Leah Williamson interview: Saved by the Beat: The New Class – Into the mix with Arsenal’s silky six
Arsenal Women have started the season like an express train, evoking a flashback or two to the time they ruled the land. In the backline for Joe Montemurro’s swashbucklers has been Leah Williamson, a Gunners devotee who knows the intangibles of her club like no other. Enjoying a burgeoning England career, the 21-year-old is showing a versatility that extends far further than the width of the pitch.
Perhaps the truest ever-present in football is that of change. Although an elite few will manage to stay stride-to-stride with it for longer than most, time always moves on, and even the most cherished and seemingly immovable stalwarts eventually do too. The great hope is that the new guard will hold the same standards and ideals dear.
It is just a few months short of being five years since Leah Williamson’s Arsenal debut, with Gunners and England great Rachel Yankey departing a UEFA Women’s Champions League quarter-final with Birmingham City late on to be replaced by a prospect who had turned 17 just a day prior. At 21, the Milton Keynes native has been a fixture in an Arsenal side landing some devastating early-season hits in the FA Women’s Super League.
While Leah’s debut came in the Champions League, Arsenal have been notably missing from it ever since. They remain the only English team to lift European women’s football’s top prize (known then as the UEFA Women’s Cup), doing so in their spectacular quadruple-winning 2006/07 season, with former England defender Alex Scott netting the famous solitary goal over two legs with Umeå IK.
Retiring last season, Scott was synonymous with the club, and while her contributions on the pitch were what she was renowned for, she was also an ever-willing custodian of the team spirit. Her team DJ role encompassed more than just being up on the tracks that could move a dressing room; more so a further platform for her understanding of what really resonated with those around her to come to the fore.
Luckily, there had been a natural successor on the inner circle for a few seasons, and she had even been mascot in the home leg of that UEFA Women’s Cup final in 2007. Her name – Leah Williamson.
“Music is, behind football, it’s the biggest thing in my life, I would say,” Leah explained. “My grandad was actually in a band when he was younger and we’ve got a couple of his records.”
“My uncle as well, so we’ve got a very musical family. Everybody loves music, everybody loves a good dance.
“I go to gigs almost every month with my grandma, because you can just go and listen to loads of different stuff. I’m from Milton Keynes so driving to training at Arsenal every day for however many years I’ve been doing it, there’s a lot of time to listen to CDs, and we’ve gone through every decade in the car, me and my mum, listening to loads of stuff.
“It’s just everywhere really. If I’m at home, I’ve got a record player, the radio’s on.
“I’d say that’s my role now at Arsenal. It’s not a stress if anybody else did take it over, but they normally look to me to put some tunes on.”
Joining the club at nine years old, number six Leah is a homegrown cove in a cosmopolitan Arsenal group. With an Australian-Italian coach in Joe Montemurro who urges an enjoyment to what they do, there are representatives from the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, France, Germany and Switzerland that mesh with a British/Irish core.
It is somewhat reflective of the city they represent, and perhaps a modern, multi-national twist on the timeless classic that was their aforementioned all-conquering team of a few years ago. Twice a Women’s FA Cup winner, as well as an England international at every level, Leah’s open-minded expressiveness has been shining through in recent times.
More naturally a midfielder, the current defensive performer signed a new long-term Arsenal contract in March, with her coach commending her on the knowledge and experience that underpins her play. The Gunners have won all seven league games so far, with a stunning 5-0 success at last season’s double winners Chelsea last month sending shockwaves through the WSL.
Rattling in 46 goals overall and conceding just five, whatever Leah has been lining up for everyone in the pre-match listening stakes, it has hit the target with deadeye precision! To even halfway satisfy a team of varying personalities with a playlist can be an uphill task, Leah shares how she sets about catering for her red and white revellers.
“I just put something out there and go off the reaction, so if it’s good then it stays on and we stay with that kind of genre. The girls aren’t shy to tell me when they want the next one on – Dan Carter does that to me a lot!
“But I really like music so I talk to a lot of the girls about music or gigs or whatever, so I do know what the girls like to listen to at Arsenal; I think I get the balance just about right. To be fair, considering how many different nationalities we have – there’s more English speakers but there’s only four of us who are actually English – we don’t actually have any foreign-language songs.
“‘Despacito’ (Luis Fonsi featuring Daddy Yankee) was the closest we got to that. Maybe that’s something I need to bring in; bit of a crowd-pleaser for the Dutchies.”
In a game rife with misconceptions, a footballer’s bond with music can often be underestimated. While there is a carefree element often seen to it – never more so than in some of the more novelty efforts recorded by players down the decades – songs and albums can be everything to those who spend their year travelling from place to place, with substantial thinking time into the bargain.
