Like many football-mad children, Leah Williamson dreamed of becoming a professional player.
The talent was there and she took the first step on the ladder aged nine when she joined the Arsenal Ladies Centre of Excellence in 2006.
However, there was one major problem in her way: 14 years ago there was no such a thing as a female full-time professional footballer.
She had role models – Williamson still remembers the excitement of getting a picture with Arsenal winger Rachel Yankey as a youngster – but a full-time career in women’s football did not appear to be a viable option.
Now aged 22, with over 100 starts for Arsenal under her belt, a Women’s Super League winner’s medal and 14 England caps, Williamson is able to reflect on what could have been.
“It’s funny, I had a conversation with my dad when I was younger and he told me, ‘By the time you get there, it will be professional’,” she tells City A.M. at Arsenal’s London Colney training ground.
“That wasn’t even a thing back then. We take it for granted, but it wasn’t. We weren’t laughing it off, but I wonder how many dads would have encouraged their daughters in my position to do that? I’m very grateful for that and it really does feel like I’ve turned up at the right time.
“Conveniently, the year I finished sixth form at school, at 18, the club went professional, in terms of training full-time. It seems to have all worked out well for me, which I can’t complain about.
“Everyone wants a piece of women’s football because of the way that it is growing and I’m very grateful to be around now. But I also have to appreciate the journey that others have been on to put me in this position.
“Look at Alex Scott: she used to work in the laundry [at Arsenal’s training ground], and only now is she really recognised for what she did in football. It’s important to recognise them.”
Dive in head first
Williamson places the credit for her football career with her parents, who encouraged her to follow her dream despite negativity from elsewhere, including teachers.
“My mum had always played sport, so she was always a bit more sceptical than my dad. But my dad just told me to dive in head first,” she says.
“Without that I’m not sure that I ever would have, because it wasn’t a career when I was younger. And that was my generation. So if I was a few years older it definitely would have been a bit more out of reach.
“When I got to 15 you could see where the game was going and that was when my mum allowed me to take it a bit more seriously than as a hobby and put a bit more on it. But if I was a bit older would my dad have seen it like that, to give me that encouragement? I’m not sure where I would be without it.”
Keeping a balance
Thankfully, for Arsenal and England, Williamson is where she is. But despite being one of the most promising young players in the country, in a sport which has enjoyed a much-needed boost over the past few years, certain realities of the women’s game remain.
Although she is professional and trains full-time with Arsenal, like many other female footballers, Williamson can’t afford to focus just on the game. The young defender is also undertaking a part-time course in accountancy through the Football Association in preparation for life after her playing days, or as an “insurance policy” should injury strike.
“You should dedicate your life to football – I have to, I’m an athlete – but it shouldn’t be everything, the be-all and end-all,” she says.
“So I do it to keep some sort of balance, always doing something outside of football. But also I’m under no illusions that I’m not going to be able to retire at the end of my career and be fine for the rest of my life. I will have to work again and maybe that’s where I have come in [to the sport] just a little too early, in terms of hopefully one day these girls will earn enough that they are set for life.
“If a boy signs for an academy aged 16 he is generally set for life. It’s a massive contrast in our game and I’m aware of that. It’s ridiculous to think that once your career finishes you are going to be fine and set.”
Having started out as a midfielder, Williamson has now established herself as a central defender in Joe Montemurro’s Gunners side.
Williamson played a key role last season as Arsenal claimed the WSL title for the first time in six years before going on to learn from Steph Houghton and Millie Bright in England’s run to the semi-finals of the 2019 World Cup.
“Last year was a real turning point for me, in terms of people taking me seriously,” she says. “I think, as a midfielder converted to a defender, people always need a bit more reassuring.”
They are certainly reassured now. Although Arsenal have suffered damaging defeats to Chelsea and Manchester City in recent weeks to slip to third in the WSL and leave the title race in their rivals’ hands, Williamson’s career continues to go from strength to strength.
As the WSL has developed so the competition has increased, and while Williamson would be happy to streak to another title, the overall growth and increased depth is a promising sign for the greater good.
“Nobody really wants to go and watch an 8-0 whitewash game – it’s not what you want to sell,” she says. “For my personal development I would rather have that battle every weekend than a game that’s already won before you step on the pitch.”
Olympics and beyond
While the focus remains on Arsenal, the WSL and the Champions League for now, there is another consideration looming. Great Britain will send an 18-player squad made up of players from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to the Tokyo Olympics in July and Williamson is determined to be among them.
“It’s always easier to work hard and be driven and know what you want to do when you’ve got something like that in front of you,” she says. “I’ve always dreamt of being an Olympian so it feels special.”
Further in the future, the prospect of England hosting the 2021 European Championships is something Williamson can’t help but look forward to.
“I was there when we beat Finland and Karen Carney scored a goal to win 3-2 [in the opening match of the 2005 Euros],” Williamson says. “That lived with me. Home soil, feeling that you’ve got a nation behind the team – nothing really comes close to that.
“I think there will be pressure, and I hope there is because that will mean we’re doing something right, but more than anything I’m looking forward to seeing what happens.
“In a year’s time, at the rate this game is growing, we have no idea how big it’s going to be.”
It is an exciting time for women’s football and as a key component for Arsenal and England Williamson looks set to be at the forefront of it.