‘I had to be a rebel to play football’: England’s Leah Williamson on beating sexism, self-doubt and winning the Euros

·27-min read

When Leah Williamson was seven, her father told her he didn’t want to hear any excuses. If she really wanted to become a professional footballer, and was prepared to put the effort in, there was no reason why she shouldn’t succeed. Today, Williamson is one of the best-paid women in the game and captain of an England team that hasn’t lost for 29 matches, including the final of last year’s Euros.

What makes her father’s words remarkable is that, at the time, there was no professional women’s league in England. Even more remarkably, when she was a toddler her parents feared that she might never walk properly. Williamson was born with inward-pointing toes. “If they couldn’t have fixed it, it would have created problems when I started to grow. I would have had to wears braces on my legs,” she says.

Doctors suggested to her parents that horse riding or gymnastics could help straighten her feet. So, at the age of two, Williamson started gymnastics, which she did four times a week for seven years. This proved the catalyst for her love of football. If they finished early on a Friday, her gymnastics coach would get a football out and the kids would have a kickabout. Before long, Williamson was thinking more about whether she would focus on football or gymnastics than whether her pigeon toes would leave her disabled. At nine, she joined Arsenal’s youth programme. Sixteen years on, she wants to make sure that this generation of aspiring Leah Williamsons are given the same kind of opportunities her family gave her.

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When we talk for the first time, she tells me it’s six months to the day since England won the Euros. “It still gives me goosebumps,” Williamson says. No wonder. For many of us, it wasn’t just the greatest sporting moment of 2022, it was the greatest moment full stop. England won their first football trophy in 56 years and football finally did come home. “The trophy feels like our baby,” she says. “Apart from my brother, I’ve never held anything so precious in my life.” As I’m about to discover, family is everything to Williamson.

It wasn’t simply winning the Euros that was special, it was the way they did it. England were exhilarating to watch, scoring a number of wonder goals on the way to victory – from Alessia Russo’s audacious backheel against Sweden to Georgia Stanway’s bullet against Spain in the quarter-final and Ella Toone’s sublime chip in the final. There was so much brio and freedom in the way they played. Best of all was the joy they took in their success. Think of the ecstatic Chloe Kelly twirling her top, or the entire squad conga-ing into manager Sarina Wiegman’s press conference with a raucous rendition of Three Lions. Unforgettable.

You made us so happy, I say. “I hope so. If you weren’t happy with that, there’s not much else I can do.” Well, there is the World Cup, which starts in July. “Let’s not get picky,” she says, grinning. Why not, though? The women’s team are on a phenomenal run.

Now, at the age of 25, Williamson is on a mission to make young girls believe that anything is possible. She has just written a book with Guardian football writer Suzanne Wrack. You Have the Power is part memoir, part motivation manual aimed at girls between the age of 10 and 14. Its subtitle is Find Your Strength and Believe You Can, which is a crucial part of Williamson’s story. She knows she is now in a position to influence girls at this crucial age, and is determined to use her platform well. “This age group struggles the most in terms of who we want to be as young women. They’re the ones who could benefit most from the book.” It’s girls between the ages of 10 and 14 who are most likely to drop out of sport, and Williamson hopes to persuade them not to.

* * *

We meet at a hotel in St Albans, Hertfordshire, near her home. She moved here because it’s close to the ground of Arsenal Women, the club she has played for throughout her career. She is fresh out of training, wearing a stylish black tracksuit, and has the glow that comes with supreme fitness. Williamson gives off an air of quiet self-belief. But, she says, it wasn’t always like this.

Mum and Grandma were strong independent women who just smashed any barrier that was in their way

Williamson comes from a family of confident women. Her mother Amanda was a talented footballer, who played for Milton Keynes (where Williamson grew up) and scored one of the goals in a giant-killing FA Cup win over Arsenal. She thinks if her mother had been starting out today she would have made it in the professional game. “I was lucky, because I had someone in my household who had been there, done it.”

Her grandmother Berny played badminton competitively. From a young age, she went to watch Arsenal with her mother and grandmother because it was their club (Berny grew up in London). Meanwhile, her father David took her younger brother Jacob to watch Spurs, because that was their club.

“I was brought up never to expect people to say no to me, because if I said I wanted to do something, then I was pushed forward and given as many resources as possible to do it by my family. Mum and Grandma were strong independent women who just smashed any barrier that was in their way. Nobody made a point of it when we succeeded where maybe we shouldn’t have. It was made totally normal to me that I’d go to the football with my grandma and my mum.” She, Amanda and Berny loved their trips to Arsenal. There was no hostility to women, and they felt they belonged there.

