Leah Williamson: From gamble as captain to face of women’s football

Leah Williamson brings a tracksuit hood up over her head.

She pulls it tight to cover most of her face and grimaces slightly about the prospect of leaving the room, in which for the previous hour she has been cheery, insightful company – and a little bit sweary.

The England captain is heading back out into St Albans – a town, close to her club’s training base, where she is a familiar face.

In fact, she is a recognisable face in most of the country now. You get a strong sense it’s not an experience she relishes.

“Do you want the honest answer?” was her response minutes earlier when asked how her life had changed in recent months, before then deciding against opening up.

But looking back on England’s historic win in the Euros last summer for the BBC documentary Lionesses: Champions of Europe is something that still brings a smile to her face.

‘I was a gamble as captain’

Six months ago the Arsenal defender was a relative unknown outside women’s football circles.

She was about to lead England into a home European Championship, only too conscious of her status as a rookie international captain.

“Going into the tournament I was aware of the narrative surrounding this newly appointed captaincy thing and ‘she’s never done it before, she’s never played in a major tournament before’,” she says.

“I had six minutes under my belt from the World Cup. So I was aware… it was a gamble, I suppose you could say.”

The tournament began against Austria at a sold-out Old Trafford.

One gamble Williamson was not prepared to take was to open her eyes as she and her team-mates lined up for the pre-match national anthem.

“Our families were directly in front of us and I saw my lot straight away,” she says. “And just their faces, I could almost see them screwing up. You have got to think my parents have never seen me start an international game at a tournament and all of a sudden they’re watching me lead out the team as well.

“I thought ‘there’s no way I’m going to get through this if I can see them crying’. I didn’t trust them not to. So I just closed my eyes. I would have been in absolute pieces.”

Tears averted, England pieced together enough of a performance to beat Austria 1-0 with a Beth Mead goal.

The rest of the group stages saw them thrash former two-time European champions Norway 8-0 and cruise past Northern Ireland 4-0. On the field England’s – and Williamson’s – progress was serene.

Leah Williamson playing against Austria at Old Trafford
Leah Williamson was a calming presence for England at the heart of their defence

Williamson, marshalling the defence with a calm authority, had yet to make a tackle. It was a trend that continued throughout the tournament. Incredibly, Williamson won the ball back more than any other player across the tournament – 56 times without making a single tackle.

It led to comparisons with the Italian great Paolo Maldini, who once said: “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake.”

And Williamson says she felt empowered by what she saw as her own destiny.

“I don’t know if I’d go as far to say spiritual person, but I do believe that there is a sort of plan and things are written out for us and we kind of choose between one or two paths,” she says. “But most of it is kind of ready and we just have to be bold enough to do it.

“That guidance – which some people believe, some people don’t – I felt like I had that with me.”

Such belief came in useful in the knockout stages.

With 10 minutes of their quarter-final against Spain remaining, the Lionesses trailed 1-0 and were being comprehensively outplayed.

Goalkeeper Mary Earps is adamant in the documentary that, despite England trailing, she “didn’t think we were destined to go home; we were destined to bring it home”.

It’s a feeling Williamson shared.

“This isn’t the way this is ending, like this cannot be the way that it ends,” she recalls. “It was quite a nice emotion to have. I had so much belief that that we were going to turn it around and that it will be OK.”

Ella Toone’s equaliser and Georgia Stanway’s winner ensured that was the case.

Williamson’s letter to parents

A 4-0 demolition of Sweden in the semi-final sent the Lionesses into their first major tournament final since Euro 2009, making this summer’s Wembley showpiece the hottest ticket in town.

Prior to each match in the tournament, players’ families were given their ticket allocation from FA staff. Before the final Williamson asked if she could add a personal touch for her parents.

“I said ‘do you mind if I just write a note to my mum and dad and can you put them in their tickets?’,” she says.

“It was quite a heartfelt note along the lines of: ‘I’m so proud to be part of the family that you’ve created and I hope today you are just as proud of me. Because every step I take on the football pitch is in your shoes and standing on your shoulders.’

“After the final, we’re having a big party. Mum straight away gave me a cuddle and said ‘you made me cry with your note’.

“I said to Dad, ‘did you get my note?’ because he hadn’t said anything – and he’s not that cold. He said ‘what note?’

“He’s the only man I know who keeps envelopes from things that have already been opened – he pulled out the envelope.

“I said ‘it’s in there’, he pulled it out and read it in hindsight, which was a really nice moment. That look on his face… what I’d written was almost hopeful and then actually we were stood there and I had a medal round my neck, dancing with the trophy.

“It was a perfect ending to the whole thing.”

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