Changes: Leah Williamson
The audio version of this episode is available here.
Annie [00:00:05] Hello and welcome to Changes. It's Annie MacManus here, and we have come to the final episode of this epic series. It's been amazing and so varied. We started with Fearne Cotton, we heard from Trainspotting sensation Frances Bourgeois, we heard from the poet and writer Kae Tempest, a hugely emotive episode that one. I spoke to Louis Theroux in my kitchen, the comedian Rosie Jones had me laughing and crying and talking about her life with cerebral palsy. We had The Holistic Psychologist teaching me about boundaries, Josh Widdicombe talking about going sober. We had Laura Bates talking about sexism and Shiva Mahbobi talking about the treatment of women in Iran, in two really eye opening and hard hitting episodes. I've even been interviewed myself by the Irish comedian and legend Joanne McNally about my switch from radio into writing and podcasting. It's been so enriching and so fulfilling having these conversations and bringing them to you. Thank you so much for listening and of course they all up there for you to listen to at your leisure if you missed any. Now, to finish things on a high, we wanted to bring you someone who is really representative of a huge cultural event happening over on the other side of the world at the moment. That is the World Cup. Our guest today is Leah Williamson. Leah joined Arsenal's youth program at the age of nine and played for the senior Arsenal's women's team for the first time on just turning 17. She won her first F.A. Cup final in 2016 for Arsenal, played in the England squad for the first time two years later, and last year you will know she became captain of the England team and went on to lead the Lionesses to victory over Germany in the UEFA women's Euro 2022. It was such a huge moment that represented change in a myriad of ways. Leah Williamson, it is a pleasure to have you on, thank you for being here.
Leah [00:01:58] Thanks for having me honestly, such a pleasure.
Annie [00:02:01] One of the things we've learnt about on this podcast because we discuss change week in, week out, is that there's two types of change. There's change that you go and embrace and kind of make happen and then theres change happens to you. And some of that change could be very unwelcome and we should start the conversation by addressing that unwelcome change that happened to you back in April in the injury that you got. What happened and how were you feeing then and now, please.
Leah [00:02:28] Yeah, so 12 minutes into a game I tore my cruciate ligament in my knee.
Annie [00:02:33] How?
Leah [00:02:34] I literally went in for the most bog-standard of tackles that you can imagine, landed in a way that my body just didn't agree with and my knee just literally popped. And then I knew straight away that's my World Cup over. It was a weird day, I've not felt like that for a really long time.
Annie [00:02:52] How did you feel?
Leah [00:02:53] Just- it's one of those things where everyone expects you to feel a certain way. I don't tend to do things that people expect me to do anyway, I don't think, but I was kind of fighting how I actually felt and what it really was was just like devastation, you know, like at the end of the day, this is something that I just really, really want to do for no other reason than just because it's my passion. And straight away I just- the daunting thought of nine months away from the game was just- yeah a lot for me at the time.
Annie [00:03:26] So how does that kind of process of acceptance come about and change? It must be such a long journey that- becoming okay with it.
Leah [00:03:35] Yeah. In that moment everything changes. So my plans, my tomorrow, my next day after that, you know, everything that I thought I was going to do then goes out the window. The one consistent is how it's going to make me feel. So I totally got on board with that and really felt it, like just left myself open to what does this actually make me feel like? How bad is that? You know, how much do I need to address that or is it something that I can just accept and continue to do what I need to do with it? I had no control over this, but when they told me, confirmed it you've done your ACL, got the scan results back, in that moment my first question was, 'okay, when are we going to see the surgeon?', which made me feel great because I thought, and there it is, like I must have made peace with it in terms of we're now going onto- this is my new path, you know?
Annie [00:04:22] Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And where are you at in that process? Have you been to see the surgeon?
Leah [00:04:28] Yep, so I went to surgeon, I had my surgery, I've been blessed since in the way that my knees reacted. It's been very smooth. I'm aware that there are going to be dark, dark days. So until those moments I'm going to enjoy what it is now. But this is my new path. Already I've had so much time to do things that I just wouldn't do otherwise so I'm I'm okay with it at the minute. Come certain moments, the girls do really well in Australia or, you know, little things like that where I'd love to be there with them and I'd love to be experiencing it with them, of course they hurt me, but it's not enough to rock the boat too much at the minute.
Annie [00:05:04] Did you consider going out to the World Cup?
Leah [00:05:07] Yes, I had a call to be fair with with my manager, just in terms of I know what she's like. Same conversation before the Euros, you know, what are our capabilities, what do we need to prioritise? So I didn't ever want to get in the way of that. But my brother lives in Australia and this is where-
Annie [00:05:21] Wow.
Leah [00:05:21] I think everything happens for a reason. I've not seen him in a long time, so I'm still going to go to see my brother and go as a fan. I always say the only thing that would have made the Euros better was sitting in the stand of my family and being able to be with them during that process. So now, you know, for whatever reason, I have the opportunity to go with my brother and my mum to a game at the World Cup, which will probably never happen again in my playing career. I like to hope so anyway.
Annie [00:05:47] As someone who's so athletic and instinctively athletic, wanting to move and exercising every day as your job and your passion, how do you not?! Like, I mean, I just know I love exercise. When I don't exercise, I get all techy and irritable and I'm not very nice to be around. Like, how do you control your mental health and do you have support in doing that as well? I can imagine there must be some elements of support- I would hope there would be.
