Leah Williamson talks Arsenal, nightmare penalties and England

Leah Williamson talks Arsenal, nightmare penalties and England

It’s 3pm at Arsenal’s London Colney training ground. A presence of triumphalism is in the air just ten days after Joe Montemurro’s side sealed their first FA Women’s Super League title since 2012. As centre-back and lifelong Gunners fan, Leah Williamson sits down; it’s seven hours since she received the email to confirm she’d been picked for her first senior Women’s World Cup, topping off a fine 72 hours for the 22-year-old.

She’s given the thumbs up by the press officer to discuss it, as long as it’s kept under wraps until the squad is formally announced to the public the day after. “I thought I wasn’t going to be bothered about it but when I went to sleep last night I was wide awake,” she laughs. “You can’t prepare either way but I’ve worked so hard, I promised myself I’d do anything possible. I promised myself at the start of the season I’d leave no stone unturned so that if it was bad news I could look everybody in the eye and say I’d done everything I could.”

Nobody can doubt Williamson earned her place in the squad. Since making her senior debut when her former under-19 head coach Mo Marley brought her into the squad during her three-game spell as interim head coach, Phil Neville has constantly called upon Williamson and she’s been an ever-present for Arsenal during their title-winning campaign.

For a player who was beset by injuries after missing out on what would have been a surprise selection in 2015, there’s a certain irony but also a show of how hard Williamson has worked on her fitness that she was one few Arsenal players to come through the season without an injury.

Teammate Jordan Nobbs is missing the tournament after tearing her anterior cruciate ligament back in October and Williamson appreciates only too well the pitfalls of serious injuries at the worst times. “Jordan’s injury to me put everything into perspective,” she says. “I’ve missed things before through injury. I got the longlist emailed to me in 2015 before the last World Cup. He [Mark Sampson] told me it was too soon but for me, I just thought, ‘This is great, when they get back I’ll be in’ and then I snapped my ankle.

“You can’t prepare for it because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, that made me appreciate even be selected. To actually get to this stage and just be healthy is an incredible achievement, especially for me. I’ve actually stayed on two feet for long enough now to be fit.”

It’s been a brilliant but emotionally charged few weeks for the young star. While winning the league at Brighton was a fantastic experience for the whole squad, it meant just that little bit more to a woman who had grown up a devoted Arsenal supporter, following in the footsteps of both her mother and grandmother. 

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The emotion poured out so much pre-match, post-match and even during the match that the defender had little left in the tank when she found out she’d be heading to France this summer. “I’ve cried enough,” she smiles. “When I found out I had almost no emotion left because I’m just drained. I was confident we were going to win the league but it was still a relief. I’m just a defender, I stand there and I watch them all do whatever they want to do to other teams.”

That emotion culminated in what she accepts was one of her worst performances of the season, so much so she was substituted before the game was over. But that wasn’t to take anything away from a season where a player who grew up a midfielder excelled at centre-back against some of the best in the league. “I think this is my best year personally,” she states. “This is the most I’ve played since my first year and it’s been dreamy. There’s things I wish had been different. I wish I’d scored my penalty in the Continental Cup final, I wish we’d got even more success, but I’ll take these few weeks over anything.”

We go back 15 years to when it all started. Williamson’s association with Arsenal doesn’t just span the time she’s played for the club – it spans her whole childhood and generations of her family, and she’s only too happy to recall her earliest memories. “My dad actually took me to a Tottenham game. He was a Spurs fan and he bought me a kit, which I remember quite well but I think it’s because it scared me,” she laughs. 

“I literally just remember going to the Arsenal with my grandma and my mum. If I wanted to go to a game they found a way to take me. I need to find these details out but I think it was Tony Adams’ testimonial; all my family went, and this club is a family. It’s classy, everything’s done in the right way and in the best interests of Arsenal.”

She adds: “I went to Dennis Bergkamp’s testimonial – how many young girls can say they had such a supportive family? I’ve got pictures of the FA Cup semi-final at the Millennium Stadium with my jester’s hat on. When I see Arsenal, I see going to a game with my family.”

