Arsenal's rising star Smith Rowe on his brilliant breakthrough season

Arsenal’s ‘Croydon De Bruyne’ Emile Smith Rowe tells JAMIE REDKNAPP about that nickname, being too small for Chelsea (and turning down Spurs!), and why the Gunners ARE heading in the ‘right direction’ under ‘amazing’ Mikel Arteta

  • Emile Smith Rowe has been a shining light for Arsenal in a difficult campaign
  • The 20-year-old was named Man of the Match against bitter rivals Tottenham
  • Smith Rowe, nicknamed ‘Croydon De Bruyne, has been rewarded for fine form
  • The attacking midfielder earned his first call-up to the England Under 21 squad
  • Sportsmail’s Jamie Redknapp caught up with Smith Rowe about his rapid rise 

You’ll have heard the nickname. Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler delights in dropping it in during games and it’s been trending on social media. 

Emile Smith Rowe cannot escape it either, as he explains to Sportsmail’s Jamie Redknapp at the start of their hour-long chat. Kieran Gill listened in.

REDKNAPP: Hi Emile. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat. First, tell me about the nickname!

SMITH ROWE: I hear it at the training ground every day. There’s always one player that’s shouting it to me. Sometimes it’s ‘Kevin’. Sometimes it’s ‘Croydon De Bruyne’. I’m taking anything at the moment, to be fair. When you get compared to a player like that, what can I say?

Emile Smith Rowe has enjoyed a brilliant breakthrough season at Arsenal under Mikel Arteta

Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka have been the shining lights for Arsenal in a difficult season

Sportsmail’s Jamie Redknapp caught up with Smith Rowe about his breakthrough season

REDKNAPP: Exactly. I’d happily take that. Do you know what my nickname was? For my first few years at Liverpool, Ronnie Moran used to call me ‘Harry’.

‘Oi, Hazza, Hazza!’ It used to drive me mad. No offence to my old man, but I’d much rather have been getting compared to someone like De Bruyne! Now, it’s days after the north London derby in which you were man of the match. You must feel on top of the world right now.

SMITH ROWE: I’m buzzing. As an Arsenal supporter you dream of playing in the north London derby and that was my first. I was unlucky not to get that goal. I rolled my foot over the ball then had a go. When the ball hit the crossbar, if you watch it back, I’d started celebrating. Oh mate, I thought I’d scored. Next one, though. Next one I’m going to score.

REDKNAPP: Hopefully next time you’ll have 60,000-odd watching you do your thing, too. The lack of supporters aside, was the north London derby everything you hoped it would be?

Smith Rowe has earned comparisons to Manchester City playmaker Kevin De Bruyne

Smith Rowe is set to play a vital role in Arsenal’s future after a difficult few seasons for the club

SMITH ROWE: Definitely. You see these players on the pitch and it doesn’t feel like reality. It’s the first time I’m playing against Harry Kane, against Gareth Bale. At one point, Bale is marking me for a corner and I’m thinking, ‘This is crazy’. Growing up watching the north London derby, it’s the biggest game of Arsenal’s season. So to start, win and get man of the match — I got home and couldn’t believe it.

My Dad’s a Tottenham fan. My brother’s an Arsenal fan, thankfully, so I followed him! When I got home, I had a joke with my Dad, but obviously he was buzzing for me.

REDKNAPP: I heard a rumour that Tottenham tried to get you as a kid before Arsenal tied you down to scholarship terms, didn’t they? Just think: you could’ve been wearing a white shirt instead of red last weekend!

SMITH ROWE: Yeah. I grew up in an area that should be more Crystal Palace than anything else, but I was an Arsenal fan. I trialled at Chelsea and didn’t get in. Something about me not being big enough, I’ve heard. But Arsenal found out and picked me up. They were flexible, too. They knew I lived far away and told me to come in when I could. Tottenham showed interest but I stood by Arsenal. They’re my club.