Leah [00:06:14] Yeah, yeah, yeah. I have somebody that I work with really closely, so I still have a job to do, it's just different. You're not seeing me on the television playing football but every single day I'm in the gym. I'm doing things, I'm just not doing what I want to do or my instincts tell me to do.
Annie [00:06:28] Okay.
Leah [00:06:28] But it's hard. I've had a major surgery and my body is not switched on, some of my nerves and everything needs come back to them so they actually can't do things. I sit and see somebody crossing their legs... Eugh! Because I can't do that and my knee can't move in that way at the minute. But yeah, like a ball rolls across in the gym, all I want to do is kick it and I-
Annie [00:06:48] *Sighs* ohhh God!
Leah [00:06:48] You know, I can't so I just-
Annie [00:06:49] Have to exercise such restraint.
Leah [00:06:51] *Laughing* Yeah. You go a bit stiff because you just think, well I'm not allowed to do that. And my passion- in the morning I come in my kitchen, I put my radio on, I dance getting ready, and I just can't do what I would normally do, which is then- they're the bits day to day that really get me up here. You know, the rest of it you can prepare for.
Annie [00:07:09] What have you learnt about yourself, I suppose, in this process, because this is the longest injury you've had, right?
Leah [00:07:14] Yeah.
Annie [00:07:15] I know you've had shorter ones on your ankle. This really is such a challenge, I suppose, so what have you learnt about yourself when you strip away the identity that football kind of provides you and it's just you in your kitchen again?
Leah [00:07:28] I think, the most comforting thing to me was, like football's never fulfilled me on its own. I love it and I go and I do my job, but when I come home, I really come home. I don't bring it home. It doesn't follow me. I adore Arsenal like I've supported them since I was a baby girl so it is my life in a sense, but it's never been like enough to really- I've had to keep balance by you know, film, music, whatever is outside fashion. The most comforting thing to me is that I really, really miss it. I really miss playing football so I'm like, where I look at my career and I think 'God like-', and look at the girls retiring at 36 I think wow, I don't know if I've got ten years in me, you know, like, I dunno if that's actually my path. Whereas now I think that could be me if I want it to be it. I keep saying to people I feel grown up. I feel like I'm actually an adult now. Like the first time anything like this has happened to me when I've lived on my own, you know, just little bits and bobs where I'm thinking, okay, I'm well-versed to deal with it. You know, when you're a kid and you look at adults and think, how do they deal with that? Or how do they-?
Annie [00:08:28] Yeah.
Leah [00:08:29] And then all of a sudden you are one you think, I've just passed that test.
Annie [00:08:32] I guess it just makes you stronger, doesn't it?
Leah [00:08:34] Yeah, and it's comforting because you think, wow, I'm still so doing good, I still wake up every day, I still go to training, I'm still giving as much as I can. Just not in the way that I want to.
[00:08:46] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:08:56] Let's get to your childhood change. You mentioned your mammy and coming out to Australia with you, and your brother. You have one brother, right?
Leah [00:09:03] Yeah, one sibling yeah.
Annie [00:09:04] One sibling. And he's baby, or?
Leah [00:09:06] Yeah. He's five years younger than me.
Annie [00:09:08] Five years younger. Okay. So tell me about your childhood change, please.
Leah [00:09:12] Yeah. So when I was about 12 my parents split up, which at the time, I don't know I think in this world now like, people do that, that's what happens. But I didn't really give it the- when I look back, I see it was a lot bigger of a change than what I'd maybe give it credit for at the time. And obviously having my brother being five years younger than me, it changed a lot for me just in terms of having to grow up a bit quicker and, you know, having to deal with emotion, I suppose, like that you just never really- you haven't had to think about before. The stability at the time- like my life didn't change. You know, there was no risk. I went for football every week, you know, nothing changed from the outside. When I look back, I think about the way I behaved, the way that I viewed human behaviour and I think it's such a big thing that happens if you're a kid and you're not really sure at the time how to deal with it or what it means so you just keep going because that's what kids do and we're resilient. And then you get older and you think, wow, that's definitely affected this, or I am the way I am because of that.
Annie [00:10:20] And can you remember, like how it might have changed you at the time in terms of how you behaved or how you were at school or how you were with your friends or football even?
Leah [00:10:31] I just think I grew up really, really fast. Everybody always jokes I'm a bit of an old soul and like too far beyond my years and a bit boring sometimes, but I had a lot more empathy for people I think, and I've always then had that throughout my life. Once you've been through something, you then empathise a lot more and I think that was a good thing that I picked up. But I also think you do get angry and you do have the emotions that you have. Like I say at the time, you don't understand them. You know, when you get older and you think, ohhh, that's why people break up or that's why things happen. But when you're a kid, it's just, you know, in your head you paint it, you're meant to have a mum and a dad and if that's what you've started with, then that's what you should end with. I don't know, I think the the maturity for me, I went from just coasting through life, I was blessed, I never wanted for anything throughout my whole childhood. I can honestly say that. But then all of a sudden it's like, I didn't know I wanted certain things, but I did and now when I look back I think yeah, there was definitely anger that like crept in here or being a bit moody or whatever.
Annie [00:11:29] And did it change, like in terms of just the structure of your household? Did someone move out, someone stay or was that-?
