Leah Williamson catches up with reporter Gail Davis to look back on an incredible 2022 and discuss her goals for the new year; Williamson talks Christmas rituals, Davina McCall’s message of congratulations after Euro 2022 success and her ‘pinch me’ moment of the past 12 months
Before I sat down with Leah Williamson to reflect on what has been an historic year I read back through the notes from the last time we spoke at length, a month out from the Euros.
A time when she could nip out for a pint of milk in an England tracksuit and no one would look twice.
My mum, who has no interest in sport, had absolutely never heard of her and wouldn’t have imagined ever phoning me up on the eve of the final to give me her take on what the Lionesses captain had said about our changing society.
Underlined in my notes that day were fun (twice), warm, authentic but also very straight talking (that bit was in bold). This is a woman who speaks her mind.
As the England captain walked into the pub very wet and windswept following the abandonment of the photo shoot in front of the Wembley arch the huge smile was apparent. “It was when the hail stones were hitting my eyes horizontally that I thought maybe this isn’t the best idea,” she laughed.
Safely inside with vision restored, the self-confessed Christmas super fan seemed more annoyed by the fact she did not have anything sparkly enough to match the impressive backdrop assembled by my producer Maddie, although she more than made up for it with her Christmas enthusiasm and cracker hat wearing.
What struck me as we sat in the shadows of Wembley, just a few months on from that incredible day, was that while the footballing landscape in the women’s game has experienced a seismic shift, the woman who helped make it happen had absolutely and thankfully not. England head coach Sarina Wiegman knew as much when she handed Williamson the captain’s armband before the Euros stating, “She’s herself and won’t become anyone else.”
It says a lot about Williamson’s character that when I asked for her “pinch me” moment of 2022. It was not the European Championship trophy lift, the fans, the wild party in Trafalgar Square but something that took place almost two months later after the noise around that day at Wembley had begun to quieten.
“I think going to the north London derby at the Emirates was the moment,” said Williamson, almost without hesitation. “Something like 54,000 tickets were sold, around 49,000 people at a place that felt like home and I thought this is sustainable. This is something that actually really could become the norm. So I loved that.
“To win the Euros at the home of English football, Wembley, and then to have a crowd like that. I’m just forever grateful, I think moments like that I’m like, what we’ve done is actually really sticking.”
That was certainly the hope and expectation of Williamson when we last met, although then she could scarcely contemplate the prospect of England winning their first major trophy for 56 years. She knew the team was brimming with talent but as a huge England football fan she had watched the men’s team and their “Golden Generation” come up short.
“I believed in us. I always thought we had a good chance to win the tournament. I think with what’s happened and what we’ve actually done is beyond anything we spoke about doing.
“I think just how lucky are we to have had the year that we have had.”
Deliver they did and 17m people in England tuned in to watch the nail-biting final win against Germany in extra-time. The nation had fallen in love with the Lionesses.
But who delivered the best message of congratulations?
“I got messages from people within the industry, which means a lot because I respect them,” added Williamson. “So for them to be so proud of what we have done, I think that’s lovely. I think on the outside of that you’ve got people that I never knew were even fans.
“Davina McCall literally saying to me do you know what you’ve done. You know what it is that gets me, people say thank you, thank you so much, thanks for the summer. I think it’s the fact Davina says thank you to us, she knows England, she knows what we love as a nation and she’s like, ‘It was perfect. It was exactly what we needed.'”
Williamson’s speech on the eve of the biggest game of her career was something pretty special too, Mrs Davis aka my mum certainly approved. With the footballing eyes of the world on her, she made sure whatever the outcome of the final her team would leave a legacy for every woman.
“For every success that we have, for every change of judgement or perception or opening eyes of someone who views a women as somebody with the potential to be equal to her male counterpart, I think that makes change in society. I think that is a powerful message,” Williamson said at the time. As she thinks about it now she believes “so many have lived in this sort of shadow and we made it acceptable to step out.” That brings another smile to the England captain.