REDKNAPP: You played like a big team against Tottenham. That’s the way a club like Arsenal should be playing. You and Kieran Tierney owned that left-hand side in particular.

SMITH ROWE: We’re definitely going in the right direction. With the team we’ve got, I feel like we’re destined for great things. Honestly, I don’t think people realise how good Bukayo Saka is, for example. He’s one of the best players I’ve ever played with.

The manager’s tactics are amazing, too. It’s the little details. He’ll tell us how certain moments will go down, how the opposition will react to certain movements we make, and it’ll happen, exactly as he said it. When you see little things like that work, it makes you realise how experienced he is, and how much of a top manager he really is.

Smith Rowe was named Man of the Match in Arsenal’s 2-1 victory over bitter rivals Tottenham

Smith Rowe with his England Under 17 World Cup winning medal at half-time of Arsenal’s 2-0 victory over Tottenham in November 2017

Smith Rowe, 20, was 10 years old when he joined Arsenal’s academy and, asked who his childhood hero was, the midfielder cannot name only one. He names the four players who formed the front end of that Invincibles side of 2003-04.

SMITH ROWE: Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg. Watching them, the way they’d score, unbelievable. Was that the hardest team you played against, Jamie?

REDKNAPP: By far. The Manchester United team was a great one, obviously, but when you were stood in the tunnel next to the Invincibles, it was: ‘OK, how do you want it? Do you want a football match or do you want a war?’ They could do both.

The day they clinched the title at White Hart Lane in 2004, they went into it knowing a draw would be enough to crown them champions. I’m in the Tottenham team and we’re 2-0 down at half-time. We’re praying it doesn’t end up 5-0. But I score and we somehow scrape a 2-2 draw. They had some special players.

You mentioned Pires there. He was a right-footer playing on the left wing, cutting inside and working wonders. That was your role last weekend. If you’re picking the Arsenal team tomorrow, where do you play yourself? What’s your favourite position?

SMITH ROWE: I see myself as a No 10, on the inside. But at the same time, because of the way we play at Arsenal, if I am on the wing then the manager is telling me to drift inside and be natural like a No 10 anyway. I’m happy to play anywhere, you know? I’m an Arsenal fan. I’ll play wherever I’m needed and it’s good to be versatile.

It’s a habit for me to come inside if I’m on the left wing. That’s also good for KT (Tierney) because he can then get high and wide. We tried to get the ball down there as much as we could against Tottenham. Me and KT have such a good bond. We worked on it in training and were both buzzing after the game. KT is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet but at the same time, he’s such a warrior. He’s a player who’s got everyone’s back and always wants to win.

Smith Rowe admitted he had four childhood heroes – Arsenal Invincibles Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg

REDKNAPP: I asked your old Arsenal coach Ljungberg about you the other day and he couldn’t praise you enough, especially for your attitude in training. At your age it’s easy to doubt yourself. You’re suddenly going up against guys you’re used to seeing on TV! But when you’re winning man of the match against Tottenham, does that make you believe you belong?

SMITH ROWE: Definitely. When you’ve got confidence, it shows. With me and Bukayo, the experienced players are helping us so much. We’re expressing ourselves and that’s down to the experienced players. I never thought, after one game against Chelsea (a 3-1 win in December 2020), that I’d be starting consecutive Premier League games and becoming important to the team. It was definitely a surprise but I always believed in myself to make this dream come true.

REDKNAPP: When I got into the Liverpool team, we were in a transitional period, with midfield players picking up injuries and coming to the end of their time. I got thrown in. It felt like sink or swim but I was so grateful to get my chance. Maybe the fact that Arsenal have been going through their own transition benefitted you? Sometimes you need that little bit of luck to get your shot.

SMITH ROWE: One hundred per cent. That happened to me. We weren’t getting great results and I think the manager thought, ‘Why not?’ I’d been playing well in the Europa League and luckily got my chance. We ended up beating Chelsea that day and I haven’t looked back.