Leah [00:11:35] Yeah no, so we stayed together for a long time because my brother was younger and so- that's what I mean, in terms of stability, and me needing to- can take me to see my friends or, I still had like two cars on the driveway whenever I needed. So that was good. And then obviously spending the same amount of time- I never had to do the weekends or through the week here and next week somewhere else.
[00:11:59] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:12:09] Can I ask you about your mum? She sounds like a total legend. So she was a footballer before she had you, right?
Leah [00:12:15] Yeah, so she played growing up. She was like 13 when she joined the women's team so she must have been some standard of good. And then, yes, she was just all round sporty to be fair, she played netball, she played everything and then I came along and ruined everything *laughs*.
Annie [00:12:30] So when you say the women's team, you mean, that was Milton Keynes, right?
Leah [00:12:33] Yeah, yeah, she was playing for Milton Keynes.
Annie [00:12:35] Like a proper league team.
Leah [00:12:37] Yeah. Yeah. They actually- she knocked Arsenal out the FA Cup once.
Annie [00:12:40] Wow.
Leah [00:12:41] Which is kind of cool. Yeah. Yeah. I think everyone now, as I've got older and, you know, you go home and you see people and you see- people that I don't know but like my mum's friends and they're like, 'your mum, when she was at school...' or, you know, she was an incredible this or an incredible that so, if the legend is true, yeah she lived up to sort of expectations of being an all rounder.
Annie [00:13:01] Yeah. And like having watch videos and stuff and read up a bit about you it feels like family has been so intrinsic to- I mean, obviously you're mad talented, but there's a family element of support there that really can help.
Leah [00:13:15] Oh, 100%. You know, everybody says it but it's true, I wouldn't be here today without them. But more in a sense of- like I say, I was lucky I had the lift, I never had to get a bus to training, I never had to go out of my way. I was put exactly where I was meant to be whenever I needed to be there. But I think emotionally and, you know, just like love and care and having those people around you, I've been honestly blessed and I think that's what I give credit, you know, to my parents for because growing up and being a young woman, it's hard anyway. Being a young woman trying to play football is harder and my whole family are just incredible the way that they, like I said, that they only ever put me where I needed to be and I know I've done the rest, but that takes a lot even to get there.
Annie [00:13:58] Yeah. I wonder, like, having a mam who was a baller, right?
Leah [00:14:02] Yeah.
Annie [00:14:04] Like, does that give you a level of tenacity as a young woman? Because you know your mum's played. You know it's possible to play to a certain level. So, I mean, your first team was an all boys team, right?
Leah [00:14:16] Yeah.
Annie [00:14:16] Tell me the context of that please, how you ended up in there.
Leah [00:14:19] So I used to be a gymnast. Well, I used to do gymnastics, I wasn't a gymnast by any stretch. Like it was like a bit of a medical thing, they advised me to go and do it because it straightens my feet out and all this, and then one day I just come home- I think I must have seen at school, we played at the end of sessions at gym, and I just said to her I wanted to play football. And I asked my dad for a goal in the garden I think and he was like, I mean, he's buzzing, he's like yeah.
Annie [00:14:43] So your dad was a football fan too?
Leah [00:14:45] Yeah, massive. Massive. So he's like- everyone's buzzing. Mum says now that she was a bit sceptical because she was just like, she knows what she had to do and when she was a kid, I mean, she had to cut her hair, pretend she was a guy.
Annie [00:14:57] She had to pretend to be a boy?!
Leah [00:14:58] Yeah, yeah.
Annie [00:14:59] Just to be allowed on the boys team?!
Leah [00:15:01] Mmmhm. And then somebody would rat her out.
Annie [00:15:04] What, to the other team or something?
Leah [00:15:05] Yeah. Like the other team would be like, 'oh she shouldn't be playing for them because she's a girl' and she wouldn't be allowed anymore. Yeah. Yeah. So when I say I want to play football she's like, you could have picked something a bit easier. But she, yeah, I think she loved it. And then, yeah, I just never saw it as an issue. I recognise it and people, the way they behaved towards me, of course it was an issue at certain points playing for the boys team.
Annie [00:15:27] How did they behave?
Leah [00:15:29] It's the parents.
Annie [00:15:30] Oh the parents? Okay.
Leah [00:15:31] The parents, you know, 'get the girl', 'don't let her do that to you', 'you can't lose to a girl'. Then the kids would get upset or try and break my legs, I don't know, like the tackles that used to come in just because I was successful and I was a girl. Like, my team were unbelievable. My manager was unbelievable. He never treated me any different and he said that to my mum, she can only join my team if she's good enough. Like, that's how I treat the boys, I'm not just taking her cause she's a girl. My mum was like I wouldn't expect you to, like do what you need to do but watch her and then see.
Annie [00:16:03] That must have been hard for your mum to be watching the sidelines when you're getting these filthy tackles.
Leah [00:16:07] She used to make me wear a gun sheild which I resented her for, but she was just like, protect yourself- because she wouldn't let me run, she would never let me run.
Annie [00:16:14] When you say she wouldn't let you run, how do you mean by that?
Leah [00:16:17] She always- and I remember conversations, especially when I grew up as well you know, you get to 14, 15, I'm driving in the car and I'm thinking, all my mates have just gone down the park, I'm going to training in London, like, I've had enough. The conversation we had then was basically, I said I'm not gonna play anymore, she said, no worries you tell them then. You know what I mean, like if you you don't want to do it, you at least walk into the fire as you're going out kind of thing. So she would never have mopped up for me or- she's like, you want to play football? Soon as you walk on that pitch, you fight, you're on your own. You know, I'm not helping you, I'm not doing nothing. And if somebody treats you a certain way, how do you want to respond to it? But you don't just run, not if its wrong. You know, she's always taught me if something's wrong, you you change it. You don't let that fly.