And yet when she started playing competitively as a six-year-old, she felt like an outsider. Because there were no girls’ teams for her age group, she joined a boys’ team. “When I was younger, I felt I had to be a rebel to pursue what I wanted to. If you want to become a woman footballer you don’t have to be a rebel these days. You can just follow your feet.” Follow your feet is one of her favourite expressions, but she is not just talking about football – it could be any area of life, particularly those that weren’t open to women in the past.

Football made her aware of gender differences. “That was the first time I thought: you don’t look like the people around you.” But it also made her aware of how easy it is to overcome those differences. None of her teammates minded that she was a girl, and this made her even more passionate about football. “Kids are never the problem; it’s nearly always the parents.” Inevitably, it had an impact on the boys she played against. In the match when she was scouted for Arsenal girls, her team won 15-0 and she scored eight goals. She remembers some of the opposition crying. “The boys were embarrassed. There was pressure because they’d been taught that they shouldn’t be beaten by a girl.”

The young Williamson was outspoken, and outside the family people labelled her stroppy. Really, she says, she was just passionate. “I’ve always been very opinionated. But I was dismissed as being angry.” Can she give me an example? She looks at her agent and friend Remmie Williams, who has accompanied her today. “What’s that word when you give positive feedback?”

“Constructive criticism?” Williams suggests.

She smiles. “Yes, constructive criticism. I’d give constructive criticism. I’d say: ‘I like this and I like that.’ Now it’s just seen as strong-willed, but when you’re younger and no one else is like that, people think you’re an angry kid, you’ve got so much to say, you’ve got so many problems, whereas as I’ve got older I’ve become so grateful for those traits.” At school, she remembers she wanted to play for the all-boys football team, and refused to take no for an answer. “I didn’t see a problem with it and unless somebody could show me the problem, I was going to do it. A couple of teachers said: ‘That’s not the way it’s done here,’ and I’m like: ‘Well that’s not a good enough reason for me.’” You actually said that? “Yeah.” How old were you? “I was in primary school.” Sure enough, she played for the school team.

At the same time, Williamson says, in some ways she was, and remains, painfully shy. “I still struggle to ring the hairdresser to book in because, I don’t like having conversations on the phone. If I could get my mum to book my doctor’s appointment, I would!” You can’t ring the hairdresser but you’re happy captaining the England football team? She laughs. “Yes, funnily enough I don’t have any issue talking on the pitch.”

Williamson evolved from a prolific striker as a child into a classy central defender. She cites former Arsenal and England centre half Tony Adams as her role model. “He had such heart as a leader. Everybody around him respected him for who he was. It’s really important to be authentic.” Authenticity is a word that comes up often in her conversation, as does kindness. She may have Adams’s heart, but she is a very different kind of defender – less physical, more cultured. (Bobby Moore or Alan Hansen may be better comparisons.) There’s a wonderful clip of Williamson from a match against Gillingham in the FA Cup. When a ball is booted clear by the opposition, she backheels it over her head, traps it with another touch and casually lays it off. It’s ridiculous to even dream of doing that. She beams when I mention it. “Ah that! I don’t think I’ll ever do that again in my life. It was just instinct.”

At 17, she made her debut for Arsenal, and has now made more than 200 appearances (a huge number in women’s football, where there are far fewer matches a season than in the men’s game). Although a professional footballer, she has continued to study, and is on the verge of completing an accountancy qualification. (Perhaps it’s not a surprising choice – her father is an accountant and her mother works in financial services.) She knew how precarious football could be as a career, and having suffered a series of ankle injuries (the childhood problem with her feet made her susceptible to them), she wanted a backup plan.

In lockdown I thought: this isn’t sustainable any more. I’m wishing my career away rather than loving it

After eight years in the juniors, she made the smoothest transition to first-team football. She loved being the youngest in the team, because it took the pressure off her. But things became difficult once she had established herself. The girl who had played with such nonchalant ease found herself petrified. “When I was in the academy, I was just thinking: I’m the fan who gets to wear my team’s kit and go out to play! When I got to the age where I thought, I’m not the baby any more, I’m not the one who gets carried by the team, I became afraid that might not be good enough. I thought: people expect me not to fail now, so I’m in trouble. That was my battle.” She’s not talking about a period of weeks, she’s talking years – from the age of 18 to her early 20s.