Smith Rowe announced himself on the scene with a starring role against Chelsea in December

Smith Rowe joined RB Leipzig on loan in January 2019. ‘I’m not scared to step out of my comfort zone,’ he says, looking back on that move to a new country. ‘My German’s still not great, mind, despite having lessons twice a week.’ A niggling growing pain in the groin held Smith Rowe back during that spell abroad.

In January 2020, once fully fit, he joined Huddersfield Town on loan. There he appeared 19 times in the Championship under the Cowley brothers, helping the club beat the drop. Now a Premier League regular with Arsenal, Smith Rowe was called up to the England Under 21 squad for the first time this week.

SMITH ROWE: It’s always been a dream to play for my country. Getting this Under 21 call-up, I feel like it’s a massive achievement for me. It shows me how far I’ve come. For the future, I feel like I’m going to work hard to get that first-team call-up. There are so many other talents who are breaking through. There’s no reason why I can’t do that as well.

REDKNAPP: What takes your game to the next level? What will make Gareth Southgate say, ‘I can’t afford to leave this guy at home’ and select you for his senior squad?

SMITH ROWE: Goals. I need to start scoring. The best No 10s get goals and assists. I’m working on coming inside from the wing and getting my shot away. I’ve got coaches around me who are always willing to help after training. Unless we’ve got a game the next day, then they try to tell me not to do too much! But I know I can improve so much more.

REDKNAPP: The No 10 position is where the best players play. There’s no hiding place with that. In January, Arsenal signed Martin Odegaard on loan from Real Madrid. I don’t mind saying there were times in my career when I thought, ‘Why is my club signing that guy when they’ve got me?’ What did you think when you heard about Odegaard coming in? Competition is a part of football. From the outside, it looks to me like you’ve backed yourself and taken it in your stride.

SMITH ROWE: I’ve been in this situation before. At Huddersfield, Andy King came in after me and I feel like I handled it well. We’re all in the same team. We play with and for each other. I stay positive. I just try to focus on myself, play my own game and when I get my opportunity, take it. Luckily I feel like that’s worked. We can play together, too, like we did against Tottenham.

Smith Rowe (pictured here playing for England’s Under 17s) earned his first call-up to the U21s squad this week

REDKNAPP: Looking back, did that Huddersfield loan turn you from a boy to a man?

SMITH ROWE: That was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. Honestly. Stepping into Championship football and learning how the league was, how physical it was. I mainly played at No 10. Arsenal wanted me to get experience in that position. I had to find time on the ball and I knew when someone was coming to get it off me, they’d come straight through me! But I enjoyed it.

When I was in the Arsenal academy, Alex Iwobi was breaking through. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, too. You look up to those guys and think that if you work hard, you’ll get your chance, too. Seeing that was the best thing for me. It was always my dream to break through with Arsenal.

REDKNAPP: Now you have! Who’s the best player you’d say you’ve played against?

SMITH ROWE: Paul Pogba is definitely up there. So strong, so technically good. Jack Grealish, too. He’s so good, man. I look up to him. The way he is with the ball. The way he scores, assists and creates, he’s so good. Bukayo tells me he’s a great guy, too.

REDKNAPP: Speaking about Grealish, talk to me about this superstition I’ve heard you have — how you like to wear your socks low down because it makes you feel as if the shackles are off.

SMITH ROWE: It gives me that extra freedom, that openness. It’s like, ‘I’m here. I just want to play my own game and be free’. That’s my little superstition. It helps me.

REDKNAPP: It’s been an absolute pleasure, Emile. My son, Beau, loves watching you and was buzzing when I told him I was doing this! The best piece of advice I can give you is this: enjoy it.

I sometimes look back on my career and wish I’d stopped to enjoy it more. I’d get nervous, stuck inside my own head, fixated on the consequences and constantly worrying about what people thought of me. But just keep doing what you’re doing and enjoy the ride.

SMITH ROWE: I definitely will.

The 20-year-old named Man United’s Paul Pogba as one of the best players he has ever faced

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