It was not that Arsenal did not tell Emile Smith Rowe to eat properly, to hydrate correctly, to be professional at all times. It was just that, in his words, he “didn’t really listen … I was a bit too lazy”.
To chart Smith Rowe’s rise to the point where he has received his first England call-up for the World Cup qualifiers against Albania on Friday and San Marino next Monday, it is easy to zero in on the electric progress he has made since Boxing Day.
The 21-year-old attacking midfielder was not supposed to start against Chelsea that day but the Arsenal manager, Mikel Arteta, contending with illness in his squad, turned to him a couple of hours before kick-off. Arsenal had taken five points from their previous 10 league games and Smith Rowe was in as the No 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 in his club’s rise to fifth, scoring four goals, including one in each of the past three league matches, and adding two assists.
The numbers have advanced his case but scratch a little deeper and it has been a change to his lifestyle that has supplied the marginal gains. “I didn’t used to eat that well,” he says. “I wasn’t drinking that well. Before games, I wasn’t really that hydrated. I’ve tried now to focus so much on it.
“Arsenal are strict but I didn’t really listen, to be honest. I think that’s where I went wrong. Now I’m listening all the time.”
What was his guilty pleasure? “Chocolate … I like Nando’s a lot – maybe that’s killing me a little bit,” he says, with a smile. “I’ve tried to cut out chocolate and takeaways as much as I can.
“The club have sorted me out with a chef. His name is Chris and he comes to my house every day. I live with my mum and she normally cooks but she doesn’t have to any more. Chris cooks for me and her.
“With hydration, there’s loads of stuff we should be taking before a game and, yeah, before I was a bit too lazy.”
There was an irony in Smith Rowe’s top-level breakthrough having come against Chelsea because, when he was “seven or eight” he was turned down by their academy after a trial.
“I went in for about three or four weeks but, at the time, I was quite small, really skinny and just kept getting pushed off the ball,” he says. “I wasn’t getting involved and touching the ball enough. That’s what it felt like, why I didn’t get in.”
Smith Rowe remembers that Tottenham wanted him when he was “15 or 16” but, as an Arsenal fan, there was never any interest in that. He had joined Arsenal at 10 and he was determined to make the grade at his club.
Smith Rowe grew up south of the river in Thornton Heath but he followed Arsenal because it was what his older brother did and he remembers being drawn in by 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 inside stadiums but Smith Rowe says that “definitely helped” him. “I’m always really nervous before the game. And not having that pressure of everyone shouting, that helped me a lot.”
Have his nerves affected his development? “Yeah, maybe just before I went on loan to RB Leipzig [in January 2019],” he says. “I’m OK now. I’m always just really nervous before a game.
“It’s mainly in the changing room – that’s when I’m most nervous. I have spoken to some players and they say the same as well. Maybe it helps, maybe it’s a good thing.”
Smith Rowe is asked whether he has sought help to steady himself – hypnotherapy, perhaps? “Nothing yet. It’s something I may look into.”
He is engaging company, open and honest. His loan at Leipzig was blighted by growing pains – he played 26 minutes in three substitute appearances – and he admits that he questioned whether he would make it. “It was tough but it definitely made me more of a man.”
Smith Rowe would have a better loan at Huddersfield in the Championship the following January and now he can dream of an England debut, possibly alongside Phil Foden – his roommate from the squad that won the Under-17 World Cup in 2017.
“We were looking at the photos earlier from the under-17 days, laughing at our haircuts,” Smith Rowe says. “Watching the other boys and seeing what they were doing always gave me that extra motivation.”