Nerves have destroyed so many athletes. An icy temperament under extreme pressure is often what separates the greatest from the good. Nobody questioned Williamson’s ability. Her biggest challenge was silencing her own inner critic. “It got to a point where I’m thinking: this is not fun for me any more, because I’m too afraid to fail. The worst of it was in lockdown when I thought: this isn’t sustainable. I’m wishing my career away rather than loving it. In lockdown, I spent a lot more time with my own thoughts. There was so much instability.” The outspoken Williamson became so diffident she began to hold back on her opinions to the extent she no longer knew what they were. “I lost it,” she says simply.

Did she reach a stage where she was tempted to give up the game? “I never thought I’d give up, but I thought the game would push me out before I quit. I thought somebody will tell me: ‘You’re not great at this,’ or it will happen in an injury.”

She started working with psychologists. In the 2018/19 season, her self-belief returned, she made her England debut and Arsenal won the league. When they clinched the title at Brighton, Williamson says, she couldn’t contain herself. “We scored the first goal in the sixth minute, then I was crying for the rest of the game.” She smiles at the memory.

* * *

Last April, Sarina Wiegman made the surprise announcement that Williamson would captain the country in the upcoming Euros. Although Williamson wasn’t the club captain at Arsenal, Wiegman described her as “a great leader”. And so it proved.

Williamson talks a lot about captaincy. She says her mother and grandmother are the two greatest captains in her life, because they have led by example and strived to bring the best out of her. Williamson points out that you can be an inspirational captain in different ways. Her first captain at Arsenal, Kelly Smith, barely said a word off the pitch: “Then you go on the pitch and you’d do anything for her, because she’d put her body on the line.” By contrast, former England captain Casey Stoney was a shouter. “She screamed at me a couple of times for turning my back.” How did she react? “I only ever answered back once.” Where does she stand between Casey and Kelly? “More towards Casey 100%. Nowhere near being quiet. But I’d rather sit back, take something in and then respond.”

She is so proud of the way the women’s game has evolved in England. Players now have recognition and respect, and the best are earning good money, though still a tiny fraction of that earned by men (Williamson’s estimated £200,000 a year is roughly half of what Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne is believed to earn in a week). A large part of the appeal of the women’s game is that players are still accessible. “Our fanbase isn’t the same as the men’s. We can be our authentic selves. We’ve all come from pretty much the same place as the people who watch us. So right now we’ve got a real connection there.”

Williamson (centre left) and Millie Bright of England lift the trophy lift the trophy after England beat Germany to win Euro 2022.
Williamson (centre left) and Millie Bright lift the trophy after England beat Germany to win Euro 2022. Photograph: Naomi Baker/Getty Images

The question is how to retain that intimacy while growing the game. And growing the game inevitably requires investment. “You need soil, sun and water if you want your plant to grow,” Williamson says. “Somebody said to me the other day that if our product was on Dragons’ Den, and you didn’t know whether it was men’s or women’s football, you just saw this version of the game, and the increase in attendances and interest, they’d snap it up.”

Growth is not the only issue facing women’s football. The demographics of the game are fascinating. While the 2022 Szymanski report showed that 43% of Premier League players are Black, fewer than 10% of Women’s Super League players are Black. The England team that started against Germany was all-white, but only a generation ago many of England’s star players were Black (Alex Scott, Rachel Yankey, Eniola Aluko, Anita Asante) and so was the manager, Hope Powell. Back then, women’s football was an equal opportunities discriminator. There were virtually no resources, and it was incredibly difficult for any girl to make it in the game.

Why does Williamson think the game has become less diverse? “When we talk about resources, we talk about investment and, unfortunately, at the minute we’re not accessing as many kids as we could do.” Training facilities tend to be out of city centres, parents need cars to get there, and any parents working antisocial hours are disadvantaged. “We’ve had discussions about how we diversify the sport, because based on the representation of the country there should be more. There is so much money in men’s football that you’d have an academy boy living in the heart of London who would be transported to and from training. And the resources aren’t there for the women’s game. So we need to provide opportunities for these younger players.” While she stresses it’s more about class than race, Williamson says of course it’s also important for girls of colour to have role models. “When you see somebody that looks like you, you think it’s achievable. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. So that starts with us being women at the top, but obviously then it’s about being a diverse group of women.”

One of the biggest challenges, she says, is simply to keep girls playing football. In her book, Williamson writes about how many girls stop doing games at school when they start menstruating, and makes the point that exercise during periods can help the blood flow and ease the pain. “These are the things we need to talk about,” she says. “When I was at school, you’d be missing 10 of the girls because they’d say: ‘I can’t do it today, Miss, because of this.’ We have to be more comfortable within ourselves to do what we want to do.”