It is true there are teams where it enjoys less prominence, as more of a device to fill the background, but for many others, it is as much an essential as the tactics board. Captaining England at Under-15 and 17 level, Leah debuted for her country at senior level against Russia in Moscow in June as a late sub for Keira Walsh, before starting her first game in Kazakhstan in September.
It was with the Lionesses, and in that same World Cup qualifying group, that music memorably fanned the flames of euphoria on a big night in Newport, as Leah fondly recalls.
“In every team, music has the power to change the mood, so on the bus journey after a win, music can keep everybody feeling good, but it can also be like a refocus if you’ve had a bad game. I think as team DJ sometimes you make the decision to put some music on, on the bus, and it just brings everybody back together.
“The biggest influence with music is when you’re being successful; everyone’s happy and everyone’s enjoying it. For example with England, when we qualified for the World Cup recently, after the Wales game, the music in the changing room, I’ll probably remember that more than the game.
“The music was just good and everybody was having a dance and a good time. At Arsenal, we really like our old-school tunes and the singalong vibe, so if you get that at the right time then everybody’s having the best time ever really.”
Representing her country at the FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup four years ago, Leah’s Young Lionesses teammates in Canada included current England senior colleagues Nikita Parris, Hannah Blundell, Beth Mead, Melissa Lawley and Gabby George. Her manager at that tournament, and during her time with the Under-19s, Mo Marley, was also the one to hand her that first senior call-up.
It came last November for the World Cup qualifying double-header with Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kazakhstan, with Marley in interim charge. The caps have followed for Leah, who has fit in smoothly with the full squad, oozing composure throughout the 3-0 friendly win in Austria last week and leaving manager Phil Neville admitting she is now knocking on the door of a frequent starting place.
While her personal progress has accelerated, Leah is more than happy to blend into the crowd with the Lionesses, in one sense at least.
“I don’t think there’s an official DJ for England; it just kind of switches, or it’s who brings the speaker. Mel Lawley does it quite a lot but KB, Karen Bardsley, she’s got some tunes up her sleeve, let me tell you.
“When she brings the speaker I’m always pleased because she brings good music. I’ve had a go, but it’s whoever picks up their phone who gets that role.”
At club level, Leah has started almost every game in 2018/19, providing the coolness and cover in a side packed with match-changing big hitters like Dutch goal machine Vivianne Miedema and Scotland star Kim Little (currently sidelined with a fractured fibula). Back when Leah was emerging with the first team, the likes of Casey Stoney, Kelly Smith and Emma Byrne were the highly notable senior figures, and there was a sizeable off-field challenge the teenager had to overcome at the end of her first season.
The setting for this assignment for the 2014/15 PFA Women’s Young Player of the Year was Japan – a karaoke bar, to be more specific. Told she had an initiation to do, she settled on Ben E. King’s ‘Stand by Me,’ and she says soul was the first music she fell in love with.
There is a whole stack and more that fits alongside it in her favourites today.
“I listen to every genre; not so much into my grime, but other than that I just love music. I’d say one of my favourites is definitely Miguel, because he’s got an amazing voice, but then I like Paolo Nutini, and I’m loving Jorja Smith at the minute.
“Chris Stapleton – he’s country – Sam Smith, Adele; I could listen to them all day. At the minute I have one song that I listen to on repeat, which is Amber Mark ‘Love Me Right.’
“I stumbled across it on Spotify and can’t turn it off. I like keeping it classic so normally on the way to a game – this is gonna sound a bit geeky – I’ll listen to Elton John.
“Whitney Houston as well.”
For anyone who loves music, it is your own personal world, within which live all the pieces of sentiment, nostalgia and meaning connected to people and places in your life. Music and football are great pillars in Leah’s life, but there is naturally nothing that matters more than family to her.
Two days prior to England’s 6-0 win over Kazakhstan in Pavlodar, Leah was aware she would be lining up for the first time from the beginning as a Lioness. The location ultimately proved too much of a stretch even for her mum, who can always be found in the stands when she plays, while Leah’s dad also tried unsuccessfully to attend.
Nevertheless, she had a ‘good luck’ card with her, in which her mum had put a playing card with ‘L’ in the centre, and in two of the corners there was the number 6 that has followed faithfully behind Leah in much of her football life to date.
A song’s supernatural strength is that a specific voice or melody can throw open a memory book in an instant. Even if you are hundreds or thousands of miles apart from someone, music is your everlasting link back to them, and for Leah, the family ties are there when she recalls the first songs and albums she had.
“When I was tiny, my mum bought me a CD player, and she bought me two CDs: Enrique Iglesias ‘Hero’ and LeAnn Rimes’ album. Mum said I never took my headphones off.
“The first song I ever remember buying on iTunes – I think my dad gave me a fiver to get some songs with it – was Orson ‘No Tomorrow.’ Really random but I listen to everything, so my playlist, if it goes on shuffle it can be quite catastrophic!”
