IN DECEMBER 2018 – two months after making his senior club debut – Emile Smith Rowe paid a visit to Arsenal’s community centre.
It was Christmas Day, and the fresh-faced 18-year-old spent time with young care leavers from North London.
Twelve months later, he took two hours out of his Christmas celebrations to go on Zoom to show his support for the same project.
It has become an annual tradition for Smith Rowe, now 23. Every year since, he has given up time over the festive period to support the club’s community base ‘The Arsenal Hub’.
From taking part in training sessions with kids and student coaches, to watching walking football games for those with Parkinson’s and visiting local hospitals with his teammates.
These are the sorts of unseen acts that make Smith Rowe such a loved and respected member of the Gunners squad both on and off the pitch. Community, to him, is everything.
It is why, with questions marks around his future as he fights to feature in Mikel Arteta’s short-term and long-term plans, there are those that are desperate for Smith Rowe to rediscover his golden touch.
The future looked bright in July 2021 when a breakthrough season of two goals and four assists in 20 Premier League appearances earned Smith Rowe a new five-year deal.
He proved his worth in the 2021-22 campaign, notching ten Prem goals – the first Hale End Academy graduate to do so since club legend Cesc Fabregas in 2010.
That season was captured in high definition in Amazon’s All or Nothing documentary. Granit Xhaka was heard telling Smith Rowe: “You’re the future, man. I felt it from the first day”.
But that is where the problems began. Groin surgery scuppered the first half of his 2022-23 season.
When he finally returned in January 2023, with Arsenal and Arteta gunning for the title, Smith Rowe failed to start a single first team match.
There were mitigating factors. Leandro Trossard’s January arrival was one, and the fact Arsenal were out of all three cup competitions by that point was another.
In the summer of 2023, there were no talks of Smith Rowe leaving, with Arteta desperate to get the player back to his high-pressing, mazy-dribbling, goal-getting heights.
However, this season has only added to the growing concerns that Smith Rowe – part of this club since he was nine-years-old – may need to look elsewhere for regular first team football.
He has played just 116 minutes of Prem football so far this term, coming off the bench and starting just the once.
He was an unused substitute in Arsenal’s first five league games of the season, and after his one and only start at home to Sheffield United, he picked up a knee injury that saw him miss the next six Prem outings.
Smith Rowe insists his body is ready for the top flight’s physical demands, but Arteta’s actions say otherwise. The trust that was there a few years ago is perhaps missing.
It could be said that Smith Rowe thrived in the chaos of Arteta’s early few years in charge, searching for a winning formula with a team that he did not feel was entirely his own.
Smith Rowe is an off-the-cuff sort of player, producing brilliance out of nowhere, wriggling out of small spaces and drifting into others, always doing something special with ball at feet.
You’re the future man. I felt it from the first day
Granit Xhaka to Emile Smith Rowe
It is arguably just what Arsenal need right now, struggling to finish off chances and in a rut of one win in their last seven games in all competitions.
However, Arteta has tweaked his style this season, becoming more regimented, pragmatic, relying far more on patterns of play to get over the line in games.
This is the dilemma Arteta has right now. Winning is key, and owing to Financial Fair Play concerns, the club need to sell before they can buy this window.
However, finding a place for Smith Rowe will be on the Spaniard’s mind just as much – a young man who has the club in his heart more than most.
Smith Rowe is quiet, respectful and polite around the training ground, and you will most likely find him with his Hale End pals Bukayo Saka and Eddie Nketiah.
Before Arsenal’s 1-0 over Manchester City back in October, club legend and former Head of Youth Development Liam Brady was seen embracing him on the side of the pitch.
His rise through the ranks at the Emirates has made him one of several role models for other academy hopefuls to look up to.
Smith Rowe has always been a mature head on young shoulders, owing to playing football with his brother, who is seven years older, and his friends in the park behind their house.
He explained: “They were definitely influential for me. We played football together and you look at how they behave, even the things they wore.
“You might not even realise it at the time but you need people to look up to who are setting a good example. I wanted to be just like my brother when I was growing up.”
Smith Rowe added: “[The community work] comes from my parents. Both of them work with kids and for me it’s really important to give something back whenever you can.
“I want to follow in my parents’ footsteps in that respect. My dad was my idol growing up. Christmas is a big time of year for children and if I can help with that, then I want to do it.
“They see us as role models, and to be honest, sometimes even as superheroes. Kids need to see that there are similar people from similar backgrounds who are on the right pathway.
“Everyone needs to get that first chance.”
Indeed, Smith Rowe also wants a chance to earn back his place under Arteta – he is a young player confident in his own ability, not ready to give up his Arsenal ambitions.
Smith Rowe said: “Training right now is really intense. It has got to be like that to keep pushing every day and to keep improving. The manager demands that.
“I love that side of it. Everybody has to prove they can play so it means every session you have to be at your best. It is a great environment to be in.”