Arsenal and England central defender Leah Williamson has spoken about the highs and lows of her career – as she continues to work her way through her seventh season as a professional footballer.
Williamson joined the Arsenal Centre of Excellence in 2006 at the age of nine – but it wasn’t until the 2014-15 season that she made her debut, in which she was named league cup player of the season.
Since then, the 24-year-old has enjoyed some of the best moments of her career – and some of the lowest.
And while she said making her debut as a young player was quite a daunting thing, it felt more like a reward for all the hard work she’d done throughout her career up to that point.
Williamson said: “It was dreamy – I got my opportunities because we had a few injuries and kind of just slotted in, tried to make myself look as ‘at home’ as possible and not stand out for looking terrible. I still was slightly terrible but, for a kid, everybody gives you a bit of slack.
“But, yeah, I did have a good year, scored my first goal against Chelsea and missed like one league game or something.
“I played every game leading up to the FA Cup final but the player I came in for happened to be back so, as fate would have it, it wasn’t meant to be that day.
“I feel like I’d trained all my life for that moment, I took the opportunity with both hands, didn’t miss a beat, giving everything to football. I was just having the best time of my life, really, just reminding myself that this is what I’ve dreamt of doing my whole life.”
The 2014-15 season saw Williamson named the England Women’s Youth Player of the Year before she was later named PFA Young Women Player of the Season.
Despite what seemed to be a meteoric rise from the outside, Williamson said it marked the pay-off of years of hard work and dedication.
She said: “Winning Young PFA Player of the Year, yeah obviously it’s not about those moments in football but it means so much that, at the end of my career, I’ll be able to look back on them, at those moments so I don’t take them for granted.”
— Guardian sport (@guardian_sport) April 26, 2015
But, unfortunately for Williamson, her path to success was not a straight line and the next season saw her suffer several injuries that limited her to just two appearances all season.
With this time off being the first serious break in her professional career, it presented a major hurdle for her, not only physically but mentally. She said: “I got injured the next year, twice, like I did my ankle, came back and did it again.
“The next year was plagued by injuries as well and that for me was so scary because I’d announced myself, made all these things, done all these things, wanted to be the best then, all of a sudden, fell off the face of the earth.
“I always put so much pressure on myself to be the first, I wanted to be the youngest to play for England, youngest to do this, youngest to do that. It felt like I’d lost it all, which is ridiculous, it was only my second year in football, and I was still only like 18.”
But she also spoke about how that time out allowed her to reflect on her career so far and where she wanted it to go.
Williamson said: “When I got back, I knew I wanted to be remembered for being what I actually was rather than just being some wonderkid, which is why it felt so good when we won the league it was like, well done, you’ve announced yourself, you’re here to stay now.”
Being an Arsenal fan her whole life, Williamson also spoke about how playing in the first-ever league North London Derby against Tottenham Hotspur was for her and how, despite all the things she’d already achieved in her career, that was the moment that she first truly felt like a professional footballer.
She said: “It was the first time I’d felt like a proper, professional footballer
“Like, I know this is going to sound stupid but I’m a fan, it was the small things like turning up early, walking around the pitch to the changing room, a nice changing room, having enough space to put your bag next to you, which isn’t always the case, the mascots, meeting the fans, doing the signings, it was like when you’re watching a pre-match build up to a men’s game.
“I don’t like to give too much credit to Spurs but the way they did the day it was so great, there was a separate bit for the Arsenal fans, which has never been done before in women’s football so, when we scored in the second half, we were right in front of the away end.
— Guardian sport (@guardian_sport) November 17, 2019
“I remember just thinking, this is what it’s all about, it was special for me, and to actually win as well, it was just literally the perfect day.”