Surely that must add pressure given that when her family come and watch Arsenal now, their daughter, granddaughter and sister is on the pitch in front of them. “Yes, 100%. I get so nervous before every game because I’ve got the added pressure of performing for my team. How many fans sit there in the stadium and want to do that? I have to do that on the big stage and I don’t want to let anybody down. It’s hard because my family are Arsenal fans and I want to give them success to celebrate for the club but also for me. I never take it for granted.”

There was never more pressure than knowing her family were front and centre at the AMEX Stadium to watch her get her hands on a league title for the club for the first time. Fortunately, a 4-0 win meant it was a relatively stress-free experience, but the emotion affected Williamson enough to impact on her performance, such is her passion for Arsenal.

“I came off and Joe said, ‘You sometimes have those days’, and I was like ‘Alright, give me a minute’,” she laughs. “I know I was rubbish. I don’t have an explanation for a poor performance but I just was emotional. When Viv [Miedema] scored I nearly started crying. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I don’t think there is anything wrong with me, I just love this football club. I hope that doesn’t happen every year because if we won it every year and I cried every year I think it would get a bit boring for everyone. Seeing my mum and dad at the end and seeing them blubbering made me feel a bit better. I actually wanted the day to be over as soon as it started.”

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It hasn’t been an easy road since Williamson made her debut back in 2014 as a 17-year-old in a Champions League quarter-final. She’s won two FA Cups, two Continental Cups, England’s Young Player of the Year and the PFA Young Player of the Year, but a league title had constantly eluded her. She’s been involved in dramatic moments, including an incredible situation with the England youth teams, and seen her side branded little more than a “cup team”.

Managers Shelley Kerr and Pedro Losa came and went before Joe Montemurro arrived with an impressive resume from Australia 18 months ago. The former Melbourne City manager had a few months to tinker with a team that was largely out of the league picture come the new year in order to get his side drilled for the new campaign.

It begs the question: what changed? Montemurro made signings but the majority of them spent most of the season in the physio room, virtually leaving him with the players he inherited from Losa when he took over. “It was his clarity over his style and his way of playing,” states Williamson. “There’s no questions when you go into a game, you know what’s required. It’s a nice style to play as well. Everybody here wants to play that way so the trust we have was a major turning point.”

Elaborating on how he took a team that couldn’t put a consistent league run together into champions in less than 12 months, Williamson says: “He just stripped it all back. We had the luxury of the second half of last season, we got to two finals but it was still a luxury. You really trust in something when you can see it so clearly, then comments like that, making us a ‘cup team’, I’ve heard that for seven years and I’m sure some of the girls remember it too. It was a determination from within because we knew where we could and should be.”

Arsenal blitzed the league in the opening months, beating Liverpool 5-0 on the opening day and mirroring the result in an incredible demolition of reigning champions Chelsea away from home, a result which really laid down a marker and which I remark to Williamson “stunned” everyone. “It stunned us,” she laughs. “You have the conversation of ‘Wow, we’ve just done this, this is our standard, that’s us’. We knew we could do that and that’s what we held on to. But we then had to go and beat Reading – there’s no point beating Chelsea 5-0 if we don’t beat Reading … and we beat them 6-0!”

Williamson, though, is aware people were expecting Arsenal to drop points in the same fashion they had in previous seasons. “You might have a different opinion but people would have been thinking we would slip up at some point. That’s been the difference: we stunned ourselves in a way. It was like, ‘If we’re this good, there’s no way we’re letting this get away’. Without the injuries, I think you’ve got a lot more to see from this team and more flashes of brilliance. I wish we could have played Manchester City straight after, you know, just to see.”

She’s only right to ponder what could have been. Indeed, injuries threatened to derail Arsenal’s title challenge no matter how well they were playing. Nobbs was arguably the top player in the league at the time of her season-ending injury, while the likes of Lisa Evans, Emma Mitchell, Lia Walti, Danielle van de Donk and Danielle Carter all had injuries at various stages of the season, plus new signings Tabea Kemme and Viktoria Schnaderbeck, who never really featured at all.