She never took her headphones off back then but Leah explains why she is especially keen not to wear them past a certain point on a match day.
“I never wear headphones (in the changing room) because I just like to be involved and be speaking to people. I like connecting with people over a song, whether you both go ‘ohhh, this is a tune,’ or whatever, little things.
“If I’m on my own in the car driving to a home game then the music is turned up, max, and I’m screaming all the way there. I’m quite relaxed really (before a game); I don’t have any superstitions or routines.
“I used to when I was younger and it just causes so much stress, to be honest.”
The vocals (and the facials…) are free to run wild in the safety of the car, but Leah generally prefers to leave it to the pros. She lists Adele and Paolo Nutini among the standout gigs she has seen, but given instead a selection pool of any artist or band from all-time, who would she be most desperate to see perform?
“Oh, that’s a really good question. I’m gonna go with my instinct – definitely be Whitney Houston, I think.”
Calvin Harris was another given a mention when recalling favourite live shows Leah has seen, and it goes without saying that it is a different experience seeing a mixmaster at work, rather than bands or vocalists. When it hits the mark, though, a DJ set can be every bit as momentous, and one for Leah claims a special place in her best-loved off-season moments.
“I’ve had holidays with the girls from football where it’s Ibiza, or Ayia Napa; good places where there’s music all around. DJ Russke, I really like him, so I’ve been to a lot of events where he’s played.
“He’s massive now but I knew him when he was just starting out, getting like 35 listens to one of his songs. Sometimes you remember them more than the holiday; just that one time when all your mates were together and the song came on.
“I’ve been to Canada a lot as well because my family live there – I still try and go now but it’s harder with football – and we drive a lot, so music’s always on in the car. It’s literally a massive, massive part of everything I do, so holidays are no different.”
Taking football and music out of the mix, some may be surprised to learn that accountant and historian fill the boxes of alternative career options for Leah. When she joined Arsenal’s centre of excellence in 2006, it was around a year after she had been made to choose between football, gymnastics and athletics. A reasonable enough choice now it seems.
Chosen to be the face of Nike’s Air Max 1 range, she has talked of the ‘dual responsibility’ for female footballers, in not just playing but fostering lasting interest in the game and its players. Leah has enjoyed London Fashion Week among the various events and functions she gets along to, and while not repeating the point to any huge extent, she has also expressed her support for remaining in the EU, having the courage to speak about what matters to her, even if some players shy away from doing similar.
There is a hunger from fans and people around the game for truer pictures of players, rather than hearing stock answers and standard soundbites. There is a sense that those willing to showcase much more of who they really are – what inspires them, what makes them happy, even what hurts them – is very much a part of the game today.
Mixed with Leah’s professional focus is a very clear appreciation of how important a wider viewpoint is.
“I love everything about playing football and it is absolutely the most important thing to me, but it has brought amazing things to my life and I love experiencing them. I’m very passionate about music and fashion for sure, but also education.
“Travelling to the places we go to, for example, is unbelievable; to see the world and educate myself on all walks of life. My family are also exceptionally important to me and the experiences we all get to share because of football is something I treasure.”
When differing industries and arts collide, the result can be uniquely brilliant. So, if Leah got the chance to take a lead role in that, locking down a track with some serious rhythmic punch, who would she get involved alongside her?
The only rule being that any co-collaborators have to be career teammates.
“Alex Scott – she’s got to be there. She knows what the people want, she’s a good DJ.
“She’s one of the most confident so I’d definitely have to have Alex Scott. I actually think we’d keep it quite fun and probably go with a dancehall song or something.
“Alex Scott and Drew Spence, they’ve got the best rhythm I think I’ve seen out of any footballers. Or Kaz Carney actually; I’ve witnessed that only once but she’s got rhythm!
“Singers, there’s a few that are always willing, like Beth Mead, but I think the best I’ve seen is a girl I used to play with who’s in America now (at University of South Alabama), Abigail Mills. She can play instruments, she can sing, so she’d be my top pick.”
Players can flourish when given the kind of driven, professional environment that also allows freedom for enjoyment and expression, and at Arsenal, they believe they have that in head coach Joe Montemurro. The former Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City boss signed a new deal last month, with his side lighting up the WSL thus far.
“He’s brought it all back to the football. He wants us to love being on the ball and enjoy possession and I love that..”
New additions for the Women’s FA Cup runners-up this season include Germany’s highly versatile Tabea Kemme, Swiss international Lia Wälti and Austria captain Viktoria Schnaderbeck. While aiming to get back to the real thing after four years out of continental competition, the players have their own ‘Arsenal Champions League,’ where the squad is split into four teams and they compete against each other through the season in a series of challenges.
