Emile Smith Rowe has shown why he is regarded as one of Arsenal's best young prospects this season. The 18-year-old attacking midfielder tells Sky Sports about living the dream with his boyhood club, building confidence one step at a time and his gratitude to Unai Emery.
"I've said the word too much, I think, but it's surreal," Emile Smith Rowe tells Sky Sports with a laugh. The academy graduate, an Arsenal player since the age of nine, is describing a recent moment when he found himself looking around the first-team dressing room at the Emirates Stadium to see Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on one side and Mesut Ozil on the other.
"I'm just sitting there thinking, 'What is going on?' I look up to these players so much. To get a chance to be in the same dressing room as them - let alone on the same pitch - is unbelievable. I still feel like I'm in a dream."
It is hardly surprising that he is still coming to terms with it all.
Smith Rowe was expecting to stay with Freddie Ljungberg's U23s when he reported for pre-season in July. Instead, he was told there was a place for him on the first-team's tour of Singapore. Two days before his 18th birthday, he scored a stunning individual goal against Atletico Madrid. On the day itself, he impressed again in a 5-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain.
He has not looked back since.
Smith Rowe signed a new long-term contract at the end of July and now he is becoming a fixture in Arsenal's senior squad. His goal in the recent Europa League win over Vorskla Poltava was his third in six competitive appearances. Unai Emery has described him as an "example" for Arsenal's other young players and the excitement around his potential is growing.
"I was shocked that I even went away with the first-team in pre-season, so to get the chances that the manager has given me has just been great," he says. "It's a bit surreal to think about the players he has worked with. Now he's there giving me advice. I'm grateful for what he has done for me. All I can do is just play really well for him and show him how good I am."
Smith Rowe is certainly succeeding on that front. He is yet to make his Premier League bow but his performances in the cup competitions suggest he won't have to wait long. Emery has been struck by his humility, the speed at which he grasps tactical instructions and, most importantly, the skill and composure which have helped him look so comfortable at senior level.
The new manager has had a transformative impact at Arsenal - their unbeaten run could stretch to 22 games against Qarabag on Thursday - and Smith Rowe, who is currently nursing a minor hip injury he picked up on England U19s duty, has been one of the main beneficiaries of his meticulous, hands-on approach to coaching.
"We had conversations at the beginning about what positions I like to play and what my attributes are," says Smith Rowe. "Since then he has been giving me a lot of help and advice."
Specifically, the youngster has been encouraged to get into the box more often and there has also been a focus on beating defenders. It is no coincidence, then, that he is averaging a goal every 134 minutes and ranks as one of Arsenal's most statistically-successful dribblers.
"The manager has done one-to-one stuff with me a few times after training, working on one-v-one attacking and just being patient. The assistant manager [Juan Carlos Carcedo] has been helping me a lot too with turning on the ball when I play in the No 10 position. It's good to get that help on the pitch, so I can actually practise it, instead of in the classroom. But even in the classroom they have both had one-on-ones with me which I've found really useful."
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Smith Rowe only trained with the first-team on a few occasions under Arsene Wenger but he is relishing his education under Emery - another manager with a reputation for promoting youth. The Spaniard is demanding of his players and his high standards extend to Arsenal's youngsters, but it's a way of working that Smith Rowe enjoys.
"He's very passionate and very detailed as well," he says. "He wants it how he wants it. He's not going to pull back, he's just going to keep trying and keep getting what he wants. I think that's good for the whole team. He does speak a lot in Spanish when he gets a bit angry, but it's good that he's so passionate. He wants to win and he wants to improve."
Emery is not the only one who has welcomed Smith Rowe into the first-team fold. He thanks Danny Welbeck for taking him under his wing when he first made the step up and describes Ozil as a "funny guy" who he "looks up to a lot". There has also been invaluable advice from established academy graduates Alex Iwobi and Hector Bellerin.
"It's hard to pick anyone out now because they are all helping me, but it's good speaking to Hector and Alex because they have been through it, they have been in my position. They just tell me to be confident. They say, 'You're obviously here for a reason, so be brave. When you make mistakes, don't worry about it because you will get another chance.'"
You wouldn't guess it to watch him now, but confidence is not something that has always come naturally to Smith Rowe. His ability was obvious from an early age growing up in Croydon - he was only five years old when he was first identified in a gifted and talented player search by Fulham - but he was also shy and, being a summer baby, physically behind other boys in his age group.
It was one of the reasons why, at the age of nine, Chelsea declined to sign him following a trial which dragged on for six weeks. Sensing their reluctance to commit, Smith Rowe's father, Les, eventually decided to pull him out of the process as it was interfering with his Sunday league commitments in south London. Enjoyment was still the priority at the time.
