Leah Williamson brings it home
About 80 km northwest of London, on the outskirts of the city of Milton Keynes, is the small town of Newport Pagnell. Home to just 15,000 people – a quarter of the capacity of Arsenal’s iconic Emirates Stadium – the city is eclipsed in both size and history, its only real ‘success story’ being its role as the cradle of football society. Aston Martin luxury sports cars. Today the town can proudly celebrate another local history as the home of England national team captain and newly crowned European soccer champion Leah Williamson.
Williamson’s love for the game started at a young age. At the age of 6, she remembers having fun with boys after her gymnastics lessons at school. Once she found a ball, there was no turning back. Although women’s football was an afterthought for most of her, Williamson was never discouraged and joined the local men’s team, Scots Youth. It was there, on the muddy, wet and overgrown pitches, that Williamson began his football journey. As the only girl, it was difficult to break into the culture of the team. Acceptance was not easy. Afraid of being hurt, her mother made Leah wear a mouth guard, which she hated to do. When fouled, Leah would notice parents giving dirty looks and abusing the touch, so she decided to get her talking on the pitch. Scoring goals and dribbling effortlessly through players half his size slowly won over his coaches and teammates. In a recent iD and Nike documentary, Williamson said: “I knew if I scored that hurt the most. What you can never answer is if you lose. She had earned her equality.
In 2006, Williamson followed his academy coach to Arsenal’s Center of Excellence and slowly rose through the ranks. As a child, Williamson’s idol was Arsenal and England striker Kelly Smith, and coming from a family of Gunners fans, wearing the famous red and white felt very special. In March 2014, just a day after her 17th birthday, Leah made her senior debut for the club in a hard-fought Champions League quarter-final against Birmingham City. Thrown straight into the deep end, Williamson quickly became an effective, ball-winning defensive player, and was admired by the other players on the team. Former England captain Faye White (2002-2012) underscored Williamson’s humility, saying that “she understands that it’s not all about her. It’s about involving other people… giving them a voice. During her tenure at Arsenal, Williamson won almost every domestic title up for grabs, including the Football Association Cup and Women’s Super League. Internationally, Williamson captained England’s U-15, U-17 and U-20 sides at major tournaments before being called up to the first team in November 2017.
As a player, Williamson’s versatility gives her an edge. Playing in both midfield and defense under England national team coach Sarina Wiegman, Williamson has established herself as a key part of the squad. Mainly a left centre-back, although playing on the right for Arsenal, Williamson wins around 70% of defensive duels per game. A smart game player, Williamson never over-commits and minimizes tackles with his ability to intercept passes, making 4.5 interceptions per game. During Euro 2022, Williamson won the ball 46 times without making a single reckless tackle. With experience in multiple positions, Williamson’s poise and ball-carrying ability set her apart from the classic, physically imposing centre-back.
Over the past few months, women’s football has changed forever with Williamson at the forefront, both on and off the pitch. This summer, the Lionesses of England beat Germany in the final of Euro 2022. Throughout the tournament, this group of fiery players captured the hearts of the nation with their passionate display, battling against Europe’s top teams . The final, held at Wembley Stadium, saw an incredible 87,192 fans “beat the highest tally recorded in either the men’s or women’s editions of the tournament”, according to The Athletic. Over the years, England fans have been mocked for their continual “it’s coming home!” chants, most recently with the men’s side falling to Italy in the Euro 2021 final. Williamson and Co broke that curse and brought England their first major title since the World Cup in 1966.
This historic victory uprooted decades of oppression towards women’s football and although attitudes have changed in recent years, particularly on the occasion of Euro 2022, there is still a battle to be fought. More than two-thirds of Premier League clubs have all-male boards, while women tend to attend fewer games in England compared to other countries. In his post-match interview, Williamson spoke of the legacy of this tournament fueling “societal change” and this moment being the start of something special. According to the New York Times, big clubs like Manchester United and Chelsea have “poured millions into their women’s programs in recent years” in a bid to match the success of the United States.
Leah Williamson inspires. Whether it was becoming a little mascot for Arsenal, fearlessly tackling the boys or leading her country to glory, she paved the way for a generation of girls with sporting dreams. There was a time when women’s football was banned by the Football Association, which deemed it “rather unsuitable for women”, but today it is the pride of a nation. A nation led by a little girl from Milton Keynes who dared to dream.