There is football tennis, entertainment challenges, and even a January transfer window and tribunal. Montemurro took the reins last November, leading the team to Continental Cup success, a Wembley cup final, as well as finishing within a point of runners-up Manchester City in the WSL.
There was a feeling of undoubted progress, though still just a touch short of where they are striving to be. This time around, it has continued superbly, and Leah offers a glimpse into what the Gunners’ Aussie supremo has been like to work with.
“He’s brought it all back to the football. He wants us to love being on the ball and enjoy possession and I love that, so I’ve enjoyed the new things he’s brought back to Arsenal.
“We have a very relaxed environment because we work hard to make sure we are prepared whilst in training so that then we can have a bit of laugh when the work is done. He’s obviously helped me keep moving forward as a composed defender on the ball but he demands a lot from me as a defender as well, because ultimately that is my role for the team.
“As a person, he has definitely chilled me out! He’s taught me to control the things I can control and relax about the rest.”
Sharing a season ticket for the men’s team in days gone by, training at London Colney as a professional is a novelty that will never fully wear off for Leah. She remembers a time after she signed for the club when her younger brother was too small for ‘Williamson’ to fit on the back of his Arsenal shirt!
The image of Josephine Henning passing Leah the FA Cup in front of the Royal Box to lift at Wembley in 2016 is one streaming with all sorts of significance. To feature in that game with Chelsea and win on such an occasion made it a day that will always stand high in Leah’s career moments, though her national team exploits are especially golden to her.
It would be remiss not to mention the true extraordinary national team experience she has had to face, which came in April 2015 as an Under-19s player. Facing Norway in the elite round of their European Championship qualifier with Norway in Belfast, Leah stepped up to put away a penalty for England in the final moments.
The goal would have secured a crucial point but was erroneously ruled out for encroachment in the penalty area as Leah was taking it, with Norway bizarrely awarded a free-kick. The game (or rather the final 65 seconds) was restarted a few days later at the penalty kick, with Leah holding her head to bury the chance.
Earlier that day, England had played their final group game, with Leah scoring another penalty in a 3-1 win over Switzerland. The draw with Norway qualified them for the Euros in Israel that summer after what had been a unique emotional test for a teenage player.
Describing herself as ‘a very patriotic person,’ Leah has relished the opening to her full international career.
“Playing for England has been my proudest moment so far. I have had the time of my life being involved the past year.
“The Lionesses have done an amazing job taking the women’s game to the next level in this country and I’m glad to be a part of the team.”
The consistent upward progression to Leah’s career is now coinciding with Arsenal’s resurgence, and the Gunners have surfaced as genuinely fearsome challengers again. With Leah, there is maturity and an assurance, but it is a markedly grounded confidence.
She considers the impression she would like people to take away of her, along with how that 17-year-old Arsenal debutant is different to the ‘veteran’ Leah of today.
“I came into the game emotional and hungry, and I feel I am still that way today, but I have learned how to handle those emotions and to be patient and know that when my time comes it will be the right time. I mentioned earlier about controlling the things I can and focusing on them instead of wasting energy on things I had no influence on.
“I’ve also realised that I am part of a generation that is really transitioning the game to the heights we want it to be at, so when I speak to media and fans I have a genuine interest to keep people coming back to our games to share the journey with us. In terms of myself, I will always just be me and try to be polite and respectful always; no different to how I try to be in life.”
For now, it is back to Leah’s ‘office’ to finish this one. Twice a winner of the competition, the Continental Cup was the tournament in which she scored her first Arsenal goal, against Millwall in 2014.
She soon followed it up against Chelsea in the league, and while she might operate further back from midfield at present, there is no strict holding of positions required in this final question (your chance to get right amongst it, Leah!). Although variations of this question have been doing the rounds in all sorts of football outlets in more recent times, it has been the regular one to close the interviews on here for almost the full seven years of Beats & Rhymes FC.
The rules are any four players Leah has played alongside in her time in the game to fill a fantasy 5-a-side line-up. There is no emphasis on choosing ‘the best’ she has ever played with, but who are some of the names she would love to get out there and take an opposing team on with?
Last time out for Arsenal, it took them just under an hour to break through against Birmingham, with the 3-1 win showing they can find a way even when they aren’t necessarily blowing teams away. In this team of Leah’s, she certainly has some elite-standard lock-pickers to turn a game.
“We’re having an Arsenal dream team. Number-one pick, Kelly Smith, because of how good she is but she would keep it lively and feisty!
“I’d also have Emma Byrne in goal. I don’t reckon anyone would get past her in 5-a-side.
“Then (in midfield), I’d have Jordan Nobbs and Kim Little. You can take my word for it that when those two start one-two-ing in 5-a-side the other team is dead – they don’t stop moving!
“This is very offensive with no defenders; I don’t like to hold back in 5-a-side!”
This interview also featured in Issue 50 of She Kicks magazine
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