Leah Williamson of Arsenal WFC talks with Asif Burhan

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Leah, when I ask most leading female footballers who their hero was growing up, they mostly name a male player. At the age of 20 you’re young enough to have been able to watch women’s football on TV and you’ve said that Kelly Smith was your hero. Now young girls come up to you and ask for your shirt and your picture. I’m sure you have male heroes too but speaking from your own experience, how important is it for young girls to be able to look up to women players like yourself to create a pathway into the game?

I think it’s massive. I think if anything it’s underrated. The reality is, a little girl is not going to make it in men’s football – it’s not going to happen. So they need a role model that is actually true to their pathway, like you say. So I think to have women to look up to, it doesn’t mean they can’t look up to men, it’s really important for young girls because it proves that they could be where I’m standing right now. Whereas when, like you say, before my time, when there wasn’t women to look up to, girls were looking up to male footballers but it was never a reality that they would be able to be a footballer whereas now it’s proof that that can happen. Yeah, I think it’s really important for young girls to be able to have role models that are women, yeah.

It’s now three years since you made your first team debut under Shelley Kerr. I think you came on as an 81st minute substitute in the Champions League match with Arsenal needing three goals to go through. Can you still remember that and what she said to you when you went on the pitch?

The game wasn’t going our way, over a two legged fixture. I’d had unofficial debuts in pre-season, and minutes but I obviously didn’t do quite enough to make the start that day. So I think she was just sort of giving me a taster for harsh reality at the time. Yeah, just getting me involved. I didn’t really have too many instructions. It was just; I think we needed a little something extra, bringing on kids can sometimes. . I went on with a couple of my academic graduates as well. Maybe she wanted to switch it up. It wasn’t the best of starts, let’s say that.

That was your first, and so far only, involvement in the Women’s Champions League. Seeing Chelsea and Man City go through this week, how much of a wrench is it for you at Arsenal having to watch that and is getting back into the competition for next season a priority now?

Absolutely. There isn’t anything higher on our list. Trophies are great, and FA Cups are fantastic and this club prides itself in having won so many but Champions League football is what every player wants to play. We’re attracting big names to this club now but we need to be in that competition to show them off. There’s no point having those all these players if we’re not on that stage. It’s absolutely number one priority. Obviously we haven’t had the best of starts but that is still top of the list.

Speaking to a top international player told me that she saw you as a central defender, but you saw yourself as a midfielder. I’ve seen you play all along the back line. When I saw you against Everton, you playing as a deep-lying midfielder, is that your best position? What do you think are your strengths in that role and what do you think you need to improve?

I think, I really don’t know where I will end up. I’ve been told as well, that maybe as a central defender, I could be, I could reach a much higher level if I dedicate myself to that. I look at players like Steph Houghton and she was versatile for a long while and played different positions and it’s only helped her and now that she’s cemented her position. I don’t like to get bogged down on it. I think I have lot to offer in the midfield, just because purely because I have the energy and the legs. Obviously I’ve been playing a sitting role but when I had my first season with Arsenal, I was a box-to-box midfielder and actually quite high up on the pitch. So I think I can do a range of things. I have qualities that suit in me in both. As a central defender, I just get bored, that’s the bottom line of it so I’ve never dedicated myself to that position as a kid. I’ve always been a midfielder. But against top opposition, the thrill of being a defender and having that pressure that you’re the last person before the goalkeeper, I love that. There’s pros and cons to all of it. The truth is growing up I was never going to be a center half because when you play for a team like Arsenal you want to be involved in it. As a kid, I don’t think anybody wants to be a defender, especially not a center half. Yeah, we’ll see what happens but I just need to keep on improving my game in all aspects to be honest.

People who may never have seen you play may still remember you as that player who took that penalty for England U19s two years ago against Norway. At the time, did anyone advise you to let somebody else take the penalty and did it every cross your mind? Looking back, is the fame of that moment, something that has helped you develop you as a player and a person?

I think, when I took the penalty, the ref in the first game where one of our players came into the box, one of the girls turned around, because a retake, it’s always a bit – do you want to take it again. One of the girls turned around and said “do you want me to take it” and I was like “No”, like “this is mine”, because I just had it in my head. Obviously coming back five days later, I don’t think it was a question. I got asked if I wanted to do it, I was never, ever going to turn down that opportunity. I didn’t really want to give the pressure to anyone else, because it wasn’t nice, it wasn’t going to be nice for anybody. I had a great breakthrough season, my first year at Arsenal, I won PFA Young Player of the Year that year but the penalty came just before it. It was great, the attention was crazy. I told my mum not to tell anybody because I didn’t want anybody to know and then it turns out Sky was there. Coverage can always be good for the women’s game. I didn’t want to just be known for that one thing. The way I see it, it was just a penalty, one kick of a ball. I just had to get the job done. It was fantastic, I’ll never forget it. I proved a lot to myself and to others in terms of the pressure that it came with. I basically need to do something else now, or that’s going to be my only heroic thing in my career. Yeah, I’m waiting for the next big moment to come around.

I was out at the Euros watching England; a very old England squad reach a second successive tournament semi-final. You’ve personally gone through every single age group with the national team so with the World Cup two years ahead so is the national team a realistic target for you before 2019?

Definitely, definitely. If you’d have asked me two years ago before the Euros, I’d have said it was a realistic target then. I don’t like to set a bar, I want to reach all heights, and get as far as I can. It’s always been realistic for me it’s just whether or not I can reach that level in time for a coach to pick me. Definitely, the World Cup is on the radar and for every girl in my position, especially my age now. I’m not that young anymore. . I am. . but in terms of there’s a lot of young girls coming up as well, who’ll also be aspiring to it. I think that’s good, it’s good for this country. It’s good that we’ve got people coming through and want to be involved. It’s about whether I can take myself to that level and be picked for it. So yeah, it’s a work in progress.

Thank you Leah, and good luck for the season.

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