Annie [00:17:02] Hmm. Wow. She sounds amazing.
Leah [00:17:05] She is amazing. She's erm- I've never worried about a not being proud of me, but I think she instilled so much into me where I know that I- I wouldn't disappoint her because I have her traits which are to, like I say, walk into the fire.
Annie [00:17:20] I mean, you mentioned 14, 15. Puberty is the age where most girls end up dropping out of football. What are your memories, I suppose, of that time and how did it affect you as a footballer, I suppose?
Leah [00:17:34] I think the main thing is like you go into school and everyone's priorities change, you know like, we all want to look pretty, we're all shaving our legs, we're all doing all these things because that's what women are meant to do and everyone's bothered about boys and girls and everyone's, you know, like it's just- that's what it revolves around. So then when I'm doing this really sort of- going against the social curve, that for me was a lot and then all of a sudden you're wearing sports bras, you're having to really deal with the changes that you actually are going through. I never batted an eyelid and like that- I had that one moment and obviously I never was ever going to go and tell them myself I wasn't going to play anymore, so that didn't happen. But apart from that one sort of waiver, the rest of the time I knew what I wanted and I stayed with it. My friends, some of them are so, so talented. My best friend could have been the swimmer of her generation, but she just didn't want to get in the pool, get wet, have to wash or straighten her hair because she wanted to look good when she went to school and see everyone and then I'm like, that's the changes there and hormonally like, training, trying to study, being up at all hours and just dealing with what's actually happening with you as well.
Annie [00:18:45] When you talk about the team, like going to tell the team you don't wanna play for them anymore, that would have been Arsenal, right?
Leah [00:18:50] Yeah. Yeah. I just got to a point where I couldn't guarantee that I could be a professional footballer and I said I always had to have another job at this time, that's my thought process. It's never been enough. Like, I love it, but for my whole life I'm looking at my life and I'm thinking, is this actually what I want to do cause to get to the next stage- from 15, you know, I've been good, I've played in teams, you know, people have always picked me out of a bunch but you're trying to then go to the senior level which is coming in the next few years for me and I just thought, if I do this, it's going to take everything from me. Do I want to do that or not kind of thing?
Annie [00:19:21] And it takes sacrifice. So what did you have to sacrifice between those ages of 15 and just when you turned 17, you had your debut on a senior team.
Leah [00:19:28] The social side I'd say is the worst when I look back. Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful now but there's a reason I have from like school, two or three people that I really, really speak to now. I wasn't in the bunch, I didn't get to go down the park every day and hang out and talk and just know everything about each other's lives.
Annie [00:19:46] What did it involve in terms of time? How many training sessions?
Leah [00:19:49] We trained four nights a week or three nights a week straight, and I'd go straight from training, mum would pick me up with, you know, a sandwich in the car, get changed on the way, and then 11:00 at night. So it was just- and then a game on a Saturday, you know, so it was impossible to uphold any sort of- especially when you start going out and people start socially doing things that we shouldn't do, but it's what makes everyone who they are. I'm grateful for that because I made my choices and I- obviously they paid off like I can't complain, but, you know, at the time I just- I felt like- like I say, if I'm going to do this, it has to take everything. It has to work for me otherwise I'll have wasted time that I could have been spending elsewhere.
Annie [00:20:31] It's really interesting like, what you knew about the possibilities of ladies football, or football, at the time when you were in your teens. At that point, it wasn't anywhere near even as well-known or as celebrated or as renumerated as it is now. So it's like, what did you feel like your prospects were? What was your biggest kind of hope at that point? How far did you think you could go?
Leah [00:20:56] My dad always said to me from age six, him and his mate you know, Leah's gonna be captain of England one day and all of this chat. And he would always say to me, you will earn a living one day from being a footballer. I truly believe that by the time you get there, that will be the case. And he's talking 10, 12 years on, he was right. And the day I turned 18, which is when you can sign a senior contract, I signed a professional contract. The game went professional that year.
Annie [00:21:23] No waaay!
Leah [00:21:24] So, he was right. He should have put a bet on *laughs*.
Annie [00:21:26] It's like you were literally like in the nucleus of this, like you are the exact age.
Leah [00:21:31] Yeah, that year.
Annie [00:21:31] Like, time parameters it's- wow!
Leah [00:21:34] It's mad. You don't throw things like that- I don't throw things like that away. If something's meant to be and something pushes you that far onto a path, I'm like right, this is a deal. But when I was younger, I wanted to go to America. That's what everyone did, you know Bend It Like Beckham you know, like that was always the dream. You would go to America and you'd play professionally out there because that's the only place it really could be, or Germany. So that was always my dream. And then it just got to, like I say, a point where actually staying here would serve me more if I wanted to take the risk, but it was more risky I'd say to stay here than to go, to go out there.
[00:22:06] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:22:16] You've obviously learnt so much about football and what it is to be a good footballer. I was interested in a time when you lost the FA Cup final with Arsenal against Chelsea, am I right?
Leah [00:22:29] Yeah.
Annie [00:22:30] And the time in between that and winning the Euros. And you said in your book "I learnt so much about myself and about what makes me a good player". What did you learn? What makes you a good player?
