Before I sit down with Leah Williamson to reflect on what was a historic year, I read back through the notes from the last time we spoke at length, a month after the Euro.
A time when you could have a pint of milk in an England tracksuit and no one looked twice.
My mother, who has no interest in sports, had never heard of it and would never have imagined calling me at all on the eve of the final to give me what the captain of the Lionesses had to say about our changing society.
It was emphasized in my notes that day that he was pleasant (twice), warm and original but also very straight talking (this part was in bold). This is a woman speaking her mind.
When the England captain walked into the damp and windswept pub after abandoning a photo shoot in front of Wembley Arch, a huge smile was evident. “When the hailstones hit my eyes horizontally, I thought that wasn’t the best idea,” she laughed.
Safe inside with vision restored, the self-confessed Christmas fan seemed even more troubled by the fact that she didn’t have anything glamorous enough to match the gorgeous backdrop my Maddie producer had amassed, though she more than made up for it with her Christmas enthusiasm and cracker hat she wears.
What struck me as we sat in the shadows of Wembley, just a few months after that remarkable day, was that while the football landscape in women’s football had undergone a seismic shift, the women who had helped make it happen had, thankfully, never. . England coach Sarina Wegman knew a lot when she handed Williamson the captain’s armband ahead of the Euros, saying: “It’s the same and it won’t be anyone else’s.”
It says a lot about Williamson’s character that when I asked her about her ‘pinch me’ moment in 2022. It wasn’t about lifting the European Championship trophy, the crowd, and the wild party in Trafalgar Square, but it happened almost two months after the noise started that day at Wembley in Calm.
“I think going to the North London Derby in the Emirates was the right time,” Williamson said almost without hesitation. “Almost 54,000 tickets sold, about 49,000 people in a place that felt like home and I thought that was sustainable. This is something that can actually become a regular thing. So I loved it.
“To win the Euros at the home of English football, Wembley, and then have a crowd like that. I’m just forever grateful, I think for moments like this, what we’ve done is actually really thorny.”
That was certainly Williamson’s hope and expectation when we last met, although she could not then contemplate the prospect of England winning their first major title in 56 years. She knew the team was full of talent, but as a big fan of soccer in England, she had watched the men’s team and the ‘Golden Generation’ come to blows.
“She believed in us. I always thought we had a good chance of winning the championship. I think what happened and what we did really goes beyond anything we talked about.
“I just think how lucky we are to have the year we had.”
They pulled it off and 17 million people in England watched the thrilling final victory over Germany in extra time. The nation has fallen in love with lionesses.
But who sent the best congratulatory message?
“I get letters from people within the industry, and it means a lot because I respect them,” Williamson added. “So for them to be so proud of what we’ve done, I think that’s beautiful. I think on the outside there are people that I didn’t know were fans of her.
“Davina McCall is literally saying to me do you know what you did. You know what makes me, people say thank you, thank you so much, thanks for the summer. I think that’s really Davina saying thank you we, she knows England, she knows what we love As a mother 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 special, too, and Mrs. Davis aka Mom agreed. With the footballing world’s eyes on her, she made sure her team left a legacy for every woman whatever the outcome of the final.
“For every success we achieve, for every change in judgment or perception or eye-opening of someone who views a woman as someone who has the potential to be the equal of her male counterpart, I think that brings about a change in society. I think that’s a powerful message,” Williamson said at the time. . Thinking about it now, she believes, “a lot of them lived in that kind of shade and we made it okay to go out.” This brings another smile for the England captain.
Besides the thanks, there was a lot of glitz and glam, too. A few weeks ago it was the GQ Man of the Year award, and Williamson was an honorary call-up with some big stars who she admits feel a world away from.
“I’m in a room with people far away from me who have like-minded conversations and I felt like I wasn’t completely out of place with these kind of very influential people,” said the Arsenal and England captain.
“It was great, so great. I kind of move around and try not to get out of place in those moments.”
Williamson was wary of what it might feel like to have the pressures of being one of England’s Golden Girls, something she still deals with.
“I was at the gas station and my mom was in the car,” Williamson said. “I went to pay for gas, and this guy was tapping on the window and I was like, ‘Either he’s telling me for being on my phone or he recognizes me and people are waiting outside the toilets to see you.
“I never want to ask if they want a picture because there’s a mural painted of me in my hometown and I walked up to this woman who was taking a picture and I thought it would be funny to just put my arm around her and walk in.
“She looked at me like she was really weird and just said I’ll let you have one on your own at the time and she was just like, ‘Thank you. I totally misread the situation.'”
Going into the eurozone, Williamson also talked about her ability to divide. She loved soccer because she could drop it off and pick 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 balance has felt a little less stable over the past few months.
“The real life I used to know, the one where I thought I had such a good balance, isn’t there anymore, and it’s hard for me to find an escape,” Williamson said. “I step into what my situation was in my real life and still work. I love it, I love that people get to know us, but this was my time off.
“I’ve had to find new ways to be able to escape. And that means more nights in that moment. You know I want to be available to people and accessible, I want to be involved but I don’t know anyone who can do that all the time, all that kind of energy.”
It’s the close Williamson family who have kept her focused during these crazy few months, and Christmas will give her the chance to spend some quality time with them. It’s reassuring to know that despite being England’s Euro-winning captain, hell would break loose in the Williamson household if her stocking wasn’t hung on her door and stocked full on Christmas morning.
There are gifts on a strictly rotating basis, dinner, karaoke style carols sung around the table which she describes as “soul destroying”. Cracker hats are absolutely mandatory until the end, and the struggle for the green triangle in the well-known chocolate box brings out Williamson’s no-nonsense side. “Don’t mess around, it’s not funny that nobody controls me.”
Competitive chocolate selection is one thing, watching a biscuit draw was quite another. For the record I won, but I dared not celebrate and handed the award – the Head Elf poster proudly pinned to her chest. Words at least fit someone who certainly made this leader her turn this year.
Hope the holidays give Williamson a chance to pause and reflect on the enormity of her journey – before this summer she’d only played six minutes in a major tournament and wasn’t even captain of her club Arsenal and there she was leading England’s exit and making history.
If you take a moment, you can be sure that Celine Dion’s “River Deep Mountain High” will play. “It should be my song of the year,” says Williamson, who is the band’s chief DJ.
When you hear it and can get past the memory of Rachel Daly singing, it brings back the fondest memories, the ones you want to relive over and over again. When you’ve achieved so much, how do you top it off in 2023?
I ask what her decisions are. “Ordering after me, taking more time for myself and keeping a diary to organize my life and not miss things, it’s really for adults, I’m over it now.”
I gently remind her that there is a little matter of the World Cup and she laughs. “Oh yeah that is,” she says, almost oblivious to the fact that more history can lie in wait next year for the lionesses in Australia and New Zealand. The nation is now expecting.
“Hopefully we’ll have another great summer. Will we be able to live up to this year’s level, I’m not sure we’ll ever do that, but performance-wise this is next season, so you have a World Cup that you haven’t done,” he says. Williamson.
It resonates with the last thing she said in our meeting before the Euros “It’s one of those – dare you dream? But also, you have to take care of the day-to-day”, she still lives by that and why didn’t she, it turns out well for the England captain Until now.
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