"I didn't really take it seriously at the start," Smith Rowe says. "My dad used to tell me I could be a footballer but I told him I didn't want to be. I did love playing football, but I didn't have confidence. I didn't think I would make it.
"I wasn't the biggest or the strongest but my dad told me it wasn't just about physicality. He said I had to think of other sides of the game, to find ways around it by passing and taking people on. A few weeks later I went to Arsenal and they obviously liked what they saw."
Smith Rowe got his chance at Arsenal thanks to a recommendation from the parent of one of the boys he played with at Chelsea. It was too good an opportunity to turn down, but the journey from Croydon to Arsenal's academy in Walthamstow posed logistical challenges.
"I would finish school, then my mum or dad would have to pick me up and I'd have to get changed from my uniform into my training kit in the car," he says. "It would take an hour and a half or even longer some days because of the traffic. I just remember on my first day, saying, 'Mum, I'm so tired, I feel sick, I don't want to train today.'"
Fortunately, Arsenal's academy coaching staff were understanding. They recognised Smith Rowe's potential and also saw the need to be patient with his physical development. They told his parents to bring him up when they could, easing the strain on the family and allowing him to continue playing school football at the same time as training with Arsenal.
Those were the circumstances in which they signed him, but a few years later his family relocated from south to north London. Smith Rowe was able to commit to Arsenal fully and it was around that time that he began to feel more confidence in his ability.
"Going through the age groups, it wasn't until I was 13 or 14 that I started to think, 'Come on, you can actually make a career out of this,'" he says. "Even in the U12s, U13s, my coaches used to tell me I needed to be more confident because I was very quiet. I didn't really speak to anyone at the training ground and I didn't really talk on the pitch."
As Smith Rowe's confidence gradually increased, however, so too did his desire to improve. With a view to boosting his speed, acceleration and stamina, he even attended specialist training programmes with Team GB sprint coaches Jonas Dodoo and Marvin Rowe at the Lee Valley athletics centre in Edmonton. It is a testament to his work ethic that he still attends those sessions every summer.
Smith Rowe was playing up an age group by the time he turned 15, and by 16 it was becoming clear that he had a big future ahead of him. The youngster had developed physically, becoming the powerful runner he is today and attracting interest from a host of top clubs including Chelsea, Tottenham, PSV Eindhoven and even Barcelona.
"I used to watch that Barcelona team, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, when they were in their prime," he says. "So when I found out that they were interested of course I was very happy, but I can't explain to you how much I feel that Arsenal is the right club for me."
Smith Rowe's love for Arsenal is obvious when he talks about watching the recent 4-2 win over Tottenham in the north London derby. "I was watching alone at home because of my injury but I was just screaming when Arsenal were scoring," he says, laughing again. "It made me so proud to watch a game like that and feel part of the club."
The same enthusiasm is there when he reflects on his first goal, in the 3-0 win over Qarabag in October. "I just couldn't believe it," he says. "I was thinking for all the ways it could be ruled out. Is this real? Is the referee going to allow it? So much stuff was going through my head but when I saw the players running over to me it made me so happy."
Moments such as those, as well as some one-on-one sessions with one of the club's psychologists, have helped him to further enhance his confidence in recent months.
"I always get nervous before games and I think that will probably stay with me for a long time because I've had it from a young age," he says. "Most players say they are not really aware of the crowd when they are out there but for me personally, I still feel it. I've been getting stronger, though. Now I feel proper confident when I get on the ball."
I was just screaming when Arsenal were scoring. It made me so proud to watch a game like that and feel part of the club.
There have been opportunities to show it with England's youth teams, too. Smith Rowe was part of the U17 squad that won the World Cup in India last year - "one of my best achievements, definitely" - and dreams of following Jadon Sancho's footsteps into the senior side. Before that, though, he is focused on earning a Premier League debut with Arsenal.
"That's my main goal at the moment," he says. "Just getting that first appearance behind me and hopefully going on from there and starting games."
It will be another milestone in a dizzying rise, but there is little chance of Smith Rowe getting carried away. The youngster still lives with his parents, and his grounded personality is another reason why he is so highly-rated - and so well-liked - by Emery and everyone at Arsenal.
"Obviously a lot has changed recently but in myself I don't feel any different," he says. "I've met a lot of big-headed people and I really don't want to be like that. My family have helped me to stay humble and keep my feet on the ground. Even when I've started scoring goals for Arsenal, even when I've been noticed in the street, it hasn't gone to my head.
"This season has been great so far but I'm still young and I will make mistakes. When I step out onto the pitch, I still feel like I have everything to prove to everyone. Hopefully I'll be able to do that."
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