Leah [00:22:40] That game was like a massive turning point for me anyway, because-
Annie [00:22:44] Right.
Leah [00:22:45] I'd got in at half time and I just couldn't wait for it to be over. I was so nervous and there was so much pressure. This was me putting it on myself and I just thought, I'd actually rather go home than go back out there, which is ludicrous. Like, I've never been the person if you don't play, so if somebody does select me, you know, I'm on the bench, I've never asked, 'what do I need to do to be on there' or, I'm just not that person. Because to me it's like, when you trust me, you'll trust- I'm not going to affect- because I need to know that when you do put me on there, you've made that decision.
Annie [00:23:18] You mean it, yeah.
Leah [00:23:18] Yeah, I'm not asking for it, it's not, it's got nothing to do with me kind of thing. So then I just had to do a bit of a deep dive into myself. Like, why are you here? Why do people like you? Start listening to people, you know, like well I'm typically English, people say 'oh, that was really good' and you go 'oh, no, no, no' it's like, 'you were better' *Annie laughs* you know what I mean, like, I had to completely scrap that mentality for a while just to be like, Leah, this is what you serve, this is the purpose that you serve for this team. No one does you like you, you know, like just figuring it out again like, why am I here? I'm a good passer, I'm calm, I'm really calm. Like, it's your greatest, greatest strength. You can communicate with people, you know, all these things that actually that's why people want you on to pitch, so don't doubt it.
Annie [00:24:01] Also, it's like it must be so hard when you want so much to win and you want so much to perform well, to be able to kind of put that like want aside and just enjoy. Because something about enjoying allows you to play better, right?
Leah [00:24:16] 100%.
Annie [00:24:18] But how do you do that? How would you walk onto a pitch and become unafraid to lose?
Leah [00:24:23] That's literally the conversation I had to have in my head and it was a process by the way, like I went into life as well. So I'm working with a performance psychologist, I have been since 2020 I suppose. It wasn't enough for somebody to say to me like, 'you don't have to win today. Just do your best'. Like I say, I have supported Arsenal since I'm six, my whole family's Arsenal fans.
Annie [00:24:47] Yeah.
Leah [00:24:47] All of these things where it is my life, it is who I am, whether I like it or not. And I love that. So it wasn't enough just to be like, we can talk about it as an athlete and, you know, you go and you play and you leave. It was never enough. I had to do into why do I get so attached? Why do I feel so, you know, I'm sitting talking to you, I've got an Arsenal earring because I love them and that's my identity and I love it. But how do I remove- why do I do that? What's- and you go back to your parents split up so you feel some sort of this or that or, you know what I mean? But it was a lot for me, I had to do a whole a whole deep dive. But effectively, knowing that the end of the world isn't if you lose. Like it's not the worst thing that can happen. It wasn't the worst thing in the world that I did my ACL, there's so much more out there that could hurt me more, you know.
Annie [00:25:35] Yeah, yeah, yeah. So it's kind of learning perspective.
Leah [00:25:39] Yeah, yeah. And why you are the way you are. Why do you feel so- why do I feel like I need to win so much? Because I- you know? And like answer it like that.
Annie [00:25:47] Yeah, and kind of removing your thoughts and not saying that your thoughts are who you are. Like, your thoughts are just reactions. Remove them. Remember-
Leah [00:25:55] Yeah, yeah. And always, I always listen to my body, so I did a lot of work on my breathing and like actually physically dealing with those emotions, but also giving them the respect, that's the best thing I- one of the best things I learned was to give those emotions and thoughts respect because like I say, we we know it's negative. So I know that this pressure is really negative for me, so I just go, okay we can't have it. Nah, I give it the respect it deserves. You love arsenal, that's why you feel the pressure, but you can't sit in there. If you stay with it, you're making a choice so how do I then use my physi- you know like, breathing or whatever, to move on from that point and then be clearer in my mind.
Annie [00:26:35] What happened when you were made captain? How did that feel?
Leah [00:26:40] It's a really funny one because, like I say, that role, that title is something that somebody gives to you. People see it as like the pinnacle. For me, it's something that somebody asked you to do, it's an extension of my job, so I obviously was willing to do it. It's a hard one because it's not something I ever sought after, so then to say that I wanted to do it is a bit of a weird one for me. I feel uncomfortable with it.
Annie [00:27:06] But then if you look at what you just said about being put on the bench or not, like you have to respect the decision because it's, it's, you know, because you didn't seek it out.
Leah [00:27:17] Yeah. Yeah. And I think that also- people would then say to me, well that's why you were picked or whatever, but one of my first things I said was, I don't want you to ever play me just because I am the captain, for example, because I need to know that I've earned this. I need to know that it's not just a matter of circumstance, almost.
Annie [00:27:37] Mmm. How does it feel to kind of have to be that person for the girls? I can imagine there's quite an emotional responsibility in terms of kind of your calm, trying to keep everyone calm. I mean, I'm sure you're learning that you were just talking about really must have been incredibly helpful.
Leah [00:27:55] There's no way I could have done the Euros in the last year if I hadn't done that work. I don't think I'd have kept my head above the water, you know I'd have drowned at some point.
Annie [00:28:03] Right.
