Leah Williamson: The England captain with imposter syndrome

Leah Williamson with Arsenal's Theo Walcott before the Carling Cup 3rd round match between West Bromwich Albion and Arsenal March 10, 2006
Lifelong Arsenal fan Leah Williamson interrupted a family holiday to act as mascot and meet Theo Walcott at a League Cup game in 2006
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Like it or not, Leah Williamson has become the face of English women’s football.

Having grown from a fan and mascot of her beloved Arsenal to a key player for the Gunners and a first name on her country’s squad list, she feels like an imposter.

she Appointed English captain for this summer’s European Championship could have raised eyebrows given the Arsenal defender’s vast tournament experience.

Previously, she had just six minutes as a substitute at France 2019 before landing England’s top job.

But the lack of naysayers speaks volumes for the 25-year-old’s standing in the game.

“Things have changed a little, haven’t they?” says Williamson, who has yet to make her senior international debut at the last European Championships in 2017 but has now played 29 gamesfor the lionesses.

“Someone said to me the other day that if I start this opening game, it would be my first start in a major tournament. Now I’m doing it as captain.

“I may not have had the opportunity in the past, but I’ve been working to be ready for it now. It’s the next part of the journey, that’s how I see it.”

Leah Williamson as the mascot before the UEFA Women's Cup Final, 2nd Leg between Arsenal Women and Umea on April 29, 2007
Ten-year-old Leah Williamson (sixth from left) was the mascot for Arsenal’s game in the 2007 UEFA Women’s Cup Final

As they stroll the streets of North London in their company for 60 minutes, nothing is off limits for a player.

Talking about where women’s football is going is why Williamson is speaking with Arsenal legend Alex Scott for a BBC documentary focused on the future of football in this country – and the world.

She tells Scott: “When I was younger, I was the girl who had my role models in football – you, Kel [Kelly Smith]Americans [Rachel Yankey]. Now that I’m in this position, I feel – what’s the word – a bit of a cheat because I don’t see myself anywhere near the way you guys were when you were playing.

“Now someone is looking up to me. They come to watch me week in and week out, so I’m a bit like ‘tough to fill’.”

Her appointment to replace longtime captain Steph Houghton was warmly welcomed by her England team-mates.

Millie Bright described her as someone who “leads by example” and a “very mature person” on and off the pitch. Defender Demi Stokes singled out Williamson’s “enduring” personality as a key trait, while Houghton said she was “a driven leader” with “all the attributes an England captain needs to be successful”.

“We don’t have to graft”

Williamson is only 25, but even in her time in the game, the landscape has changed immeasurably.

As a youngster she didn’t know if making a living as a footballer was even feasible, but now top players can expect to earn close to £500,000 a year in wages and trades – and a home euro will only increase the earning power of the Lionesses.

“My father always said to me that he hoped there would be a salary so that I could be a professional footballer,” says Williamson.

“The game has exploded. The opportunities that are coming now obviously benefit from them, but it’s never been what I thought I’d grow into – the whole landscape has changed.

“Now we’re all footballers and that’s what we do – we don’t have another job, we don’t have to transplant. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t people recognizing you on the street.”

Two girls hold up a banner and ask for Leah Williamson's shirt
Arsenal fans hold up a banner asking for Leah Williamson’s shirt

During the break between the end of the domestic season and joining England, Williamson will soon be heading to Italy for a Gucci fashion show – another opportunity she never imagined. “People will invite you because you have an impact on society and I don’t think I’ve ever seen myself in that position,” she says.

But with growing opportunities and media coverage comes additional scrutiny, something that England players are all too aware of.

Williamson says talks about how to approach social media during Euros – “post, don’t scroll” and “absolutely” avoid comments – have taken place in the Lionesses camp.

“I didn’t play at the 2019 World Cup, so I was fine,” she explains. “I was with everyone [social media platform]I didn’t care.”

Williamson says she’ll be a lot more careful this time, but will still take advantage: “I’m going to post and I want to get involved because it’s a beautiful time in my life and I want to celebrate with my people and share my story.”

Gamers originally got on board with social media to help the game grow, she says, “but a lot of the girls have been hit hard by it.”

“You had to walk backwards to get away from it. And I don’t know many now who are involved in their social activities because it’s evil.”

Many women footballers face a constant stream of messages from people who want to take down women’s football. “I think female footballers take patronizing personally because it’s my game, I’m here to protect it,” Williamson said.

“I don’t particularly enjoy watching fencing, but I don’t tweet to say I don’t like it.

“If you’re a football fan, not a rugby fan, you wouldn’t want rugby not to exist. They just think soccer is better so just watch soccer. But if it’s women, that means we have to remove it.

“But we’re not going anywhere,” she adds.

Leah Williamson drinks from a bottle next to Casey Stoney
Leah Williamson has won the FA Cup twice with Arsenal, as well as a league title and two League Cup crowns

Williamson is negotiating the wide-ranging talk with all the calm England head coach Wiegman alluded to when she announced her appointment as captain.

But the 25-year-old becomes like a child with wide eyes when she talks about the world record Crowds of more than 90,000 who saw Barcelona’s Women’s Champions League quarter-finals and semi-finals at the Nou Camp.

“I didn’t think I would see that in my life,” she says. “I’m jealous. It would have been amazing to play in it.”

When it comes to a home European Championship, with England’s three group games and the final at Wembley all sold out, that excitement spills over again.

“I think there’s always been a direct correlation between being successful in a tournament and what happens in the league afterwards,” she says. “I’m excited to see where we’re going and how much it can add to the game in this country.

“If you had told me as a kid that I was going to play at Old Trafford, which sold out for England in a home Euro, I would have bitten your hand off. It gives me goosebumps because I just think it’s literally amazing.”

And with that, Williamson is gone. Off to Italy on a flight to start her summer, which could end up becoming the first England captain to lift a major trophy since 1966.

Well, those are tough shoes to fill.

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