Williamson recently spoke publicly about being diagnosed with endometriosis. For a long time, she says, she thought it was bad periods. Not surprisingly, it affected her ability to train and play. “I’m trying to do my job at the highest level, despite this. So how can I achieve that? How can I help it? These are conversations that need to be had.”

Last August, after the Euros, Williamson and her fellow Lionesses penned an open letter to the then Conservative party leadership contenders Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss calling on them to give every girl in the nation the chance to follow in their footsteps. They said that only 63% of girls can play football in PE lessons, and urged the government to ensure girls have access to at least two hours of PE each week and the guidance of female teachers in the subject.

This is what she means by using her new platform to do good. “We’re doing work behind the scenes and having conversations, and we want it to be something that is tangible. Is that the right word?” It’s surprising how often she asks if a word is correct (it always is). “When you give your whole life to something, you think: what’s it going to look like, going forward?”

In women’s football it’s: be who you are, celebrate who you are, because this is a safe space for you

Would she ever go into politics? She laughs at the idea, but not entirely dismissively. “Ooh, I’d probably start losing my hair. I was never interested in politics at school, but the more you see the injustice in the world, how can you not have an interest in what’s going on if you care about the community you live in?” What kind of injustices? “Through football, you notice everything going on, because you get people coming from everywhere. There are no requirements to be able to play football. It’s available to everyone. It’s the closest thing you have to society in terms of a little world itself. That’s why you’ll hear so many footballers speak up, because they have experience of it; they hear people describe it, even if they’re not from that background.”

One of the most inspirational things about the women’s game is how at ease the players are with themselves. While the Premier League still waits for its first gay player to “come out”, so many of the female players are in same-sex relationships and happily open about them. Why does she think it’s such a different culture? “I can only speak on this as a woman, because that’s my group, but every single woman who has got herself to the point of playing, especially professionally, has had to face misogyny. So once you come into our game, there’s no way we would alienate anybody. I don’t think you would say anything in a woman’s changing room that would shock anybody because it’s so open. It’s, be who you are, celebrate who you are, because this is a safe space for you.”

* * *

A few weeks later, we catch up on Zoom. Since we last spoke, Williamson has won two more trophies. Last month, England bagged the Arnold Clark Cup, thrashing Belgium 6-1 in the final match, with Williamson scoring twice. A couple of weeks later, she won the League Cup with Arsenal. You really are on a roll, I say. “Yeah, not too bad. Not too bad!” She isn’t one for hyperbole.

There has also been a significant victory away from the pitch. Earlier this month, the government promised to ensure equal access to all sports in PE for boys and girls, a minimum of two hours of PE a week, and £600m over the next two years to improve sports in primary schools, especially targeted at girls, disadvantaged pupils and pupils with special educational needs. Williamson is delighted. “This is the legacy that we want to live on much longer than us as a team. I couldn’t be prouder of the work everybody’s done to get this in place. Equal access is the most important thing for us to achieve off the back of winning the Euros.”

Last month, Williamson announced that she wanted the team to wear the OneLove armband at July’s Fifa World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. “It’s everything our game stands for – inclusivity.” Did she feel for England’s men when they were told not to wear the armband, intended as a protest at all forms of discrimination, at the men’s World Cup in Qatar? “It was a tough situation. Nobody would want to be in that situation a couple of hours before kickoff.” Would Williams tell Fifa where to go if it threatened to impose sanctions on women wearing the armband? “Who knows? Hopefully, we don’t get to that situation again.”

As for life away from football, she says her priority remains family. Williamson has always been one of the more private members of the England squad. She recently bought a house where she lives on her own; she loves fashion and music (she’s had a go at DJing, but doesn’t reckon she’s much cop), going to shows and eating out with friends. When I ask if she’s a party animal, she laughs and says she wouldn’t dream of doing anything to compromise her career. “My job is to be physically ready for every single training session and game, so I’d never jeopardise that.”

Her ideal night out is going to a gig with 72-year-old Berny. “She won’t thank me for telling you her age! The last thing we saw was Florence + the Machine.” On her right pinky, she wears a ring that contains her uncle’s ashes. She says she’d had such a wonderful, loving experience of family throughout her life, and one day would like to start her own. Is that imminent? “Definitely not imminent! I’ve got some work to do on the pitch.” Has she got a partner? “No, I don’t.” Is she looking for one or happily single? “Not disclosing!” Don’t hold back, I say, you never know who might be reading this. “Is this a new dating app? Ha ha ha!”