Leah [00:28:03] So I knew the value of it. On a personal note, I went to that tournament and enjoyed every single second from start to finish because I put the work in for the last three years before it. I would never have ever been in that position otherwise. That's why I always say I owe my psych my life, because I'm like, you've given me the best times in my life and I remember it all because of the work we've done. People would speak, can she do it? People ask me, can you do it? I'm like, I don't know! We're going to see. We'll find out. Like, I can't tell you anything I don't know but I'll delegate as best I can because I know that I'm not going to have all the answers. You know, the first conversation I had with the vice captain was, I'm not going to know everything, I'm going to need to ask you a question and I'm going to need you to not make me feel like that's a weakness. Actually it's just how we need to move forward. But in terms of being that person for the girls, it's the biggest change that's ever happened in my life, I'd say, in terms of how I was looked upon, how everything- yet all you're trying to do is not change because that's the- the person that you are is the reason that you've been picked.
Annie [00:29:04] Right! Thats fanscinating.
Leah [00:29:06] You now start changing- Well, the authenticity is your biggest strength, you know, if you are a leader I think. So to then have all this noise but not actually change myself, then I'm worried am I doing too little, am I being too passive because I'm trying not to change? You know, it's like a real- at the start I was like, this is a lot! But by the time you got into the tournament, because you don't have time to really think like you're just always on to the next thing, throughout the euros it was- just felt like second nature. And I'm sure people will have 'oh yeah you did this really well' or 'you didn't do this great', but ultimately whatever we did, it worked so I'll never regret anything, you know?
Annie [00:29:42] Yeah. Winning the Euros, was there lessons that you learned upon winning in terms of how to win or how to enjoy or any of that? I'm just fascinated by that.
Leah [00:29:53] The biggest thing I learned was that winning means absolutely nothing to me if I haven't enjoyed it because the way I felt that day was nothing but happiness, you know, it's like we hadn't won but won the wrong way, we haven't won by cheating or- you know, like all these little things that- I'd been totally present a whole time so it meant so much to me. If I had been torturing myself that whole time on the end result, even if we had won it I honestly feel like I'd have felt like I'd lost, you know, because I wouldn't have had the experience. So that was a thing that we all had and also we went into that tournament and we spoke about having the capability to win. So like lets speak facts, we can win this tournament, we absolutely can beat anyone on the day, etc., etc., but to win was the dream. Like that was not touched until- well, and even on the day of the final our manager said to us, we don't have to do this, but we really, really want to. Like, none of this is a have to situation- winning, you never have to win.
Annie [00:30:52] I just feel like that is the- it's just absolutely the perfect thing to say but I can't imagine a lot of managers saying that.
Leah [00:30:58] It took me by surprise.
Annie [00:31:00] There's incredible courage in saying that.
Leah [00:31:02] Yeah, it's real, it's real. That's my point, like we won by being absolutely ourselves. People would ask me, do you think you can win? Yeah, of course I do. Will we win? Who knows, but the way we did it, the way we had a good time, we've bonded for life over that because we all, like, threw ourselves into it. And nobody, like, checked our shoulders once. We were just moving forward, enjoying the ride and luckily, unluckily, we ended up being in the exact position to do exactly what we needed to do and that day I had no doubt in my mind that we would do it.
Annie [00:31:35] I mean, I remember watching it in Ireland with my entire Irish family *Leah laughs* and you know, it's not a normal Irish thing to support English teams.
Leah [00:31:41] That's not normal, yeah.
Annie [00:31:42] But it just goes to show- I mean, my sons are English, they're brought up here and my husbands English and my son's are football mad. And I was so emotional about my sons watching this match and being so invested in it. And I was also so emotional because I am such a standard example of a woman who stopped playing in her teens. Played on the boys team in school, loved it, got through puberty and stopped. And I always think, what if? But-
Leah [00:32:11] Why did you stop? Can I ask.
Annie [00:32:12] Well, I went to a school that didn't do football for girls, so I ended up playing hockey instead which I loved and excelled at, but then went- and I remember moving to London and actually I moved to Stratford and going to the local park and seeing girls do a training session and being so like, fuckk they're so good. And like really wanting to have the courage to see what it was and joing and just not being brave enough because I didn't feel like good enough to do. But I just feel like the act of winning that has just been the catalyst for such a- like I hope you can confirm this or not, like a tidal wave of change, like between winning the Euros and now- the World Cup is happening, England play their third game tomorrow when this goes out, what change have you seen? Concrete change within the women's game.
Leah [00:33:03] For me, the biggest thing is social perception, how we're viewed, you know, how people respect us now. I hate that it took winning for that to happen, I really do. But you know, the demographic of people now that recognise who I am and what I do and what I'm trying to do in terms of change in the the world, and like what we're all doing every day, every day that we step out on that pitch, those young girls and boys have a role model in us now. And when I was young, you had to search for them. And I just think that the way that we're looked on in society, and I spoke on it before the final and we did a press conference and there was tears in the press conference because everyone could feel the weight of the moment that was about to come because it's the day before. My uncle actually text me on that day and said love you look really tired, like get a good nights sleep before tomorrow because I was like am, like, this has been a rollercoaster. But naturally, we won. Money comes in, sponsors come in, you can't survive without it so that's great and that's really important but like I say, the way that it's accepted, the way that dads come up to me now and say, I was just running my girls team because my girl wanted to play and there wasn't a team and now I've got seven age groups because of the influx of people coming to the town to say, where's the girls team? You know, and that to me is like just worlds apart. And you might not see the fruits of that until 15 years down the line but we did that and we started it.
