Lenna Gunning-Williams interview: Based on a true story – Young Spurs sharpshooter’s realest role yet

Photo: Tottenham Hotspur

Imagine starting secondary school with a series that you secretly filmed in the summer holidays set to hit mainstream TV in the coming months. As follow-up projects go, becoming a professional footballer a few years later is quite a sequel for Lenna Gunning-Williams.

Her name could soon carry increasing resonance, but if you think you have already seen the Tottenham Hotspur prospect somewhere before, you may well be right. An introduction to the spotlight came at just 11 years old, stepping in to play Jacqueline ‘Jack’ Marshall on CBBC’s football-infused drama Jamie Johnson.

Having signed a first professional contract at Spurs last summer, the now-19-year-old has this season been thrust into the real-life role of Ipswich Town forward – to rave reviews. The goals have flowed (14) during her loan with the FAWNL Southern Premier Division side, and if this Suffolk stint is an audition for a long-term breakthrough at her parent club, she has been leaving a noticeable mark.

Not unlike her test run for TV, it turns out…

“I actually smashed the light in my audition,” she explains. “Because (the character) was a goalkeeper, they wanted me to drop-kick the ball, and I absolutely launched it into the ceiling, shattered the light all over the floor – I thought that was me done!”

“I didn’t think I was going to get the role after that, but a week later, they called and said, ‘You’ve got it.’”

No raining glass was required when it came to smashing her Spurs debut. Lenna was one of three academy players (alongside Ella Houghton and Kayleigh Stead) included in the matchday squad for the first time by then-manager Rehanne Skinner, for November 2022’s Conti Cup (FA Women’s Continental Tyres League Cup) win over Coventry United.

Introduced on 73 minutes, the dream moment came spinning her way in stoppage time via a Cho So-hyun cross; Lenna did the rest, heading in for 5-1.

“I really wasn’t thinking that I was going to come on, but the night before, because I knew I was in the squad, I was like, ‘It would just be really cool if I scored.’ Then it actually happened and I was buzzing.

“I thought I was offside as well! If you see the pictures or the video, I look over to the lino like, ‘Please, please don’t put your flag up!’”

A first taste of the Barclays Women’s Super League would follow before the season was done, at Manchester City last March. Coming on after 92 minutes might not seem like ample opportunity to grab an unforgettable reminder of your league debut, but a dislocated thumb soon became the unexpected memento (does that count as character building?!).

Continuing to pass her current loan assignment with distinction, she typically trains three times a week at fully-pro Spurs, before travelling to East Anglia for a session with Ipswich ahead of each game. The prestige of getting her own place in Spurs’ first-team changing room, around numerous internationals, was not lost on the Enfield teenager.

Alongside squad number 31, a Jamaica flag currently adorns her locker, in honour of her paternal heritage.

“We basically had a ‘Jamaica day’ at Spurs for lunch one day – we were trying to go through everyone’s national teams – and there were Jamaican flags around the training centre, so I just stuck one to my locker!”

Named Lenna after her father’s mother, it could also be said that she inherited some crowd-pleasing energy from dad Colin Williams. Just like his daughter, Colin once got a big break of his own in Tottenham – at the north London nightclubs, Elton’s and (the grander-scale) Mayfair.

“My dad’s a DJ, so I’ve had ‘90s r&b playing through my house since I was young,” says Lenna. “On the way to football, he’d have his sets on; it’d be all the old ones, like Biggie, Mary J. Blige, Destiny’s Child, all that sort of stuff.”

“I still listen to r&b now and then – you can’t go wrong!”

With over four decades on the decks, Colin has played clubs and events (including Ministry of Sound) in the UK and around Europe. Now doing guest spots on HouseFM and Mi-Soul Radio, his early inspiration came from the late-and-lamented Essex mixmaster Froggy, the first in the UK to use the now-iconic Technics SL-1200MK2 turntables.

Few get to holiday somewhere that their dad has performed but that was precisely the case for Lenna last summer. Ayia Napa holds its own place in a corner of British-music folklore, with the Cypriot hotspot becoming synonymous with UK garage and its eruption from underground to mainstream, as the ‘90s began to collide with the 2000s.

Nestled away among the masses of revellers converging on the resort in those golden years was Colin. Also playing Ibiza and Faliraki, he was among the mid-‘90s frontrunners for UKG when it came to showcasing the sound in Napa.

“From the start of it to about 2001, I was playing there every summer,” he recalls. “We even opened a club there called the Spot for three years.”

“Crazily, 20 of us went there on holiday last year for the first time in 20 years, and just like the old days, I played out there.”

The old-school torch is now being gratefully carried by Lenna, with a listening-choice palette that is a smorgasbord of super styles.

“It depends on the day and what I’m doing, but before a game, I listen to heavy metal and rock music. There’s a band called Deftones and that’s who I listen to pre-game, because I just feel like I need to get into that ‘main character, little emo’ sort of mindset!

“I love all types of music: Fleetwood Mac, Ariana Grande, Mac DeMarco, Queen, TV Girl, Pierce the Veil. It literally changes every song.

