2Arsenal have been a pillar in the local community for decades.
Whether it’s sport, social or educational programmes, the club’s Community Hub serves as a host to a range of programmes which directly impact those in the local area who need the most help.
The North London side have long been associated with culture, but community is just as important to the club's principles. As a club situated in the heart of inner-city London, there is both a cultural and social responsibility which Arsenal seeks to address in equal measure.
On Thursday, December 7, Arsenal's Community Hub opened its doors to over 100 participants and held a number of sessions with some of the most vulnerable members of their local community.
North London United, a sports charity for young people aged between 5 - 25 years old with Down Syndrome, were invited to take part in specially suited football sessions. Year 8 and 9 students from St Aloysius College showed up in as jovial a mood as ever, as part of their eight-week Young Gunners programme with the club. The Arsenal Bowls Programme has been running since Arsenal in the Community was first formed in 1985, and continued their engagement with older people from the local area on the day.
For Arsenal, the message is clear: their community work serves as a bridge between the football club and the people. When the pitch is silent in between match days and during the summer, the Community Hub is always ready to listen and give back in any way it can. Even during the pandemic, when football came to a complete standstill and social and cultural issues in the area worsened, Arsenal worked tirelessly to bring supporters closer to the club.
Very few players epitomise this link between the team and the community better than Emile Smith Rowe. Not just as a graduate from the Hale End academy, but as someone who uses whatever time he has to reach back out to the community who built him to be Arsenal’s No.10. Growing up in Thornton Heath, Smith Rowe understands the pressures and stark realities that countless young people across the capital are faced with. As someone who can see a version of himself in those he helps, he feels duty-bound to repay the faith shown in him both on and off the pitch.
His parents have been involved in community work for as long as he can remember, too, and their desire to uplift those around them is something Smith Rowe wants to emulate. His father, Leslie Rowe, has worked extensively with Islington Council’s foster care service over the years, and the significance of seeing his parents help those less fortunate than him has had a profound effect on the 23-year-old.
At a time when his peers might’ve been idolising the Mesut Ozils and Dennis Bergkamps of this world, Smith Rowe admired a completely different kind of selflessness - from his dad. A player adored by Arsenal fans, who is serenaded at the Emirates, receives more adulation than anyone can hope for, Smith Rowe still wants people to think of him as they think of his father - a man of the community.
It’s not just about serving the community that uplifts you as a young baller. For ESR, it’s deeper than that. It’s about being present for future, past and current generations regardless of who you are and what status you hold. VERSUS spoke with him at the Community Hub event to discuss the importance of community, togetherness, role models and what inspires him to give back in the way he does.
VERSUS: What is it about supporting your local community that’s so important to you?
Emile Smith Rowe: For me, it’s just about giving back. My parents have always taught me from a young age to give back when you can. It’s hard being a footballer, you don’t always get the time to come back to these places. Both my parents work with kids so it’s always been instilled in me as something to think about. I’m really happy to be here. It’s always nice to come and see the kids, especially.
How much of an impact has your dad had on your desire to give back?
He’s had a massive impact on my desire to give back! He was my inspiration as a kid. I always looked up to him and wanted to follow in his footsteps. I think it’s very important that I give back and try to emulate what he’s done – I just really think it is vital and I always have a special place in my heart for doing stuff like this, it’s important to who I am as a person.
How important is it for these kids to see you here, as well as on the pitch?
They see us as role models, and to be honest, sometimes even as superheroes. But to us, we don’t really see that. We’re just trying to be as good as we can on and off the pitch. It’s an amazing feeling. I’m just so honoured to be a part of something like this, and I just want to carry on giving back and making these kids smile. That’s important for me, just as much as it is to the other players here as well.
What have you learned from doing these events?
I think seeing the reaction and the impact that it has. We’re just trying to improve the community and get as many people involved in stuff like this as possible. As a footballer, I just want to make a huge difference. It’s really important for us that we try and use our platforms to create positive change where possible.
How much do you enjoy doing this?
We really enjoy doing this stuff, man! There’s nothing better. Looking at our really busy schedules, it’s so hard to get time off like this. So I think when we do eventually get days to do work like this, we need to just take it all in and enjoy it as much as we can – it’s one of the best parts of the job. It’s not even about trying, I think it’s just natural for us. We always want to make the kids smile, make our families proud and stuff like that. So that’s really important.
What did you look for in a role model, and how do you try to be the role model you wanted?
Looking up to my dad, seeing how much people love him and love being around him, that was just something I wanted to be like. I wanted people to look at me and think I’m a nice person, always wanting to give back and stuff like that, you know? Knowing my dad has been doing this for so long, it just hits closer to home. So it makes me a lot more proud as well.
But, of course, it’s not easy. You have to try and balance everything out. But as much ‘stuff’ as we have, I think it’s always important to do things like this. I’m injured at the moment, so it’s quite tough, but coming in here today really put a big smile on my face. Seeing all the kids smiles, just makes me feel so much better in myself and my role as a footballer.
Tell me about the importance of togetherness of this event and for the team.
Events like this definitely improves team bonding and the togetherness on and off the pitch. We’ve got such busy schedules so it’s quite hard for us to see each other outside of the training ground or matches. But being a part of work like this, it just helps us get to know each other a bit more, have a bit of banter, mess around with the kids and have a really fun day out.
I love being down here.