Along with the thank-yous there has been plenty of glitz and glamour too. A few weeks ago it was the GQ Man of the Year awards and Williamson was an honorary invite rubbing shoulders with some big stars that she admits feel a world away.
I am in a room with people so far away from me and I am having like-minded conversations and I felt like I was not totally out of place with the kind of people that are so influential,” said the Arsenal and England captain.
“It was pretty, pretty amazing. I’m sort of navigating and trying to not act out of place in those moments.”
Williamson was wary of what the pressure of being one of England’s golden girls might feel like, and it’s something she is still getting to grips with.
“I was at the petrol station with my mum in the car,” said Williamson. “She went to pay for fuel and this guy taps on the window and I was like, either he’s telling me off for being on my phone or he recognised me and people wait outside toilets to see you.
“I never want to ask if they want a picture because there was a mural painted of me in my hometown and I walked over to this woman who was taking a picture and thought it would be funny if I put my arm round her and get in.
“She just looked at me like really weird and I just said I’ll let you have one on your own then and she was just like, thanks. I totally misread the situation.”
Going into the Euros, Williamson also spoke of her ability to compartmentalise. She loved football because she could leave it and pick it up where she left off the next day. It gave her the freedom to live the other part of her life, she enjoyed the sense of calm and balance but that equilibrium has felt a little less stable over these past few months.
“The real life that I knew, the one I thought I had such a good balance is now not there it is hard for me to find an escape,” said Williamson. “I step into what was my real life situation and it’s work still. I do love it, I love that people recognise us, but that was my switch off time.
“I’ve had to find new ways of being able to escape. It means a lot more nights in at that the minute. You know I want to be available to people and accessible, I want to engage but I don’t know anybody who can do that all the time, all that sort of energy.”
Williamson’s close family is what has kept her centred through these crazy few months and Christmas will give her the chance for some quality time with them. It’s sort of reassuring to know that despite being an England Euros winning captain all hell would break loose in the Williamson house if her stocking is not hung on her door and full on Christmas morning.
There are presents on a strict rotation basis, dinner, a karaoke style carol singing around the table which she describes as “soul-destroying”. Cracker hats are absolutely compulsory to the end and the fight for the green triangle in that well known box of chocolates brings out Williamson’s no nonsense side. “Don’t mess about, it’s not funny no one is having those over me”.
Competitive chocolate choosing is one thing, witnessing the cracker pulling was quite another. For the record I won, but did nor dare celebrate and handed over the prize – a Head Elf sticker which was stuck proudly on her chest. Fitting in words at least for someone who has certainly made that leader role her own this year.
You hope the festive period gives Williamson a chance to pause just a little and reflect on the enormity of her journey – before this summer she had only played six minutes at a major tournament and was not even captain of her club Arsenal and there she was leading England out and making history.
If she does take a moment you can be sure Celine Dion’s “River Deep Mountain High” will be playing. “It has to be my song of the year,” says Williamson who is the chief DJ of the squad.
When she hears it and she can get past the memory of Rachel Daley’s vocals, it brings back the fondest of memories, Ones she wants to live over and over. When you have achieved so much how do you top it in 2023?
What are her resolutions, I ask. “Tidying up after myself, taking more time for myself and keeping a diary to organise my life and not miss stuff, it’s really adult, I’ve crossed over now.”
I gently remind her there’s the small matter of a World Cup and she laughs. “Oh yes that”, she says, almost oblivious to the fact that yet more history could await next year for the Lionesses in Australia and New Zealand. The nation now expects.
“Hopefully we can have another incredible summer. Are we going to be able to live up to this year I am not sure we ever would but performance wise this is the next one, until you have a World Cup you haven’t done it,” says Williamson.
It resonated with the last thing she said in our meeting before the Euros “it is one of those – do you dare to dream? But also, you need to take care of the day-to-day,” she still lives by that and why wouldn’t she, it’s turned out pretty well for the England captain so far.