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Such was the strain, when Arsenal went to closest rivals Manchester City before Christmas, they lost 2-0 with a thrown together squad including several youngsters – and it looked like things might get away from them. “I think the luxury of Joe’s style is you can get through games by letting the ball do the work. It’s a terrible phrase but it’s true. That definitely saved us because we had to address it. It got to a point where we just weren’t going to let it slip any further away.

“[In] The cup final we were depleted, to say the least, and Viv got ill before the game. You can’t help those things but we had to look at each other and make sure it didn’t slip away. Even at City we had chances to win the game, I just felt we were too tried. We were in a state of crisis and it was about to get worse from there. In truth, going out of the FA Cup was a blessing in disguise looking back. You had ten people who were basically trying to survive and everybody else wishing they could help, but they couldn’t. The fact we still won it shows the resilience we maybe didn’t have two or three years ago.”

Williamson has always had a remarkably calm and assured head on her young shoulders, even when she was breaking through as a teenager. In the space of a few months, she was thrust into the spotlight during a bizarre penalty situation with the England under-19 side and won several awards which ensured everyone was talking about her before she’d even turned 18.

But she’s a realist and hard on herself – harder than most 22-year-olds would be given what she’s achieved in such a short career. It’s just over four years ago now since Williamson, who had just turned 18, was thrust into a situation possibly no other footballer has ever been in.

During a critical European Under-19 Championship qualifier against Norway, England were awarded a last-minute penalty that, if dispatched, would see them qualify for the tournament. Williamson scored, but German referee Marija Kurtes alleged teammate Rosella Ayane had encroached in the penalty box and incorrectly awarded a free-kick to Norway instead of allowing the penalty to be retaken.

After an appeal, UEFA decided the game would restart from the penalty and the final two minutes played an extraordinary five days after the original match. Play resumed with Williamson once more stepping up to take the penalty, with Sky Sports even showing the moment live to millions of people. The teenager promptly stepped up, smashed home her penalty, and England qualified. “My mentality has always been get the job done, this is my job,” she states. “I have to remove myself from that emotion. That penalty was a case of ‘I need to do it’. It wasn’t a case of if I wanted to. They asked me if I wanted to do it and I said of course. I’ll sign up for anything!”

Williamson doesn’t have many regrets. Despite some bumps in the road, she’s appreciative of how her career has turned out to allow her to be a winner of all three domestic trophies and a senior England international by the age of 22. “The only thing is I wish I hadn’t put so much pressure on myself looking back to live up to those standards forever. When I got injured I remember thinking people were going to forget who I was, I was going to drop off the face of the earth. But football doesn’t go that way, I had everything I ever wanted apart from making the World Cup squad. 

“Everything happens for a reason, I truly believe that. I don’t know what the reason was for snapping my ankle but maybe it was for these two weeks. I hated that situation [the penalty], I’d never wish it on anybody but that year I had the time of my life. I had it all going on, I did my exams and I look back fondly now. Even the goal I scored against Chelsea, all things I haven’t been able to replicate since happened that year. I just wish I hadn’t held onto it for so long because this year is the first I haven’t and it’s been my best.”

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Regarding any advice she’d pass onto the next generation, she adds: “Chill out and enjoy it a bit more than I did because I probably didn’t get to appreciate just how good that year was for me. But I didn’t want to be remembered as the girl who took the penalty, I wanted something else to get my name out there. I’m still working on it …”

I joke that doing a Panenka penalty would have been more memorable in the long run and it turns out it actually crossed her mind until she received some blunt advice from close friend and then teammate, Carla Humphrey. “I was going to do that. I told Carla and she just said ‘Please, no’,” she laughs. “But, it would have gone in!”

One might wonder where Williamson’s level-headed nature come from. A combination of a strong family bond and coming into a team that had personalities such as Kelly Smith, Rachel Yankey, Faye White and Emma Byrne may hold the answer. “You learn so much [from them] without even thinking it,” she admits. “Just your interactions with them, how they are as people, the chats you have with them.”

