Long read: Smith Rowe's on and off-pitch heroes

Emile Smith Rowe at Arsenal's media day

Emile Smith Rowe doesn’t have to look far for inspiration. Inspirational figures are all around him, and have been throughout his childhood too.

That’s because his main role models are his dad, the rest of his family, and the players who have gone before him at Arsenal Football Club. In this exclusive interview with the matchday programme, the England international tells us all about who he turns to for inspiration, and how key figures have shaped his career to date.

Emile joined the Hale End Academy at the age of 10, and from day one he was surrounded by aspirational and inspirational people, stories and examples as he progressed through the age ranks.

Whether it was watching club legends in action for the first-team, or seeing real-life examples of other Hale End graduates who had made it to the squad, Emile had no shortage of role models as he grew and developed in the early stages of his career.

But it was closer to home where he found his main inspiration. “Yes, that was always my dad,” Emile begins. “From a very young age he always did absolutely everything he could for me to be able to play football. He always took me to the park behind our house with my older brother, so yes definitely, he was the main inspiration for me, and still is.”

And there is one particular occasion when Emile’s dad, Les, was instrumental in keeping our talented young midfielder on the path to success. “There was a point when I was 14 and I basically said to my dad that I didn’t want to play football anymore,” Emile recalls.

Emile Smith Rowe

“I don’t know if it was the pressure, or the criticism I was getting or what, but I remember being a bit overwhelmed with it all and I just said to him one day: ‘I can’t take this anymore, I want to stop.’

“At the time I just wasn’t enjoying my football. Then I remember my dad talking me through it, reassuring me about stuff and what he said made the difference. I had a think about what he told me for a couple of days, and then I was OK again. I don’t think it was anything specific that he said to me, just the way he spoke to me and explained things.

“He’s been everything for me in my career. My mum and my brother as well have been big, big parts of my career too; all of my family. I still live with my mum, so she helps me every day when I need it, but my dad used to play a bit of football too, so he could relate to how I was feeling. He helped me a lot.

“He never pressured me into anything; he actually said: ‘it’s your decision, it’s your life’ and he would support me in anything. He said nobody is ever going to force you to do anything. But I had a long hard think and realised there’s nothing I would rather be doing.”

His dad, a keen amateur footballer in his youth, went to school with Ian Wright so he had a very close example of someone who had what it takes to become a fans’ favourite at this club. But Emile says that since guiding him through any bumps in the road during his very early days as a player, his relationship with his dad has evolved to be more concerned with off-the-field matters now.

“Yeah when I got over that wobble when I was 14, I soon remembered how much I loved playing football and that’s what kept me going really,” he continues. “I enjoyed being around my teammates, playing the games and that’s what would motivate me.

Emile Smith Rowe with his parents

“That was when I needed my dad to really be there. But since I turned pro, and made it into the first-team, he hasn’t had to say much more to me about that.

“I’m quite independent and he’s happy to leave it to me. He knew when I needed any words from him, but that relationship has changed since I’ve been older. I’m able to focus on myself when I’m on the pitch now.”

But Emile says they are no less close for it. “It’s really nice now, we don’t often talk about football much to be honest, it’s more usual father/son stuff, and we talk about stuff away from football. We are still really close, we chat loads, but it’s different now I’m older obviously.

“He always wanted the best for me growing up, encouraging me and helping me, but now I think that because I’m in the first-team squad and I’ve got the manager and coaches around to help me, there’s only so much he can do on that side now. He’s let me grow up, and now he supports me in a different way. He’s always there for me, but he leaves the football side of things to Arsenal!”

And that’s where Emile’s other inspirations come into the story, starting with somebody who has played in the Gunners midfield himself – Mikel Arteta. 

“There is no shortage of people to listen to now, but obviously the gaffer is so important for me at this stage of my career,” says Emile. “I always listen to him and try to take in as much as I can. The impact he has on players is just ridiculous, the way he speaks to us.

“For somebody who is not that experienced as a manager himself, it’s crazy how well he can talk to the players and man-manage us. I know all of us young players appreciate him. He was in our position not too long ago, he knows all about what we are going through, and you can tell that when you speak to him.”

The youngest manager in the Premier League at 40 years old, Emile says Mikel is a positive, uplifting presence in the dressing room. “It feels like he’s always ready to put his arm around your shoulder, to always be there with positive and supportive words.

Emile Smith Rowe and Mikel Arteta

"He is always thinking about how you can improve, but he also likes to ask a lot of questions as well. He asks you about your thoughts on the game, and understands your opinions. As I said, you can definitely tell he was a player himself when he speaks, and also when he joins in the sessions! He’s still got it, no doubt about it!”

Mikel first joined the club as a player back in August 2011, just a year after Emile himself joined the Hale End Academy. As is still the case now, back then the youth players got to watch the first-team in action at the Emirates most weeks, and his current boss was one that he tried to learn from at a distance.

“Being an Arsenal supporter even before I joined, I used to watch people like Thierry Henry and all those legends, even though I was quite young myself at the time. But then I remember watching Mikel play for us as well, I was about 13 I think when he was captain, and I just remember how composed he was as a player.”

That was right in the middle of Emile’s journey through the age groups at Hale End, and he said those types of players were often held up as examples to follow: “When we were there the coaches would definitely tell us about what could happen later in our career. There were always pictures up on the walls of players who had made it into the team, people like Jack Wilshere were always around and it was really good to see that as a young player. We saw it was possible for us to do the same.

“All the young players would motivate each other, and it’s similar now in the first team. My teammates are always a big help. We have a good feeling here and I love having these guys around me.

“In the squad I’m probably closest to B [Bukayo] and Eddie, Ben and Aaron too. All the young players hang around together and get on well. We’ve got a lot in common and most of the time it just feels like I’m chilling with my friends  – similar to when I was at Hale End.”

Emile and another of his Hale End graduates, Bukayo Saka, came face to face with two of their inspirational idols late last season. Following our win over Leeds United at the Emirates in May, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry came pitchside to chat to the two youngsters. “That was crazy,” Emile says with a grin, “it was my first time meeting Dennis Bergkamp, I couldn’t believe it.

Emile Smith Rowe with Dennis Bergkamp

“Just to have both of them there was crazy. Me and B had a good chat with them, asking what it was like at the club back then, and they were telling us to keep going and that they believed in us. It was amazing, a fun chat.”

The subject of squad numbers came up, with Emile now sporting the No. 10 shirt that Bergkamp wore with such distinction for 11 seasons. From being inspired by these heroes of the past himself, our Croydon-born midfielder is now inspiring a whole new generation.

“It’s crazy to think too much about it really,” he admits, “that there are kids out there now wearing my name and number on their shirt. I would never have thought when I was a kid that I’d one day be wearing the number 10 shirt.

“It’s surreal to be honest. It’s pressure as well, but I like it – it’s a good pressure. It’s a pressure to perform, definitely. Obviously that shirt holds a lot of weight of the players who have worn it before me, but I enjoy that.

“Eddie’s got it as well this season, wearing 14, and we always joke and chat about that. But I’m really happy for him, he deserves that, and I’m sure he will score goals in that shirt.”

Stars of the past inspiring stars of the present, who in turn inspire the next generation of hopefuls. Emile is right in the midst of that virtuous cycle now, and you sense he’s loving every moment.

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