Is star­let Leah ready to reach the top? You bet!

BIG IN­TER­VIEW: LEAH WIL­LIAMSON

The Football League Paper - - CHAMPIONSHIP - By Kieran Thievam

WHEN Ar­se­nal Ladies midfielder Leah Wil­liamson was ten years old she made a bet with her mum that if she ever cap­tained her coun­try in a com­pet­i­tive match, she should be al­lowed to stay in her dream ho­tel.

She wouldn’t have to wait long for a plush night in Lon­don’s Dorch­ester Ho­tel af­ter mak­ing her com­pet­i­tive de­but for Eng­land’s Un­der-17s two years ago, but do not mis­take Wil­liamson’s bet as ar­ro­gance or over-con­fi­dence.

“Much to peo­ple’s sur­prise, I’m re­ally not that con­fi­dent at all,” she con­fessed.

“I re­mem­ber when Shel­ley Kerr (for­mer Ar­se­nal man­ager) told me that I was com­ing on as a sub in the FA Cup Fi­nal last year. I tied and un­tied my laces three times to waste time, be­cause I didn’t think I was good enough and didn’t be­long on the field.”

Ver­sa­tile

Whether this is mod­esty or per­haps a touch of shy­ness, what the 18-year-old lacks in self-con­fi­dence, she cer­tainly makes up for in raw abil­ity.

Hav­ing al­ready rep­re­sented her coun­try at youth level up to Un­der­20s, she was awarded the PFA Young Player of the Year last sea­son fol­low­ing a dif­fi­cult cam­paign for her club that saw a mass ex­o­dus of ex­pe­ri­enced heads, in­clud­ing Eng­land cap­tain Steph Houghton and Scot­land in­ter­na­tional, Kim Lit­tle.

She was also thrust into the lime­light in April this year af­ter an un­prece­dented de­ci­sion by UEFA saw her suc­cess­fully re­take a wrongly ruled out penalty against Nor­way in a Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship U19s qual­i­fier – five days af­ter the ref­er­ee­ing gaffe had been made in Belfast.

The ver­sa­tile midfielder has taken this all in her stride and was ear­lier this month re­warded with a new con­tract at Ar­se­nal, which came as no sur­prise hav­ing been touted by re­spected fig­ures in the game, such as team-mate and coach Kelly Smith, as one of the bright­est young prospects in the coun­try.

But with Manch­ester City Women and Chelsea Ladies in­vest­ing heav­ily in their squads over the last cou­ple of years, was there ever a temp­ta­tion for Wil­liamson to con­tinue her de­vel­op­ment else­where?

Com­ing from a fam­ily of Ar­se­nal fans, there was only one place she wanted to be.

“I’ve been at the club since I was nine and I have de­vel­oped as a per­son as much as I have as a player in that time, so I don’t see any rea­son to leave.

“The club has its own plans and I think these are ex­cit­ing times. There’s a lot of po­ten­tial here to win things, and to do that in an Ar­se­nal shirt would mean the world to me.”

What’s all the more re­mark­able is the Milton Keynes-born midfielder has reached her cur­rent level while bal­anc­ing her football with her stud­ies, hav­ing re­ceived her A-Level re­sults a few weeks ago.

It could have been so dif­fer­ent for Wil­liamson though, who ad­mits she came close to quit­ting the game a few years ago.

Im­por­tant

“When I was 15 I did won­der whether football was for me, be­cause my stud­ies have al­ways been very im­por­tant and football was a hobby. But I car­ried on be­cause I wanted to see how good I could be.

“My stud­ies are over now and it’s

not a hobby any­more. I want to achieve so much more and I have all the op­por­tu­ni­ties in front of me to kick on.”

The Eng­land youth in­ter­na­tional high­lighted the im­pact of the se­nior team’s per­for­mance at this sum­mer’s World Cup as a real in­spi­ra­tion for young play­ers look­ing to achieve their goals, and ad­mit­ted it has given her even more hunger to suc­ceed at both club and in­ter­na­tional level. But it is ex­pe­ri­enced pro­fes­sion­als such as Casey Stoney, who once worked in the laun­dry room at Ar­se­nal, that Wil­liamson ad­mits has helped keep her fo­cused.

“I’m lucky that I get to go into Ar­se­nal as a pro­fes­sional foot­baller ev­ery day, be­cause the plat­form is there for me now and that’s thanks largely to what the Eng­land girls did in Canada.

“It was Casey’s third World Cup and she’s worked all her life against the odds, and what we have now is the best it’s been. I’m lucky enough to walk into that, whereas play­ers in the past didn’t have what we have now.”

Af­ter a dif­fi­cult cam­paign in 2014, Ar­se­nal Ladies cur­rently find them­selves with an out­side chance of win­ning the league and have qual­i­fied for the quar­ter­fi­nals of the Con­ti­nen­tal Cup.

Man­ager Pe­dro Martinez Losa has added sta­bil­ity to the side fol­low­ing a num­ber of man­age­rial changes last year, and has given young­sters such as Wil­liamson, Carla Humphrey and Chloe Kelly the op­por­tu­nity to show that, while Ar­se­nal may not have the fi­nan­cial power of some, they still lead the way in youth de­vel­op­ment.

Lead­er­ship

This was high­lighted when the PFA Young Player of the Year was handed the cap­tain’s arm­band by Rachel Yankey in a game against Wat­ford Ladies last month – a priv­i­lege the young­ster hopes won’t be the last time.

“I know I want to be a cap­tain be­cause it’s a mas­sive hon­our and I think I have lead­er­ship qual­i­ties in me as I’ve been a cap­tain in my youth teams,” she says.

“To take that arm­band from Rachel Yankey was an in­cred­i­ble mo­ment for me and my fam­ily. It’s not some­thing I go look­ing for, but I hope that just be­ing me will be enough and I’d em­brace that re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

With qual­i­fi­ca­tion for the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships com­menc­ing in Septem­ber, the tal­ented Wil­liamson made no at­tempt to hide her am­bi­tion to rep­re­sent her na­tional side at se­nior level.

How­ever, she re­mains hum­ble, some­thing she says her fam­ily has taught her from a young age, and re­veals that when the time comes that Eng­land boss Mark Samp­son gives her a start, it will not come at a cost to her mum again.

“We didn’t raise the stakes when I made my Eng­land de­but in the youth set-up... which I think mum is pleased about,” Wil­liamson con­cluded.

“As for the se­nior side, all I can do is make sure I work hard and play well for Ar­se­nal, and hope­fully that will be enough to turn Mark’s head and show him what I am ca­pa­ble of con­tribut­ing.”

PIC­TURES: The FA & Ac­tion Im­ages

BIG TIME: Leah has im­pressed boss Pe­dro Losa, inset, and has cap­tained Eng­land at youth level, left top, earn­ing her­self a night at The Dorch­ester, left bot­tom, cour­tesy of a bet with her Mum

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