Lisa Evans pops her head in to mention she’s Williamson’s favourite player. “That’s true, you can print that,” laughs the centre-back, before attention returns to her former teammates rather than her current ones. “Emma Byrne was probably the harshest person on the football pitch but the way she shaped me, I was never going to do anything with her behind me. Kelly was my hero and she lived up to every second of it while we were in the team together. I was coming to work with my idols and going back to school during the day.”

There’s one other person Williamson owes a lot to – England youth team head coach, Mo Marley. The former Everton manager and England international has coached almost every player to come through the system and made Williamson her captain in the under 19s before giving her a first call-up and debut with the senior team at the end of 2017.

She’s also responsible for first raising the idea of Williamson shifting from central midfield to centre-back, a move which has seen her career go from strength to strength. “Mo was the person who actually had that conversation with me,” she recalls. “She said you can either be a very good midfielder or a world-class centre-back and I said I didn’t want to make that choice.

“The reason I didn’t want to initially was because I didn’t think I was very good there. I’m too forward thinking, I’m too Arsenal. I wanted to be on the ball and play pretty football and that’s been the difference this year, I know how to get my hands dirty as a defender. I’m glad now I have that versatility.”

“I knew for me to get in the World Cup squad I’d need to have something to offer and that’s one of my biggest traits. No one is ever going to turn down a squad player who can play in several positions. When Joe came in he asked what I wanted to be and I said centre-back and he said the same. I never wanted to be someone who just got moved about because I’d never cemented a place in the team.”

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Years later, Marley gave Williamson the call to tell her she was being brought into the senior side while she was interim head coach after Sampson’s sacking. “It was lovely. Mo had such an impact on me. Growing up with England you don’t get a sniff about what they think of you, it’s all about your development. You don’t really know if the manager thinks you’re good or not, so for Mo to do that showed she did rate me. For it to be someone who knew you, who trusted you, she knows everything about me and still picked me. I’m grateful for that because would a new manager have picked me? I’ll never forget it.”

I put it to her that she’s quite hard on herself, recalling comments she made after missing a penalty in the shootout which saw Arsenal lose out to Manchester City in the Continental Cup final earlier this year.

Williamson criticised herself for not being able to “pass the ball in from 12 yards” when facing up to the media post-match, and she says it’s “easier to listen to criticism if you’re real with yourself”. “My mum always told me that,” she says. “If you put yourself on a pedestal then people will knock you off it ten times harder and you won’t even see it coming. On that day, even now, I know it wasn’t good enough. I know exactly why I missed and what I wouldn’t do next time and I’m still annoyed with myself because I know I never do those things.

“I’d put my hand up again. In those situations, you can’t hide from it, you can’t spin it. That’s the truth. At Brighton I wasn’t good enough, so imagine if you come off and don’t accept that, it would be a shock to your system when somebody tells you. But if you’re going to be harsh on yourself you need to praise yourself too, and I’ll do that. It’s more important to be honest with yourself.”

Williamson will travel to France this week for her first senior tournament, one of eight players in the Lionesses squad to be heading to their first major finals, with three more heading to their maiden World Cups.

Off the back of a first league success with Arsenal, which means a return to Champions League football next season, Williamson can only be excited about what the next few years hold for her. “I know how lucky I am to come in at the time I have and to be in two successful teams. I’m an Arsenal fan and I love my country, that’s already incredible and I know there are big things to come. There’s no limit: I think this club can win the Champions League and I think we’ll surprise ourselves with how we deal with it. Nobody will be expecting much from us and rightly so because we haven’t been in it for years but in the next few years you’ll see big things from us.

“I just want to make sure I’m part of it. The FA Cup final win at Wembley was one of the greatest days of my life, but I didn’t play. You and the other people might not remember it, but I do, I’ve got to correct that, I don’t count that. I’ve got personal goals I want to achieve and I’m not going to take my foot off the peddle.”

It feels like a good point to end the conversation. As we get up to end the interview, I congratulate her once more on her title success and her England call up. “I like hearing this word, ‘Congratulations’, I could get used to that,” she smiles.

By Rich Laverty @RichJLaverty

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