“I feel like one of the first songs I bought was ‘Nothin’ On You’ by B.o.B and Bruno Mars; still one of my favourite songs.”

Back at Spurs, it is their smooth-striding Norwegian attacking ace who doubles as a resident vibe-provider on weekdays (there’s a party over there – throw your resistance bands in the air!).

“In the gym for pre-activation at training, normally Celin Bizet’s on the speaker, and we all trust her; she’s quite good, she gets us all quite hyped. She plays Disclosure quite a lot, the remixes.

“She’s Norwegian, so sometimes we’ll have Norwegian songs, then Latina songs…everything.”

Ipswich’s inner-sanctum, though, is her matchday base for this season, as part of a team who shone in 23rd March’s historic Portman Road outing, backed by a 10,173-strong crowd. A first league game for the women’s side at the club’s famous old venue was executed to rip-roaring effect, with Lenna grabbing the fourth in a 5-0 win over Chatham Town.

Such an occasion might not require much in the way of mood lifting, but who ordinarily fires it up before kick-off?

“There’s a DJ but it kind of changes; sometimes Sophie Peskett gets on it, Evie Williams is on it. That’s also like sort of club music; everyone starts singing, to be fair.”

Having signed for Tottenham at Under-16s, one-time midfielder Lenna has been a striker ever since. She has been joined at Ipswich in recent months by fellow Spurs youngsters Milly Boughton and Elkie Bowyer on dual registration, for a team who currently sit 5th in the FAWNL Southern Premier.

In their Portman Road victory, Lenna’s link-up with club legend Natasha Thomas was the stylish finale to a move led by Summer Hughes’ driving run, as Thomas’ instinctive back-heel was lashed into the far corner by Lenna. It is an overall understanding that she has felt all along with Joe Sheehan’s squad.

“I do think a big part of football is the social side and I got along with the girls straight away; my first training session, they were all really lovely. Football’s all about confidence, so if I go into that team and felt like they all didn’t like me, then I probably wouldn’t have got goals and assists, because I’d be too scared to make a mistake, but the staff and the players there really made it comfortable.”

The pursuit of optimum preparation before the moment to shine arrives is, of course, long since familiar for her, after so much time in front of the camera at a young age. She describes her preferred mind state on match day.

“It’s always ‘focus’ – especially on away games, my headphones are on straight away. Before I get in, I don’t like talking too much and getting too distracted.

“Then after a game as well, if we’ve lost, or if I’ve played bad, even if we’ve won, my headphones will go straight back on. I’ve then got to reflect instantly or it will ruin my weekend.”

Way before Lenna’s dad was helping to raise a goalscorer, he was already in the regular company of one. Part of Colin’s aforementioned travelling party to Ayia Napa once upon a time was Andy Cole, with their friendship dating back to the treble-winning Manchester United great’s time as a youngster at Arsenal.

Colin Williams (centre) with Andy Cole (left) and friends.

Memorably for some, the ex-England international also briefly turned recording artist, releasing his 1999 version of The Gap Band’s ‘Outstanding’ (featuring such lyrical gems as: ‘Tell the world my name, who’s that? Andy Cole. I blaze the scene, score the goals…). Should Lenna ever go for the triple crown of adding music to football and acting, let’s get an early idea of the direction she may go in.

If a cover track should be the chosen tactic for this new artist’s debut release, we need a teammate to join her in the studio (don’t ask why, we just do…).

“I’d cover ‘Beautiful Girls’ by Sean Kingston, with…who would I cover it with? Kit Graham from Spurs.”

On the festival front, she has already ticked off Reading, Boardmasters and Wireless. On this site, though, every interviewee gets the chance to defy the rules of time, all in the name of live music.

Lenna considers which acts (living or dead) she would be clearing the schedule for, if guaranteed a ticket.

“Definitely want to see Bruno Mars live, 100 per cent, that’s something I need to see. I was supposed to see Billie Eilish live a few years ago but then it got cancelled because of COVID.

“But Billie Eilish, and probably Michael Jackson.”

Her own brush with the stars has included the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards. She assumed the role of journalistic prodigy on the red carpet, interviewing the likes of England men’s captain Harry Kane and heavyweight champion Tyson Fury.

With no prior background in acting before Jamie Johnson, she recalls how it all came to be.

“I was playing with my Saturday-league team and I was playing against this girl. Her uncle, I think, was watching her play football, and he happened to work for Short Form Film, the company that produced Jamie Johnson.

“They kind of tracked me down through my club, and explained the whole plot of Jamie Johnson, basically, and said that they wanted me to audition. At first, I was like, ‘No…’

“I wasn’t up for it, because I didn’t do acting, it wasn’t something I aspired to be, but my mum was like, ‘When are you gonna get a chance to do it again? You might as well go for it.’”

It coincided with a transition even more daunting than academy football to first team – the step-up to secondary school! Her six-week holidays had been anything but ordinary.

“The first two or three weeks of Year 7, I didn’t tell anyone what I’d done in the summer, because I just didn’t want it to be a thing. I didn’t want to gloat or for it to be known, but then I would have to go away for a couple of months, and then my friends started to think ‘why are you not at school?’