Annie [00:34:34] Just think of you having your mam be a footballer, think about the amount of young girls who will have mums as footballers in 20 years.
Leah [00:34:42] Honestly, it's wild because I was the odd one out and now it would be-
Annie [00:34:44] It's going to be this huge exponential growth, it's so exciting. Okay, so we have to also discuss the letter that your team wrote to the government asking for 2 hours worth of P.E.- was it for all kids or?
Leah [00:35:00] Yeah, 2 hours but they would all have equal access.
Annie [00:35:03] And equal access to football. And what did that letter do? Did it actually create change?
Leah [00:35:06] I think so. I had a good update the other day in terms of how they're writing the curriculum for next year and Department of Education, what they're saying you have to have and the hard thing is that you can't enforce these things. You know, you can't enforce that you give a school a 20 grand for P.E. but they don't clean up the toilets with it or something. You know, it's not something that anyone can. That's why we fought so hard for legislation. It's one thing saying do this, but the legislation is what we need and that's where we're getting to I think. But even just in terms of what people recognise the act as. You know, even if you're a schoolteacher and maybe you was impartial and now you feel like you have the responsibility to do that, or maybe you always needed a reason to go to your boss and fight and say, this needs to be provided, you know, but we always say this, we inspired all these women. You know, not everyone's going to be a professional women's footballer, that's not what we're looking for here. I'm looking for women that are bold enough to walk through any door that they want to walk through. And doing sport at school was 100% a catalyst for that sort of behaviour, the self-confidence and-
Annie [00:36:09] But it's also- just as a parent whose kid has just started playing football in a league, it's just so good for you in every other way as well.
Leah [00:36:17] Honestly.
Annie [00:36:18] Like, it gives you identity, it helps you learn how to lose which is so important as a young kid. How to lose gracefully, it helps you how to work in a team, it helps you communicate. Like it's just endless benefits.
Leah [00:36:31] Yeah, honestly.
Annie [00:36:32] So now let's be real and talk about the fact that the discrepancy between men and women in football is obscene still and I saw in the news just yesterday, in fact, that erm- I know that the lionesses had spoken to the FA asking for something, I'm not quite sure about the details but with regards to pay and the FA had not committed to that pre World Cup. Right, so they kind of said we're going to leave this and put it on ice until after the World Cup. At the moment, where are we at in terms of *laughs* I mean, I know it's obscenely different but you can help me, what's the difference between women and men in terms of professional players and pay?
Leah [00:37:09] Worlds, worlds. I couldn't even put a number on it, you know, like if I was signing a deal or somebody was going to buy me out of a contract, I wouldn't know what my value would be in three years time, I couldn't even give you a ballpark because it's-
Annie [00:37:21] Hopefully about 250x more! *Leah laughs* I mean, the thing is right, if you look at it basically, spectators and tickets equal sponsorship. Like, you have-! It's record breaking numbers at Wembley, like it's not like you're not- people aren't coming to see you, it's not like people aren't watching you! There's no excuse!
Leah [00:37:45] *Laughs* yeah, yeah. And this is how I feel about it, yeah. No the problem is, we have to grow sustainably so we can't play every single game at the Emirates at the minute. I think that would be silly. We're at a point right now where everything we do is selling out, which is a really good space to be in because you see demand. However, if we're selling out, who knows what we actually could sell out, know what I mean? The difference between two and a half thousand fans and 60 is too big to know where we would fit on a consistent basis.
Annie [00:38:12] Got you.
Leah [00:38:13] That's the thing. But it's the TV and the broadcast rights and I had a very, very interesting chat with Billie Jean King at Wimbledon and literally off the back of that conversation I just wanted to walk away and be like, right, like, give me numbers, give me- you know, like we're doing this, we're doing that, let's try and do this. Because she literally- she, you know, what she did in tennis and- when I was looking at it I was like, like you're saying, we do have the people coming through the door. People are interested. People are watching it. So why would I ever receive a no? Because we don't ask for anything that we're not worthy of or deserve, I don't think. I don't think we ask for unreasonable things.
Annie [00:38:49] Yeah. And what if you guys just said no?
Leah [00:38:53] That has happened.
Annie [00:38:54] Has it?
Leah [00:38:54] That has happened. Not with us, but with different teams where they've refused to play. Ultimately, you could, like women could do that. I believe the FA and their relationship with us is good enough for us to always come to some sort of solution but I think the problem also is that for so many years, like the issues that we have were just accepted because it was like, that's just women's football so nobody above- it's not like they're sitting above and they're going- and I'm not speaking about the FA here, this is all clubs everywhere, it's not like they're sitting and going, that's a problem but I just can't be bothered to fix it, because they just accept that women's football has always been played at these tiny stadiums and you know. So then when you actually verbalise it, a lot of the time it is well received from my experience of the places that I've been. You've got Jamaica going to the World Cup crowdfunding for sponsorship for their camp.
Annie [00:39:45] That's insane.
Leah [00:39:46] That's wild. So imagine they said, no, we're not going to the World Cup. As a person and as a player they lose more, you know?
Annie [00:39:52] Yeah. Yeah. It's so hard, isn't it? It's so hard to get right. It just feels like the renumeration should be moving as fast as the game and the popularity of the game.
Leah [00:40:04] That's where we're not at the minute. And like I said, everything can't be based on success.
