Whenever Arsenal has a crunch game, or a cup final, I nearly always plan to interview Leah Williamson in the immediate aftermath. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, Leah is a very analytical thinker. Even in the seconds following the final whistle, when the lungs burn and the brow is caked in sweat, she is able to quickly formulate and articulate a diagnosis on the game. She will make either a fantastic coach or television analyst one day.
The second reason is that Leah has an intense love of Arsenal Football Club, the club she grew up supporting and whom she has played for since she was nine years old. She’s not shy about articulating her love for her club. Frankly, it’s an interviewer’s dream. But I’ve been a bit of a curse for Leah these last two years. I interviewed her shortly after the 2018 FA Cup Final, where she conducted a detailed analysis of the threat posed by Chelsea’s front four.
I interviewed her after her 100th appearance for the club in January– a 2-1 defeat to Chelsea. I also spoke to her shortly after the penalty shootout defeat in the Conti Cup Final defeat to Manchester City in February, when Leah missed one of Arsenal’s spot kicks despite a quite exceptional performance. I promised myself I would make amends and speak to her when Arsenal, her club, were crowned champions.
It doesn’t take her long to warm up to the theme. “You know, I felt a bit silly because I started crying on the pitch at the end. But I won’t apologise for having that emotion after winning the title for the club I love.” This is the first thing she says in the whole interview. You understand why speaking with Leah Williamson for a website aimed at Arsenal fans is such a draw for an interviewer. Though with Leah it rarely feels like an interview and more like a conversation.
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) April 28, 2019
When I spoke to Leah minutes after that painful Conti Cup Final defeat in February, in another one of her instantly quotable asides, she said, “We’re pissed off now, so we’re going to go and win the league.” I remind her of that statement, but suggest there has actually been a serenity about the team in the ensuing weeks, as they have calmly chalked off all of the requisite wins that mark their coronation.
Leah says the serenity wasn’t always felt as the title moved into sight. She pinpoints Katie McCabe’s winner against Birmingham in March as the moment the reality kicked in. “That was probably the highlight of my season. Birmingham was the last game against a top 4 side in that time and the goal going in felt significant.” However, Leah reflects that, psychologically, the pressure didn’t ease, even with that hurdle cleared.
— The FA Women's Super League (@FAWSL) April 3, 2019
“I kept thinking it would get easier after that, I was thinking, ‘if we just get through the Birmingham game.’ But you realise it doesn’t change anything, because then you’re thinking ‘just get through the Everton game, just get through the Brighton game.’ You fool yourself into thinking you’re in the clear each time. But this is my first league championship, I will learn and adjust my mentality next time.” Leah reflects that the title run-in mirrors a longer term learning curve she has undergone in North London.
“I came here when I was 9 and we were winning the league every year and it was all I ever wanted, to win the league with Arsenal. I guess I thought I would walk into the team one day and it would just happen. But the game has developed so much and the competition is so fierce, to win that out there is absolutely unbelievable. I thought it might come sooner, but the wait has made it sweeter.” As she finishes her sentence, Danielle Carter walks past and serenades her with a rendition of ‘Leah Williamson, she’s one of our own’, a terrace staple at Boreham Wood and, well, a statement of fact really.
— Leah Williamson (@leahcwilliamson) April 28, 2019
Arsenal have maintained steady legs throughout the title race, leading from the front and not dropping a single point to any team outside of the top 3. When Leah and I spoke on the Arsenal Women Arsecast Episode 1, she talked about Arsenal recapturing the fear factor from opponents. The manner in which the title has been won, shows that the fear factor has returned in Leah’s eyes.
“More fool any team that doesn’t respect us, because this team can absolutely devastate other teams,” she asserts in her typically succinct style. “I think that respect is back, we know we have the ability to beat any team now and other teams know it too.” At this point Leah, for once, trails off a little, thanks to an unsolicited intrusion from Louise Quinn, who stands next to me with a water bottle pointed at Leah like a dictaphone, elaborately nodding her head and making impressed sounding noises. In this scenario, Leah’s central defensive partner gives her more trouble than the vast majority of WSL strikers have managed this season.
One of the biggest threats to Arsenal’s title charge has been injuries, not least the knee injury suffered by Jordan Nobbs in November, just as the Gunners looked at their most devastating. Arsenal played Manchester City and Chelsea in the wake of that period, losing both games with a threadbare squad. 17 year old Paige Bayley Gayle started the match away at City in December. Leah admits that was the most testing part of the season.
“That makes today even greater, because we’ve had a crazy season with injuries. It’s easy to forget that when the trophy is in the cabinet. It’s easy to forget that at one stage we were down to ten senior outfield players. Those two defeats [to City and Chelsea either side of Christmas] was during the readjustment period. But losing those two games was probably good for us in the long run because we knew there was no room for error, so we’ve played every game like a cup final.
“I do just wish we could have played that City game more towards the start of the season when we were on a great run playing unbelievable football. But Joe always tells us, good teams have to learn to win hard and we’ve had to do that in losing a player like Jordan. A lot of teams would crumble in those circumstances but we didn’t.”
Leah admits that the occasion got to her a little during the 4-0 win over Brighton that sealed the title. “I think that might be the worst I’ve ever played for the club and it’s because of how much this game and this title means to me. That’s something I’ll learn from, but I won’t apologise for feeling that way.”
It’s the pay off line for this interview that tells you much about Leah Williamson. She is reflective, humble, analytical and, underpinning it all, she has a passion for Arsenal Football Club that gives her words gravitas, making them luminous with purpose and meaning. Leah Williamson is one of our own and now she is a league champion. Two reasons to be grateful for Arsenal fans.
This is what it means.
— Arsenal Women (@ArsenalWFC) April 28, 2019