Words: James Bird
Images: Arsenal and Well Offside
Emile Smith Rowe is sat in a barber’s chair at JNF Haircutters on Mountgrove Road, a long, terraced street that connects Green Lanes and Blackstock Road. It smells nice in here, that fresh trim smell of optimism, and amongst the coloured clippers, half-filled spray bottles, and mirrors is a load of Arsenal memorabilia. There are framed pictures of Highbury and trophies being lifted, a red and white silk pennant, a couple of old programmes. The sky is dark and very October, the pavement wet and busy, and every thirty seconds another kid or mum, dad or grandpa, sister or grandma, walk past and go “Oooooooooh, it’s Emile Smith Rowe!”. He sits up and beams.
We’re sat in JNF Haircutters as part of Arsenal’s Supporting Supporters campaign: a series of partnerships between the club, players, and local businesses intended to increase their visibility after a tough couple of years. It’s genuine and good. There was Aubameyang turning up to Autoparts, a family business that has been on Holloway Road for 48 years, Rob Holding grabbing a pint in The Tollington, and now ESR at JNF—a hairdressers originally opened in 1983 by Chris Patsalou and currently run by his son Jimmy. Patsalou Jnr is a lifelong Arsenal fan and was a mascot for the club when they played Wimbledon in 1991. The photo of him with then captain Tony Adams is proud and bold on the wall.
A Croydon boy, Emile says that he knows the importance that independent businesses like Jimmy’s have on making London an interesting place to live. The social space that places like barbers and pubs provide for the city’s patchwork of communities is irreplaceable, and Emile draws parallels between the people who come in here for a chat and him and his mates going to Morleys after school every single day, even if they didn’t have any dinner money left over to get anything. And with that understanding, initiatives like the Arsenal Supporting Supporters campaign is something he’s passionate about.
“I've been taught this type of thing from a young age from my mum and dad”, Emile tells me. “My dad works quite closely with Arsenal in the community as well. I’m grateful, you know? I’m just gonna keep doing what I’m doing because when we come to places like this, it feels extra special. Really, we know that everything we do is for the fans; we want to make them proud.”
If Arsenal is currently a team in transition, then Emile is a player moving forward both on and off the pitch. At the club since he was 10 years old, the new contract in the summer represented a reward for all the trips down the motorway to academy training, the late nights on coaches, and the six months at Huddersfield preparing himself fully for taking on the Premier League. And then came the number ten shirt. It’s a heavy shirt to wear at any club, but especially heavy when the distant scent of Denis Bergkamp, Robin van Persie, Paul Merson, Mesut Özil… and William Gallas is soaked deep into its fibres.
“It’s such an iconic number, and so many great players have worn it, not just at Arsenal but other clubs as well. But, it’s a challenge that I wanted to take on. I wanted to prove myself and prove that I was capable of wearing it, keep working hard, and hopefully, the fans can see that I’m worthy of wearing it.”
Talking about number tens, I bring up the idea that I feel like there’s been a change in the English game over the past decade or so. Whether it’s coaching, the increased accessibility of watching highlights reels on phones, or just a natural progression, more English midfielders were showcasing techniques that commentators on the telly might describe as European or continental. A technique that looks more fluid and smooth—half-turns done in a single curve rather than a series of steps. Wilshere had it. Foden has it. Grealish has it. Emile Smith Rowe has it. A ball comes in with his back to the goal anywhere on the pitch and, woosh, like a chef using the back of a knife to spread something delicious across the top of the plate, he’s smoothed you out, broke the midfield line, and is looking for Saka or Pepe to blitz the defence.
“I just try to do everything as quick as possible,” Emile says as another couple of school kids walk past the hairdressers with their eyes wide. “I try to know what I'm doing before I do it, try to know where I'm going to pass it even before I have the ball. It quickens up the game, creates chance, and makes things easier for my teammates. I like to get it on the half-turn, take it on the back foot, and then dribble with my stronger foot.”
Part of this ability to do everything quickly, and to swivel tightly like a closed compass before opening up to extend out across the page, comes from where he learnt to play the game. The family house in Croydon was ideally placed. “There’s a cage behind my house, literally right behind my house. I could jump over my garden fence, then over the little river thing in between, and then straight into the cage. And then it was easy ‘cause I could just jump straight back over when my mum called me back in.”
He gives the Arsenal academy credit for sculpting, nurturing, and priming that technique, but there was another place he began to develop his understanding of the game. His front room. With his dad. Watching Barcelona. Showing him clips of Xavi and Iniesta whizzing around a pitch, little planets pulling and pushing away from each other, strange humans with a gravitational attraction, difficult to track and put on charts. Ronaldinho was his favourite, and Messi too. The best kind of homework, Emile still watches the game obsessively.
“I watch as much as I can, any game,” he tells me. “If there's a game on TV, I'm watching it. Like, I always want to learn. I always like watching it by myself as well, because I don't have to listen to everyone else's opinion. I just like focusing on it, on myself, like in silence, just watching football. It might seem boring, but I love it."
Looking up at the wall and seeing the photo of Tony Adams with a young Jimmy the shop owner, I start to think about one-club players. They seem like an analogue concept. Something that was only possible during a time before the internet made the world smaller and more accessible. Of course, players like Paul Scholes, Francesco Totti, Carles Puyol, Paolo Maldini had careers that crossed over into a digital age, but they still seem like players whose stats might be written down with a pencil.
The contract situation in the summer might have looked difficult from the outside, but Emile describes it as the easiest decision ever. He’s an Arsenal fan, through and through, and has spoken about being a one-club man before. He’s 20 years old, wearing number ten, and playing on a pitch in his hometown at an elite level with some of his best mates. His eyes light up when asked about being a one-club man.
“If Arsenal want me, I’m going to stay here forever. It’s always difficult, but for me personally, I'd love to be here forever.”
The sky turns even more October and our minutes are up. As I head out of the barbers, shake hands with Jimmy the owner and tell him good luck for the season, an old bloke with an Arsenal badge on his lapel walks past the front of the store. He looks in, sees Emile Smith Rowe sitting in a barber’s chair at JNF Haircutters on Mountgrove Road, and beams.
We spoke to Emile as part of Arsenal's Supporting Supporters Initiative. You can read more about that here, and if you're an Arsenal fan yourself, maybe you'd like MUNDIAL Magazine's Issue 14 cover feature on Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. You can get that here.
EMILE SMITH ROWE IS OBSESSED WITH FOOTBALL
Words: James Bird