Annie [00:40:10] Yes, yes. So true, yes.
Leah [00:40:12] It's not like, let's wait for them to win and then we'll go again, it's like-
Annie [00:40:15] Yeah, yeah.
Leah [00:40:17] Because nobody can win all the time. It's not- and let's be real, we waited howevr many, 54, 56 years for that trophy.
Annie [00:40:24] But you got it! You got it!
Leah [00:40:25] *Laughing* we did!
[00:40:25] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:40:37] Let's say in ten years time, how old will you be?
Leah [00:40:42] 36.
Annie [00:40:42] So you could still be playing?
Leah [00:40:44] I could still be playing. At the minute- my mindset at the minute is I'll still be here then, so we'll hold on to that for as long as possible.
Annie [00:40:50] Okay. So let's presume you are, how would you like the state of play to be with regards to how women's football looks and is received and is renumerated?
Leah [00:40:59] Firstly, from within the clubs I want to see a wage that- across the whole league, because it doesn't work if one team is given everything and the bottom doesn't. I had friends like a couple of years ago that were still working in bars to make up their wage and they're playing in the same league as me, which is disgusting. So you're looking at a league full of teams, more teams that are self-sustainable. I'd like to think that we're self-sustainable by that point, that have the medical and care that they need to actually complete the job that they do. You know, right now you've got 30 players missing from a World Cup. This isn't all the injuries but 30 with ACLs are not at that World Cup. That's disgusting. So you're looking at medical care, you know, research, all of these things to actually support us in the job that we want to do. And we're looking at joint use of stadiums, you know, especially for the top clubs where they do have the fanbase. The Emirates Arsenal sell out 60,000, Bournemouth has an average attendance of 10,000, for example. You know, it's not like everyone's the same. We had a higher average attendance this year in the league than a men's Premier League team for the first time ever. So if you tell me about that change has happened in five years from 500 people coming to a game, to 12,000 on average, you're talking to me in ten years, I don't see why we shouldn't be sharing stadiums.
Annie [00:42:17] Also, it's fascinating talking about the medical thing because women's bodies are different. So every injury will be different. It has to be bespoke to a female body.
Leah [00:42:26] Exactly.
Annie [00:42:27] And I think so much of it is just kind of borrowed from the men's game, right.
Leah [00:42:31] Without a shadow of a doubt. And that's where we're falling short. I also think the boys are made- from the age of seven when they come into an academy, they are literally like programmed to be able to then one day complete what they need to do as a senior player. Girls, you train twice, maybe three times a week, until you're 17 for 2 hours in the evening, then all of a sudden you're 17, 18 going into a professionals set up you're in 9 till 3 playing 40 more games a year, going to tournaments, you know all of these things. So it's like ultimately am I actually conditioned to do what I need to do now? And only the survival of the fittest, which isn't really the way that we should be looking- so I'm looking, then as well you're looking at like, sustainability in terms of the stream of players coming through should be- the pool should be so much bigger.
Annie [00:43:19] And also the funding in terms of, you know, people who are working class who can't afford to get to practices, that kind of thing. I can imagine in the men's game there's a lot more funding to support people who don't have the money to sustain- like a middle class family might have to get to and from sessions to get kits, all of that.
Leah [00:43:35] Thats a lot of what keeps girls out of teams as well and they've just opened- I don't really remember stats but something like 74, they call them like RTC academy things, I don't know what the new term is but basically where they're putting them in inner cities, because ultimately that's where you got your talent and your kids are missing out because they can't get out. And the kids that live in a city are the ones that don't have two cars on the driveway or, you know, like the parents work or have to work too long that they can't bring their kids so you're losing kids because of that as well, along with social pressures, you know, you've got faith and these things where women are viewed differently than boys. So those barriers as well, you hope in ten years time that nobody questions. There should be no barriers to any girl. You know, she doesn't have to stay at home and do chores that her brother doesn't have to do.
Annie [00:44:24] Last question, Leah Williamson, how has football changed you?
Leah [00:44:28] I think it's given me the opportunities and the learnings to then go and make myself the person I wanted to be. I think that the lessons, the life lessons that it's taught me I wouldn't have gotten from anywhere else, or maybe not as quickly as I have up to this point in my life. And the decisions I've made to try and become the person I always wanted to be, I think I owe that to football.
Annie [00:44:53] Well, thank you so much for being on Changes today. It's been such a buzz to chat with you. Thank you.
Leah [00:44:58] Thank you very much for having me on. Honestly, really lovely to chat to you.
Annie [00:45:06] Thank you so much to Leah Williamson for that conversation. I loved chatting to her. Please rate, review spread this episode far and wide. Anyone you know who is a football fan should appreciate hearing from Leah. And also, if I may borrow you for one second of time, can I ask you if you have enjoyed listening to Changes this series, to vote for Changes in the British Podcast Awards? The category is the Listeners Choice Award, it's really easy so just go to the show notes, click on the link and you can vote for Changes and we would so appreciate it. It's been such a buzz bringing you these episodes over the course of this year. We're taking a month off, we're going to be back on the 4th of September with a whole new series of wonderful conversations about change. Have an amazing August. I will be in Ireland and Sweden respectively. I'm so excited to switch off. I literally feel like burying my phone in the sand and leaving it there for a long time. Let's reconvene after August for more Changes and we'll see you then. Changes is produced by Louise Mason through DIN Productions. Seeya!