I can’t even find the words to explain how nervous I used to get before games.
It’s something that I always had to cope with when I was younger because I’m a shy person on and off the pitch. I feel that it’s only been in the last couple of seasons and especially this year that I have truly overcome those nerves and started to express myself freely on the pitch.
The process started from when I arrived at the Arsenal Academy really. It didn’t take long for my coaches to realise that I’m quite reserved, so they’ve spent time trying to build up my confidence so that I can play freely.
Getting my confidence level to where it is now means that I don’t need to worry about it too much anymore and I can focus more time on developing my approach, technique and attitude. Freddie Ljungberg has been really helpful in that sense, and I really appreciate all the time that he and the other coaches have given me.
That being said, though, I still always get nervous before any match, whether it’s an under-18s, 23s or first-team game. But that’s where the fans come in because they’ve always encouraged me.
I can remember freezing-cold January games at Borehamwood where you’d think that nobody could possibly be watching, but then you’d walk out for the under-23s and you’d see a couple of hundred fans there to cheer you on – it’s incredible and it makes you want to perform for them.
I felt that same when I got off the bench to make my Europa League debut against Vorskla. The reception I believed was unbelievable! I felt like I belonged and I wanted to repay that and create something for them and for the team too.
I didn’t feel inhibited at all, and Unai Emery told me to just get on the field and play naturally. My first few touches were good and with the fans behind me, I felt so confident. I appreciate all of the support they’ve given me over the past few years and I just feel indebted to them really.
I actually remember driving home with my dad in the passenger seat after the game and there were loads of fans lined up along the side of the road waiting for pictures and autographs.
My dad told me to pull over because I had a duty to give back. I signed autographs, took pictures and thanked as many fans as I could. I don’t think fans fully realise just how much they can help players perform, and I wanted to show how much I appreciated all that they have done to support me over the years.
After all, I know what it’s like to be an Arsenal fan. I’ve supported the club my whole life and being able to go on pre-season tour to Singapore with the first team was an unbelievable experience.
I would have been happy with just being there and training with players like Mesut, Auba and Laca every day, but then I also scored the equaliser against Atletico Madrid and that just topped it off really.
The players were really good to me on tour and have been ever since. I feel like I’ve really been welcomed into the group, especially after singing my initiation song in front of them all!
Remember those nerves I was telling you about? Well I got the exact same pre-match feeling when I walked into the dining hall after the Madrid game and saw a chair on its own in the middle of the room.
I had a feeling that I’d be called up to sing an initiation song at some point because every player has to do it, but I had absolutely nothing prepared. I was racking my brains, trying to think of a song to sing and then when my name was called up, I got onto the chair and started singing ‘Sorry’ by Justin Bieber.
It was a nervy start but within 10 seconds, the whole room joined in with me and any nerves that I had disappeared. That moment really helped me bond with the team and is a memory that I will keep forever.
There was some talk after pre-season that I would go out on loan. There are so many talented, world-class players who are ahead of me in my position but the club told me that they wanted me to stay. That really showed that they had faith in me.
I also spoke to Unai about my development, and he was really clear that he wanted me to stay at the club instead of going on loan. He said that he’ll give me opportunities this season and that was music to my ears.
Since then I’ve been training with the first team every day, and I’ve even travelled with them regularly. I’ve already played in the Europa League and I’m ready for the Carabao Cup too. I just want to play as much as possible really.
It’s a strange situation for me because I know I have to be patient as I’m on a learning curve, but after having a taste of first-team football, you always want more.
That being said, I just love playing football. I love every second on the pitch, it doesn’t matter if it’s for the 18s, 23s or the first team, I’m just grateful to be playing the game I love for the club I love.
I’m still getting regular gametime for my country too and while my priority is Arsenal, it would be so good to be called up for England’s Under-19 European Championships squad this year. I was involved in the Under-17 World Cup win last year and given the way England are moving forward, I’d love to play as much of a part as possible.
I don’t mind where the opportunities come on the pitch, either. I’ve played on the wing and even up front when I was really young, but the coaches here at Arsenal have brought me into a more central role.
Sometimes I’ve played as a 4 or an 8, but I enjoy playing at No 10 most. I love driving towards goal with the ball, and I feel like my range of passing and awareness has improved too, and some people have even compared my playing style to Kevin de Bruyne’s!
That’s a very nice compliment because he’s a great player and someone I really look up to, but I’m only at the start of my career. I hope there are similarities between us but there are certainly differences too.
I like to think that I’m developing my own style of play and it’s still evolving too. I’m trying to learn as much as I can from watching De Bruyne and working hard in training with all of the world-class players around me.
Playing more games with the first team is only going to help to make me a better player and I know that I’ve just got to keep my head down, working as hard as I did when I first arrived at the Arsenal Academy all those years ago.
The nerves are still there, but I’m growing in confidence by the day.
Emile Smith Rowe
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