“So, I told a couple of them, then (the programme) came out the following June, so people started to recognise me. Throughout secondary school, the new Year 7s would recognise me, up until I was in sixth form; I didn’t realise how known it was, to be honest, until I started getting recognised.

“I still get recognised now for Jamie Johnson, it’s crazy, and it’s what, seven years on?”

Even if she was not quite arriving at school in designer sunglasses, flanked by an entourage while stopping to sign autographs, suddenly being approached in public by viewers of the programme was an understandable jolt to the system at such a young age. She is asked about the first time it happened.

“I think it was my local town, I was just out with my mates, and this little kid came over with his mum – ‘You’re the girl from Jamie Johnson.’ I was obviously a bit shy and a bit cautious because it was the first time it happened.

“‘Oh, can we get a photo please?’ I was like, ‘Of course.’

“Took a photo, then more people started to make a queue! I’m thinking ‘what is going on?!’

“I was only 11/12 at the time, so I was just shocked by it, and my mates were like, ‘What is going on?’”

Making the grade all over again, in football, has become chief priority, and her first year as a pro has come with a different backdrop at Tottenham this season. The relegation battle of 2022/23 has made way for a profoundly-uplifting campaign, with a top-six place in the WSL at present, plus an FA Cup semi-final with Leicester City to come (on 14th April).

The driving force has been Swedish head coach Robert Vilahamn, a newcomer to the WSL this season who has impressed many with his attack-minded playing principles, his approach to player wellbeing, and his candour in press conferences. Lenna’s own experience of attention to detail from the staff included a PowerPoint presentation being prepared for her ahead of the Ipswich move.

Describing herself as someone who wants ‘brutal honesty’ from a coach, she has been feeling greatly invested in by those around her.

“Robert, you’ll see him say in many interviews that he’s very much into youth development, so him being at Spurs is probably ideal for the likes of me and the younger girls in the team. He’s very much like, ‘If you perform, and train well, if you learn and develop, your chance will come,’ and I’ve just got to trust that.

“(Assistant head coach) Vicky Jepson, I talk to her quite a bit and she’s very honest; ‘You need to work on this,’ or ‘you’re doing this very well,’ when you’re going through clips. They all just want the best for me.

“I can really sense that they have my best interests at heart, so it’s just about trusting them. The technical coach at Spurs, Anton Blackwood, he works a lot with me and the younger girls that train up (with the first team) as well.”

The togetherness around the team in recent times has been perceptible, with an overriding sense of a set-up being led with clarity and sincerity. It has allowed Lenna and other newcomers the space to feel comfortable enough to be themselves.

“The changing room is honestly such a positive environment. We all have breakfast and lunch together; I have lunch with Eleanor Heeps quite often, because she’s closer to my age.

“Kit Graham and Bethany England, training alongside such class players, who, if I ask a question, they’re gonna give the best advice they can and just genuinely want me to do well, it’s really a privilege.”

Although she is suitably at ease now, what about her very first session around those senior names?

“I was so nervous! It was April, not last year but the year before, it was international break and it was the first time I’d trained up.

“I was so excited, because I was about to train with the girls I’d looked up to, but I was so nervous; I think I probably lost the ball 20-plus times in my first training session!”

Precision, however, is usually on her side. Whether an international future lies in store with England or Jamaica, strikers from both of those teams are in the list of players she is currently studying closely.

“I’m not going to be Bunny Shaw, because I’m Lenna, but I want to take points from her, points from Sam Kerr, Bethany England, Martha Thomas, put them together and kind of use them to my advantage.”

Guidance, first and foremost, comes from her family. She tells how stepping up to senior level has enabled them to attend her games, with academy matches having typically fallen during working hours in the week.

“My sister and I couldn’t be more opposites; she’s not sporty at all. She’s seven years older than me but she’s a kid at heart.

“My mum, she doesn’t fully understand football, but she’s learning – I’ve taught her the offside rule with salt and pepper on the dinner table! She absolutely loves coming to watch me play football.”

While her debut Spurs goal came at Leyton Orient, the team’s chief home venue at present, their progress continues to be interspersed with headline games at the awe-inspiring Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, and Lenna wants to be more than just an extra in that scene. Turning 19 last month, life has already had its extraordinary elements.

The skill and ease at articulating herself belies her years, and as new layers continue to emerge, she looks forward to sharing more of her story.

“Now I’m older, it’s quite cool to let people know things that they don’t really know. Even though I’ve only been a pro for a few months, I think it will start to get cooler to be able to explain to people the transition from being on telly to now being a professional footballer.”

If she could go ‘on loan’ to any TV series, Stranger Things would be her otherworldly destinationShould the real-life Lenna story ever reach silver-screen proportions, meanwhile, she has an early preference in mind for that leading role.

“I adore Zendaya. I don’t look like Zendaya, but she’s mixed race, so…Zendaya as Lenna, go for that!”

To catch each of these interviews, you can follow: @chris_brookes

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