It seems surreal that a little over a month ago, Leah Williamson was leading out the Lionesses to lift the Euro 2022 trophy at Wembley. A magical end to a script that England fans are not used to reading. In that moment, women’s football in this country changed, propelling it and the members of the England team into the hearts and minds of the nation.
As Williamson sat down to meet the media in August ahead of Arsenal’s Barclays WSL campaign, that July evening was still present in her mind. “I’m dreading the day that I don’t think about it at least once,” she says. “I’m a big softy. I like fairy-tale endings, and it was very fitting for that tournament on home soil at Wembley Stadium. You couldn’t really have written that much better.”
But in football, as with any sport, you have no time to rest laurels. As soon as one tournament is over, the next challenge is on the horizon. For some who enjoyed success this summer, the transition will be easy; for others, it may be less so. Williamson is well aware that a “rollercoaster” of emotions lies ahead and has spoken to manager Jonas Eidevall to ensure she is able to manage them. “As much as coming out of a tournament early and underachieving, going from the highest high back into normal life is hard,” she explains. “I was expecting that. I have my plans in place to deal with my own emotions around it. But he’s [Jonas] very aware of me as a person and keeping that line of communication open as we go through because I just don’t know. Luckily for me, I play for a football club that I love so it doesn’t ever really feel like a day of work.”
Last season ended in agonising circumstances for the Arsenal team. They came so close to wresting the WSL trophy out of Chelsea’s grip, with just one point separating the two at the end. But that final day was always in Chelsea’s control and their closest neighbours were left licking their wounds once more. “I think it hurt me a lot and it tired me,” admits Williamson. However, she has found success this summer was the perfect tonic: “It’s given me a little bit of fire back in my belly. I’m looking forward to starting a new journey and seeing where we end up. So yeah, I’ve definitely got my motivation back from that aspect and once you get a taste of winning, obviously, you want more.”
“I’m looking forward to that longevity of a full season at Arsenal now,” she continues. “Naturally, we have our goals. We want to be winning things and being so close to the league last season, obviously we’re chasing those trophies and the Champions League is the big one. It’s a different game. We weren’t in it for so many years. Now we have players that have played in it and we’re all ready to see how far we can go in that again.”
Arsenal have had a quiet summer in the transfer window. While they lost a few squad members, the majority of the starters remained while two new faces came in. Some will see the lack of additions as an issue but maintaining the stability of a squad can also be key. Williamson for one sees it as a positive: “I think this is one of the first seasons at Arsenal where we’ve really had that, in terms of less of a change and more consistency. So, I’m intrigued to see how we do with that…I think that settled nature of the team could definitely be an advantage.”
The Gunners open the league season on Friday against Brighton in front of a sell-out crowd at Borehamwood, a direct impact of Williamson’s and her fellow England stars success. The Arsenal defender has been outspoken in her desire for that winning moment to be the catalyst that propels interest in the sport forwards, none more so that in her heartfelt post-match interview on the Wembley turf. When she looks at the WSL, she wants to see increased attendances and viewing figures: “Football is a game for fans. That’s how a sport makes its money and that’s how you grow as a commercial product as well. You can’t if people aren’t interested; you’re a fighting a losing battle. I think we’ve proven that people are interested and I hope that continues throughout the season.”
Williamson also has every faith that her fellow players are ready for the change coming their way. “I think if anyone was prepared for it, I’d like to think that women’s football [was],” she states. “Our whole careers, we give ourselves as a professional, but we’ll give whatever we have to give to the game. You play a game, and you could be so tired, have given everything and still stay on the pitch for half an hour with the fans. Obviously, this is a much larger scale but in terms of what we’ve been giving to the game for a while, I’d like to think that we’ve sort of been doing this dual role.”
There is no doubt that eyes will be on this season more than ever before. There is no doubt that Williamson and her Arsenal teammates will be going all in to make it a success and bring the trophy home to North London.