A BASHFUL smile breaks out across Emile Smith Rowe’s face when SunSport quizzes him about his “Croydon De Bruyne” nickname.
It is a moniker several of his Arsenal colleagues fully embraced after his breakthrough display in December’s 3-1 win over Chelsea.
Left-back Kieran Tierney even refers to him as “Kevin”, despite boss Mikel Arteta preferring it just be Emile right now so as not to pile on the pressure.
But the fact the 20-year-old from London’s second most populous borough is already being likened to Manchester City’s chief playmaker tells its own story of his rapid progress.
Speaking exclusively to SunSport over Zoom, Smith Rowe said: “A couple of the boys always say it to me, which is obviously quite funny.
“It’s great. He’s someone I look up to who is an unbelievable player. It’s good to get a nickname like that.”
Smith Rowe, or “Ems” as his friends call him, is aware he has miles to go before justifying such a lofty comparison.
But when you consider how effortlessly he has taken to the Premier League this term, it is easy to see why fans and team-mates are seeing similarities.
His touch, awareness, grace and creativity are at times reminiscent of De Bruyne.
Some of the assists he has laid on this term, particularly for close pal Bukayo Saka, have made Mesut Ozil a distant memory in many Gooners’ minds.
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Yet while he may be earning comparisons to KDB, it is one of the City superstar’s young team-mates that he is particularly keen on emulating.
Phil Foden and Smith Rowe have been mates for years, rooming together on international duty through the England age groups and winning the Under-17 World Cup together in 2017.
Smith Rowe, who this week landed his first Under-21s call-up, said: “We got so close, we had so many England tournaments. We had a lot of banter together off the pitch.
“We used to play table tennis and be in the games room quite a lot with England at St George’s Park.
“Even in training, we used to stay behind and were always kicking a ball about after training finished.
“We’re the same age but of course I look up to him. He’s been doing so well over the last couple of seasons.
“I’m so happy for him. I know he’s going to get so much better.”
Another of Smith Rowe’s relationships which goes back further than you might think is with his manager.
Arteta took over as Gunners chief in December 2019.
But he was coaching Smith Rowe long before that, when working with Arsenal’s Under-16s while still club captain and undertaking his coaching badges.
His dad’s a Spurs fan
EMILE SMITH ROWE had extra motivation to put in his man-of-the-match display in last week’s North London derby – because his dad is a Tottenham fan!
Smith Rowe was hailed as “fantastic” by boss Mikel Arteta as he helped Arsenal to a 2-1 win over their arch-rivals last Sunday.
The whizkid, who Spurs tried to sign as a teenager, said: “It was probably the biggest game I’ve played in my career so far.
“My dad’s a Tottenham fan so to get the win was an unbelievable feeling.
“From an early age growing up, it was always the biggest game that you watched on TV.
“I can’t really put into words how I felt after the final whistle.
“When I’m playing my dad always wants me to win. But there was also that little feeling inside of me that wanted to message him after the game and have a bit of a joke!”
Smith Rowe recalled: “When you have a player like that helping you at a young age who is the captain of the first team, it’s unbelievable.
“To look back at it now, it’s crazy to think now he’s my manager in the first team.
“He was really vocal. When you’re young, you always want someone to dictate the sessions. He pulled me aside a couple of times and helped me with certain things.
“I was buzzing when he took over. All of us young players were so happy.
“For me, it was about getting ready to prove to him I could play.”
Smith Rowe has more than done that this term.
It is why he is likely to start Sunday's crunch clash against West Ham, which he sees as “must-win” in Arsenal’s unlikely bid to finish in the top four.
But a huge part of his journey has been his two loan spells which, on the face of it, have seemed underwhelming.
Smith Rowe was farmed out to Bundesliga side RB Leipzig at 18 but saw only 28 minutes of action due to a growth spurt issue which took months to identify.
While his bruising time last year at Huddersfield battling relegation in the Championship did not exactly set pulses racing among the Arsenal fanbase.
Yet Smith Rowe, who admitted to getting very nervous before games, said: “Leipzig was a really difficult period.
“It was such a learning experience for me: going to a new country, learning a new culture and language, didn’t know anyone, living by myself at 18.
“But it’s helped me become the player I am today and the person, especially. I don’t regret it at all.
“My German is not great, I’m not going to lie! I only know a few words. I always say a couple of words to the German players in the changing room and they’re always laughing at me!
“Huddersfield was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. It made me a lot stronger, physically and gave me so much more confidence with the games I played.
“Going there, fighting every week, we were quite low down the table, we had to fight every game to grind out results.
“There was a midfielder, Jonathan Hogg. A great guy, to be fair. I remember my first session, he was very strong in every tackle!
“I didn’t feel a lot of pressure when I came back to Arsenal. I feel like that was good for me because I’m definitely a player who needs the confidence.”
That lack of expectation seems to have allowed Smith Rowe to flourish this season back in the big league.
While his formative years have a symmetry with another former Gunner who has since won the Champions League with Bayern Munich.
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Serge Gnabry also suffered growing pains and struggled while playing on loan at West Brom under Tony Pulis, whose direct style has parallels to Danny Cowley’s approach Smith Rowe experienced with Huddersfield.
Smith Rowe added: “You can see how well he’s doing now and it just shows how you can come back from the setbacks you have.
“Everyone talks about him at Arsenal, how good he was. He’s definitely a player I look up to.”
Arsenal potentially have another world-class talent on their hands.
But unlike Gnabry, they will be desperate to ensure this Croydon boy stays right where he is in North London.
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