Following Arsenal Women’s 0-0 draw away at Reading on Sunday, Tim Stillman spoke to Arsenal and England’s Leah Williamson about joining the Gunners age 9, her versatility, seeing her face on billboards across the capital and the appointment of Phil Neville as England Lionesses boss.
Leah Williamson is still only 20 years old, but she plays and speaks with the authority of someone much older. Leah broke into the Arsenal first team aged 17 and her talent was instantly recognisable. At 17, she helped the Gunners to win the FA Cup in her hometown of Milton Keynes. Aged 18, she won the PFA Young Player of the Year Award.
Shortly after her 18th birthday she was involved in a bizarre, yet high pressure incident playing for England U-19s. She incorrectly had a stoppage time penalty chalked off in a crunch Euro U-19s qualifier against Norway. UEFA made an unprecedented decision by ordering the 96th minute kick to be retaken 24 hours later. Score and England qualify, miss and they wouldn’t. Despite an entire day’s rumination over the high pressure kick, Leah converted.
Williamson grew up in an Arsenal supporting family and joined the club at the age of 9. “I was at Rushden & Diamonds centre of excellence from the age of 6,” she explains. “My coach at the time left to go to Arsenal. I went across with her and had a couple of trials and luckily they took me on and I never looked back from there. So I owe it all to my coach from when I was 9.”
Leah is a combative, physical player strong in interceptions and aerially, but with a high technical level. As such, she has flitted between central defence and central midfield for much of her career. She started this season in midfield, but has recently operated as a centre half again. Leah says she is open minded about which role she plays in the future.
“I’m not sure in the long term and I never want to shut the door on either position, because I know I can do both. But I’m enjoying playing as a centre back with the way we play. Under Joe [Montemurro] we want to play out from the back and that suits my qualities. At the minute I am enjoying playing at centre half, but I’m open minded about what the future holds.”
As we chat on the chilly January breeze, Leah insists the move back to a winter season in the WSL has not been an issue for the girls. But with 4, possibly 5 games on the horizon in February, she acknowledges that Arsenal will need to use the full extent of their sizeable squad in the coming weeks.
“Despite the cold, it’s fine with the girls if it increases participation and gets more people down to the games. It’s no secret that the fixtures get tough at this point of the season and we’ll have to use our squad. But that should give all of the girls an opportunity to play and we know everyone here has the quality to start. There aren’t really any weaknesses in our squad.”
Leah’s form has earned her long overdue international recognition, having been called into the Lionesses squad for the first time this season. Though she is yet to win her first official cap, she has relished the experience of being called up. “It’s been invaluable,” she beams. “Training with the best players in the country and that will only help me to get better.”
Williamson reflects that being called into the England squad has aided her development in more ways than one, “It’s a nice mix for me of learning from that level of player, but also putting myself up against them and trying to prove myself as a competitor. I really want to stay in the squad now and keep pushing on.”
The Lionesses have been in the news recently due to the shock appointment of Phil Neville as Head Coach. Neville was in attendance at Adams Park and the 20 year old admits that the news came as a complete surprise to the players, but she is excited about the appointment. “I think we’d be lying if we said we called it, because none of us had a clue!” she chuckles.
“But he told us that he is honoured to be in that position, the girls are ranked 3rd in the world. Anyone coming into that role has a big responsibility, but he seems ready to take on that challenge and I’m delighted about it. I’m excited to see what he brings.” Back to club matters and despite falling further behind Chelsea and Manchester City in the race for Champions League qualification, Leah says the team are not ready to admit defeat in that quest.
“It’s definitely not out of sight for us and we’ll keep fighting for it. We’ve still got to play Liverpool twice and we’ve got another game each against Manchester City and Chelsea at home and we will take points where we can. But we need to deliver what we didn’t deliver today and that’s three points.”
Leah’s career has gone from strength to strength as one of the most exciting young players in the country and life has changed with it. Recently, she took part in a Nike advertisement campaign which saw her image become commonplace at bus stops and tube stations across the capital. Her picture was even blown up and erected on the side of Nike Town’s London store on Oxford Street.
— Leah Williamson (@leahcwilliamson) December 11, 2017
“It’s been really odd,” she grins. “But I’ve loved it. It’s been lovely for my family too. I really hope it gives young girls playing football now something to aim for, to raise the profile of the women’s game. I got off the tube recently and stepped onto the platform and the poster was right there with my face on it and it was surreal,” she recalls slightly bashfully.
“I caught a taxi a few weeks ago and the picture was up at a nearby bus stop and it was one of those revolving posters. I had to tell the taxi to wait for my picture to come back round so I could take a photo and send it to my mum!” She may still be only 20, but Leah has already moved from household name to billboard fame.
Arsenal Women have a clutch of home games in February, with matches against Liverpool on February 7th, Yeovil Town on February 11th and Everton on February 23rd. All home matches are played at Boreham Wood’s Meadow Park, entry is £6 adults and £3 concessions and tickets are available on the turnstile or online.
With thanks to Kunjan Malde for use of the image at the top of the article, taken at Adams Park on Sunday. Kunjan shoots most Arsenal WFC matches and her images can be seen on her dedicated Instagram account.