Women's Soccer League: Leah Williamson says 'I love playing for The Arsenal'
PUBLISHED: 08:53 09 September 2018 | UPDATED: 10:03 09 September 2018
©2018 Danny Loo Photography - all rights reserved
It’s the use of the definitive article that grabs you when Leah Williamson speaks.
A determiner that introduces a familiar noun phrase.
When the charismatic 21-year-old speaks of her club, she always uses the small prefix which says so much – because it’s the way supporters refer to the Gunners.
On top of being an England international, a role model to youngsters and an engaging and articulate interviewee, Leah is a true fan.
She makes no secret to hide it. There are no dry platitudes fed to her from a PR machine.
With Leah there is an authenticity about her. A passion. A genuine devotion.
Versatile midfielder Leah – who has vision and awareness while being strong in the tackle and good in the air – says: “I love playing for The Arsenal. The majority of my family are fans. I’ve been with the club since she I was nine. It’s in the blood.
“Me and my grandma used to go and watch the men’s team. We had season tickets.
“Even now when I put the kit on and go and play or train it gives me a buzz.
“I know how lucky I am because I’m living the dream of every fan. To be here [at London Colney] and use the facilities, to be in the position I am – I know I’m fortunate. I’m a fan and it just blows me away. To work at a place which is also your passion is just unbelievable.”
Leah, who wears the No6 shirt, is far too modest to mention the fact but it is no accident she is contemplating starting the new Women’s Soccer League as a full international and an influential member of the Arsenal side.
For she has, quite simply, put blood, sweat and tears into reaching this point. Along with her loyal family, mostly made up of Gooners.
Leah joined the Arsenal Ladies Centre of Excellence in 2006 as a nine-year-old, progressing through the age groups with real promise. She was part of the under-17s’ league and cup double-winning squad in 2013, captained England at U15 and U17 level and represented the U19s, U20s and U23s, making her debut as a full international against Kazakstan for the Lionesses last year.
Parents are unsung heroes whatever they do but for those whose children are football-mad they act as unofficial cheerleaders, not to mention taxis.
Leah says warmly in admiration: “My parents would be there in all weathers, ferrying me around to training and matches.
“They’ve never let me down and they’re always completely honest with me. Hopefully what I’m doing now is a small way of paying them back for all their support over the years.
“They’ll be there on Sunday just like they are for 99.9 per cent of games.”
With the increased profile of the women’s game set to reach a tipping point at some stage in the near future and with coverage increasing all the time, not to mention its ever-growing popularity, the game is set to explode.
Arsenal have more than 30 junior ‘sister clubs’ that are affiliated to the North London giants which fosters a real sense of belonging while spreading the gospel of women’s football.
After record-breaking viewing figures at the UEFA Women’s European Championships – an audience of 165 million was reached globally, with more than 20 million fans getting involved on social media – it is no overstatement to predict Leah will become one of the superstars of the sport.
The women’s side host Liverpool on Sunday lunchtime – with the match being streamed from the BBC and BT Sport along with acres of newsprint devoted to the team.
“It’s good that women’s football is finally getting the recognition it deserves. There’s still a long way to go but it’s great to see,” she says.
Leah looks ahead to the match at the start of the Women’s Soccer League. For the first time during the interview she turns deadly serious.
There is a strong tradition of supporting women’s football at Arsenal.
The club have long been at the forefront of such progress. While Manchester United have only just agreed to operate a women’s team, bumping Sunderland out in a re-jigged 11 team division – the North London giants founded their first female team in 1987, known at the time as Arsenal Ladies FC.
They are the most successful English club having lifted an incredible 44 major trophies in 31 years including a pair of Women’s Soccer League titles and prior to the rebranding 12 Premier League trophies as well as 14 FA Cups.
“Arsenal have always had a tradition of being at the forefront of women’s football going back to the 1980s with people like Vic [Akers], who’ll always be a legend,” she says.
“But you could say there are teams that, at the moment, are probably bigger favourites than us for the title, such as Chelsea and Manchester City,” Leah explains.
“Yes, we reached the FA Cup final last season but that’s not good enough for The Arsenal. For a club of our stature we want to be winning titles consistently. And hopefully we can start with a good result against Liverpool.
“It’s going to be tough but we’ll give it our best. I can’t wait for the season to begin. And we’re looking forward to playing in front of our fans at home.”
Home for the Arsenal Women is Boreham Wood. A national league setting for Premier League stars. Visitors to the games are struck by the relationship between the fans and the players.
Arsenal’s determination to grow the sport is down to many, including people such as Tom Hartley, responsible for managing football development programmes at the club, included their renowned ‘sister club’ programme.
Leah agrees, adding: “The sister club idea is so important to spread our game. We all have a responsibility to go out there and show that girls can become footballers. That they have just as much right to dream of becoming a footballer as a boy.
“I know Heather O’Reilly did a lot of that last season. She was brilliant at going out to sister clubs like the Hitchin Belles and many others and inspiring the youngsters to play football.
“We all have a duty to do that and it’s certainly something that I plan to do this season when I have the time.
Whatever the result the Arsenal side will stop and sign autographs for every single supporter after the match. There is a sense of belonging and camaraderie, something which is not always evident in the men’s game.
“Yes, there is a bond between the fans and the players when we play”, Leah adds.
“We try and do our part by staying behind and signing autographs and having a bit of a chat at the right time. I think it does encourage a good atmosphere and hopefully does a little bit to push the game.
“But first and foremost we enjoy doing it. We all do. It’s fun, it’s never a chore.
“Signing autographs after playing for The Arsenal? That’s not work.”
Arsenal reporter Layth covers all aspects of the club. See the Islington Gazette for his regular reports from the women’s team throughout the season. Follow him on Twitter @layth29