Who are her best friends in the women’s game? “Keira Walsh and Georgia Stanway,” she says instantly. Williamson came through the ranks with her fellow England internationals. Both now play abroad – Walsh for Barcelona, Stanway for Bayern Munich. Would she fancy a move to one of the big European clubs? “Big? Should I ignore the sly dig to Arsenal?” I apologise. “I’m kidding! Right now, I’m happy and want to continue to grow at Arsenal.”

And who’s her best friend in the men’s game? “The person I admire the most and want him to do so well is Bukayo Saka. He’s not my best mate, but we do speak to each other. Anybody who knows him would want him to do well. He’s a good human being.”

One thing confuses me about you, I say. You’ve talked about the importance of following your dream, but do you really dream about becoming an accountant or are you hoping you never have to use the qualification? “Absolutely! I’m hoping I never have to use it. You know what’s ironic? I’m not sure if that’s the right word, but I hope to inspire other people to do things they love, and yet for me to choose to be an accountant is not something I love. I’ve been able to achieve so much by being passionate about something I love, so for me being an accountant would be a settlement.” So it would be a betrayal of your values if you became an accountant? “It would be. For some people, that is their passion, but it’s not mine. In the book, I speak about, find what you love, then do it, and do it till you’ve got nothing left to give it. If I’m telling people to follow their passions and to be the best versions of themselves, how could I give my life to something that wasn’t along those guidelines?”

It feels like a confession. Is this a recent realisation? She smiles. “It’s probably the first time I’ve vocalised it.” So what does she fancy doing? “I’m still waiting to find that thing that really sparks something in me. I was listening to someone who had retrained as a child therapist, and I think something like that must have an impact.”

My guess is that she will stay in football to ensure the women’s game gets all the sun, soil and water it needs to grow. Does she think it will become as popular as the men’s game? “I always say we’re 50 years behind. Who knows?” As Williamson thinks about it, she seems to be peering into the future. And her conviction is growing by the second. “I think it will become as popular. I think so. Why not?”

‘Parents of boys on the opposing teams screamed: Get the girl!’

An extract from Leah Williamson’s book, You Have the Power

When I was six, I was desperate to play football, but it wasn’t easy for my parents to find a team for me to join. There were plenty of boys’ teams around, but not many of the coaches wanted a girl in their teams. Some would make up an excuse by saying that their teams were full and there was no space for me. While no one told me “no” to my face, it felt like I wasn’t entirely welcome.

Eventually, my mum reached out to a local coach, whom she had gone to school with. He coached a boys’ team called Bletchley Scot Youth, and he said I could join if I was good enough. He was very clear that he wasn’t going to take me just because I was a girl, and also that he wasn’t not going to take me just because I was a girl, either! His attitude was “as long as she’s good enough, she can play”.

The other kids at Scot Youth made me feel accepted straight away, but often when we played in matches, I was made to feel like I didn’t belong by the team we were playing. The parents of boys on the other teams would often scream things like: “Get the girl” or “Get her!”. I guess they just didn’t like that their son was being outplayed by a girl.

The boys from the other teams would sometimes tackle me more viciously than my teammates, I think because they were so panicked about losing to a girl. My parents made me wear a gumshield for the year I played in that boys’ team. As if I didn’t already stand out enough! But it was worth it, because it meant I got to play.

* * *

Just under two decades later, I was captaining England in the final of the Euros against Germany. I always said to myself during that tournament that I would embrace every emotion, good or bad. I wanted to feel every moment. I wanted to enjoy every high, and if that meant feeling the lows, too, then it was worth it. I didn’t want to switch off just to get through it.

If you watched the final, you will have seen me crying my eyes out at the end. I felt so relieved, but the emotions were so strong I felt like I was falling into little pieces.

The noise had been so loud around the final, but we managed to stay in a little bubble throughout the tournament. We tried to shut out the outside world. It’s impossible not to feel the expectation when you walk out in front of 87,192 fans. I soaked up all that atmosphere. I thought I was going to cry, but instead I smiled the whole way through the national anthem.

When Chloe Kelly scored the winner in extra time, I didn’t even see who it was, I just saw a foot stick out, the ball go in and then everyone went wild. At the final whistle, I was a wreck. I had been bombarded by emotion after emotion not just for the length of the game, but for the whole tournament. When you achieve something that you’ve worked so hard for, suddenly you realise all of the hard choices and decisions that you’ve made throughout your entire life feel justified.

One of the most powerful things that we can do as players is exist in the public eye – just seeing women performing at the top level can help others believe that they can get there, too.

• You Have the Power: Find Your Strength and Believe You Can by Leah Williamson with Suzanne Wrack is published by Pan Macmillan. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.