Smith Rowe's whirlwind year with Arsenal star set for England debut

Emile Smith Rowe’s whirlwind year: Emerging from nowhere to save Arsenal’s worst start to a season in decades, he became their new No 10… and now – on the verge of a first England cap – he could send his country to the World Cup tonight!

  • Arsenal star Emile Smith Rowe is on the verge of his first senior England cap
  • Gareth Southgate hinted he could play in both of England’s games this month
  • This week in 2020, Smith Rowe was playing at Gillingham for Arsenal’s U23s
  • Smith Rowe has undergone an incredible year for both club and country 

An England call-up was so unthinkable for Emile Smith Rowe that when Gareth Southgate phoned him up, the talented midfielder refused to believe it was him. 

‘I had a message from Gareth saying: “Hi Emile, are you free for a chat?”‘ he told the FA’s YouTube channel. ‘I’m thinking: “Someone’s just texting me trying to make a joke and pretend to be him.”‘

It was no joke, the England manager was getting ready to hand him his first senior call-up. But you cannot blame the 21-year-old for believing this was a prank given how unlikely this situation was a year ago.

Emile Smith Rowe (right) is set to make his England debut against either Albania or San Marino, and Gareth Southgate (left) hinted he could be used in both of this month’s qualifying ties

This time last year, only the most ardent of Arsenal fans knew that Smith Rowe was capable of making it this far. 

Southgate has confirmed that the youngster is set to play some part in one or both of England’s matches against Albania and San Marino this month, but a year ago this week, Smith Rowe was playing for Arsenal’s Under-23s team at Gillingham in the Papa John’s Trophy. 

Despite making his Gunners first-team debut three years ago under Unai Emery, injuries and a failed loan spell at RB Leipzig stalled Smith Rowe’s progress, with his career revived by another temporary spell at Huddersfield after the first coronavirus lockdown. 

While he had plenty of first-team football under his belt, Smith Rowe was put back in the Arsenal academy to earn his stripes once again. The club even provided the midfielder with a personal chef to help his diet, once filled with Nando’s and chocolate but now consisting of salmon and pasta. 

A year ago this week, Smith Rowe (left) was playing for Arsenal’s Under-23s team at Gillingham

And despite being a die-hard Gunners fan, it was actually the club’s failings on the pitch that reignited his career.

With Mikel Arteta’s side struggling in the league last Christmas – failing to win their last seven games in all competitions to sit near the bottom of the table – Smith Rowe was drafted into a do-or-die London derby with Chelsea on Boxing Day.  

With his first touch of the game, the youngster tracked back to tackle N’Golo Kante on the counter-attack, nutmegged the Frenchman on the half-way line before winning a free-kick off the World Cup winner. 

It was that positive play that sparked a mini-revival from Arteta’s side not only during that London derby – which resulted in a 3-1 win, with Smith Rowe assisting Saka for Arsenal’s third – but also in the second half of the season. 

Smith Rowe (right) was fast-tracked into Arsenal’s uninspired team on Boxing Day last season

Smith Rowe has been an ever-present and key figure for Mikel Arteta’s (right) Arsenal team

Smith Rowe fixed a creativity problem that saw the Gunners fail to find the net from open play in nine out of their last 10 league games, but then score in every game bar one for the next seven. 


Arsenal league games together: 30

League minutes together: 1948 

Wins together for Arsenal: 16

Defeats together for Arsenal: 8  

Saka goals via Smith Rowe assist: 3

Smith Rowe goals via Saka assists: 2 

His relationship with Arsenal and now England team-mate Saka is central to that. The pair combined once again in a 4-0 thrashing of West Brom with a wonderful team goal just two games later, showing how well the academy graduates – who have played together since they were teenagers – became pivotal to the Gunners’ attacking play.  

Yet another Smith Rowe assist for a Saka goal came in January of this year in a 3-0 win over Newcastle – that early connection is the main reason why Arsenal fans sing the academy duo’s names to Status Quo’s Rockin’ All Over the World (‘Here we go… Saka and Emile Smith Rowe).

In the final 23 Premier League games of last season, Smith Rowe started all but four of those games, while he also started every Europa League game from the last-16 second leg onwards as the Gunners reached the semi-finals. 

A personal highlight came in another London derby with Chelsea, with Smith Rowe scoring the winner at Stamford Bridge against the club that rejected him at academy level for being ‘too small’ before finding his way at Arsenal. 

But another key moment, especially with this week in mind, was his first call-up to the England Under-21s squad in March. Now Southgate was watching more intently. 

Smith Rowe told the FA media team this week: ‘When I came away with other age groups he (Southgate) was always there, watching me in training sometimes and he always said hello to me and asked me how I’m doing. Maybe (he saw something).’

Midfielder Smith Rowe earned his first England Under-21s call-up in March of this year

Smith Rowe has developed a strong bond with academy team-mate Bukayo Saka (right)

Southgate had reason to believe he was special – and so did Arsenal. With Aston Villa putting in several bids for Smith Rowe over the summer, the club needed to act. 

A long-term contract until 2026 came Smith Rowe’s way but an even bigger prize came with that – the Arsenal No 10 shirt. Worn by the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Robin van Persie and Mesut Ozil, it confirmed that the Croydon-born midfielder was a big part of Arsenal’s future.

Perhaps Jack Wilshere’s tenure of that No 10 shirt is a reminder that things may not go to plan for Smith Rowe, but if this season is anything to go by, that eventuality seems unlikely.

In July, Smith Rowe was handed a long-term contract by Arsenal – plus their iconic No 10 shirt

He has added goals to his game during the start of the season, with Saka now returning the favour by assisting his close friend from the academy twice in 2021.

But Saka was not on hand to set up Smith Rowe in the three goals the midfielder scored in three consecutive games for Arsenal before getting his England call-up. 

Only three players under the age of 21 have achieved that feat for Arsenal – fellow academy product Cesc Fabregas and established signings Nicolas Anelka and Jose Antonio Reyes. 

His recent form has led to plaudits from outside Arsenal. Jamie Carragher, who predicted Smith Rowe would be his young player of the year at the start of the campaign, described the 21-year-old as the ‘best player I see in the Premier League running with the ball’.

Smith Rowe is just the third Arsenal player under 21 to score in three straight league games

Smith Rowe (far left) has already won the U17 World Cup with England, back in 2017

‘Sometimes players just pop and you can’t help but like them,’ Carragher told Sky Sports in October. ‘When I see him move, it excites me. He’ll get England caps.’ 

Now, Smith Rowe is playing his role in an England squad desperate to win the World Cup next year, but it is worth remembering the Arsenal man has already won his trophy at youth level. 

Alongside the likes of Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho and Callum Hudson-Odoi, the midfielder was part of the Three Lions Under-17 World Cup-winning side in India back in 2017. 

Now Smith Rowe is set to join those youth team-mates in receiving an England senior cap for the first time. He could yet not only play a key part in getting the Three Lions to Qatar, but winning the World Cup there too.

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