INTERVIEW: Arsenal & England star Leah Williamson talks about a hectic 2015

Leah Williamson appears incredibly assured for an 18-year-old who has recently been thrust into the media spotlight. She’s confident and speaks well, but more striking than anything else – clearly has her feet firmly on the ground. Rich Laverty spoke to the teenager in May about her remarkable rise…

Williamson grew up in Milton Keynes, where she still lives with her family, who make sure she gets to and from Arsenal’s London Colney training ground on a daily basis. The teenager is Arsenal through and through, joining the club in 2006 at the age of just nine-years-old. It’s only 12 months since she made her debut for the club and she’s come an incredibly long way in such a short period of time.

Idolising Arsenal legend Kelly Smith, Williamson was once a mascot with Smith for England many years ago – standing alongside a player who was part of the dominant Arsenal side before the days of the FA Women’s Super League. Smith is now a teammate of Williamson, a partner in midfield and undoubtedly a mentor off the pitch. It’s clear that no matter how fast things are moving, the midfielder has a good team of people around her, supporting her every move.

Williamson was really thrust into the limelight in April during England’s qualifier for the European U19 Championships. An expert penalty taker, she stepped up in the last minute of a match against Norway to secure England’s path to the finals. But, a horrific refereeing error after encroachment saw Norway receive a free-kick, rather than England being allowed to retake.

After several appeals, it was agreed the game would restart days later, from the penalty spot, with all the pressure firmly on Williamson’s shoulders. All the news was focused on her, Sky Sports showed the moment live, but the 18-year-old never looked like missing. Despite a huge amount of pressure and expectation heaped on her shoulders, Williamson says she felt relatively calm, despite the painstaking wait.

“It was the afternoon of the day before. I’d rushed off to the appeal and thought that would be that, but they told me it would be retaken. It was the most bizarre thing ever. We’d been joking about it, but we didn’t think it would come to that. I just tried to sleep it off, people said don’t think about it, but there’s no way you can’t to be honest. It was the longest run up to a penalty in history!”

In the space of six months, life has taken off for Williamson. She was nominated the FA WSL Continental Cup Player of the Year, ahead of established stars such as Toni Duggan, Jess Clarke and Ji So-Yun.

Then came the England Women’s Youth Player of the Year, followed by the PFA Young Women’s Player of the Year award in April. Even on stage in front of her family, her peers and the likes of Eden Hazard and Wayne Rooney, Williamson looked and spoke like she belonged.

So how exactly has she kept her head straight?

“A director at Arsenal once told me it’s like being a sponge, you have to absorb everything around you. I will always remember that.”

Williamson is certainly not one for worrying about the past: everything is about the future, about improvement. She couldn’t be coming into the professional women’s game at a better time. Professional contracts are falling into the hands of many FA WSL players, live games are being shown on TV and attention on the game is at an all-time high. The Arsenal midfielder simply believes there isn’t enough time to dwell on what’s in the past.

“Things quieten down, but then new things come up and there’s something fresh to focus on. I never take my foot off the pedal. I put one thing behind me and focus on the next thing; there’s always a goal. It’s my second year in the FA WSL so things have moved quickly.

“You can always learn; you have to come out of a training session knowing what you’ve achieved. To make sure you have goals and that you always have something to aim for. Otherwise you can go for years and never progress. There won’t always be someone behind you to push you along, but I wouldn’t have it any other way!”

Whilst further progress will surely see her receive attention from other FA WSL clubs, Williamson is clearly exactly where she wants to be. Her family are huge Arsenal fans and the player has said it would feel strange to wear another kit. Whilst the Gunners aren’t yet the dominant force they once were, she is under the wings of experienced players like Smith and Alex Scott and has been fortunate enough to grow up around close friends in the game such as Carla
Humphrey.

Scott herself paid the highest tribute to Williamson lately, suggesting she could go on to become “one of the best in the game.” Williamson admits it’s a nice thing to hear.

“Confidence always helps, it’s important to have that. Things aren’t always going to go well, so it’s always good to hear things like that, it picks you up. You never want to look back and be the person who could have been.”

For the time being, she’s looking forward to a trip to Israel this summer for the European U19 Championships, a position secured thanks to that dramatic penalty last month. But, with a rapid rise to fame and unquestionable talent, it is only a matter of time before the teenager makes the step up to the first team.

“I suppose I would never say anything is off the table, but you have to be realistic. It would have been fantastic to get a call-up for Canada, but there are more achievable goals, like Euro 2017. Fortunately I’m still at an age where I can still play in the youth tournaments and they’re great, but there’s always something to aim at.”

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