypnotherapy perhaps? “Nothing yet. It’s something I can look at.”
He is involved company, open and honest. His loan spell at Leipzig was plagued with growing pains – he played 28 minutes in three substitute appearances – and he admits he wondered if he would make it. “It was tough, but it definitely made me more of a man.”
Smith Rowe would have a better loan from Huddersfield in the Championship next January and now he can dream of a debut in England, possibly alongside Phil Foden – his roommate from the squad that won the Under-17 World Cup in 2017.
“We used to look at the photos of the under-17 days, laughing at our haircuts,” says Smith Rowe. “Watching the other guys and seeing what they were doing always gave me that extra motivation.”