The last time that England played in the European Championships in 2017, Leah Williamson had not even made her senior Lionesses debut.
At the World Cup in France three years ago, she played just six minutes as a substitute.
On Wednesday, the Arsenal centre-back will make her first major tournament start in England’s opening Euro 2022 game against Austria at Old Trafford. She’ll do it as captain.
Leah Williamson will make her first major tournament start in England’s Euro 2022 opener
Williamson may not have been the most obvious choice to wear the armband in the absence of Steph Houghton, who has not been picked in Sarina Wiegman’s final 23-woman squad after only just recently returning from an Achilles problem.
The Milton Keynes-born star is just 25 years old and has 31 senior caps to her name – 12 players in the squad have more, including centurions Jill Scott and Ellen White.
As highlighted, her major tournament experience is minimal, while she is not the kind of character to scream and shout on the field. She did lead England’s youth teams, but she is not the skipper at club level for Arsenal.
However, Wiegman gave her the England captaincy when Houghton was injured last autumn and Williamson kept the armband as the Lionesses won the inaugural Arnold Clark Cup in March. She was named as skipper for the Euros a month later.
Following the announcement, the Dutch coach labelled Williamson ‘a great leader’, while Houghton described her as ‘driven’.
She has succeeded Steph Houghton as captain, with the 34-year-old only just back from injury
‘She leads by example and what you see is what you get,’ vice-captain Millie Bright said. ‘She is a very mature individual, both on and off the pitch. She is very calm in the way she leads. It’s been a delight to see her lead the team out and it’s been a big moment for her.’
There are similarities between Williamson and Faye White, England’s longest-serving captain, who was given the armband in 2002 before being handed the same responsibility at Arsenal, where she spent her whole career.
‘She’s a very humble person, and player, both on and off the field,’ White told the Scotsman. ‘I think sometimes with a captain, it is not just what you do away from the game – how you act around the team, and the media. And I think Leah is great with that because it isn’t an act – that is just her, and who she is.’
Williamson is not averse to pressure.
In 2015, she took a 96th-minute penalty for England’s under-19s against Norway. Although that makes it sound far too simple.
The young Lionesses were trailing 2-1 and had to equalise to book their place at the European Championships. Williamson converted, only for the referee to rule it out for encroachment.
The 25-year-old was not the obvious choice as captain but she is a calm and determined leader
After the game, UEFA overruled the decision and ordered for the spot-kick to be retaken, so England and Norway’s players reconvened in unprecedented circumstances five days later.
Williamson stepped up again and nervelessly scored. England went to the Euros.
It would be another three years before she made her senior debut under Phil Neville, having earned her first call-up while Mo Marley – her under-19 coach – was interim boss.
Williamson starred as Arsenal won the Women’s Super League in 2018-19 – their first title in seven years – but she continued to struggle for regular opportunities with England despite consistent call-ups.
Those six minutes as a substitute at the World Cup came and went, as she replaced Nikita Parris in the round of 16 against Cameroon. After the tournament, Neville admitted that he regretted not giving Williamson more game time as he could see the ’emptiness’ in her eyes in France.
Her main issue was that England had significant strength in depth in the centre of defence, with first choice pairing Houghton and Bright particularly hard to dismantle.
Neville set about trying to find a way to fit Williamson into his team, spurred on by the tidal wave of Instagram messages he received from eager supporters desperate to see more of the Arsenal star.
Phil Neville was flooded with messages from supporters asking him to play Williamson more
ENGLAND’S EURO 2022 GROUP GAMES
July 6 v Austria (8pm, Old Trafford)
July 11 v Norway (8pm, Amex Stadium)
July 15 v Northern Ireland (8pm, St. Mary’s)
‘I screenshot all the messages and send them to Leah,’ Neville said. ‘She’s so popular!
‘She’s competing in an area where we’ve got some unbelievable players. I thought she was frustrated at the World Cup and it was a difficult time for us both because we thought the same thing.
‘When I left the World Cup I thought long and hard about it – about how we can get this girl in our team. There comes a point in a young player’s development where you physically can’t leave them out.’
The former Manchester United and Everton defender asked then-Arsenal boss Joe Montemurro to trial Williamson in midfield in pre-season.
While the Australian didn’t stick with the experiment long-term himself, it gave Neville confidence that she could be used higher up the pitch. After all, Williamson did start out as a midfielder in her early years with the Gunners before being converted into a tough-tackling centre-back.
At the SheBelieves Cup in March 2020, Williamson played twice in the middle of the park and was also tested out at right-back.
Despite taking England to the semi-final of the World Cup, Neville’s reign is not remembered too fondly as he had a poor record against the best sides and received criticism for describing the third-place play-off as a ‘nonsense game’.
Williamson still plays in defence for Arsenal and wants to be ‘the best centre-back in the world’
Sarina Wiegman selected the 25-year-old as a midfielder in her first game in charge last year
But perhaps his greatest legacy is planting the seed for the Lionesses to use Williamson in the middle of the park.
‘She’s got the athleticism, she’s got the physical profile to [play as a No.8],’ Neville said three months before he left his role. ‘She’s got the speed to recover and to get back into position straightaway – similar to Jill Scott, she’s got a similar profile in that respect.’
Sarina Wiegman selected the 25-year-old as a midfielder in her first game in charge last September – an 8-0 thrashing of North Macedonia – and she has been a mainstay there ever since.
Nonetheless, Williamson continues to be deployed at the heart of Arsenal’s defence and upon signing a new contract with the Gunners last summer, she declared her aim ‘to be the best centre-back in the world’.
There is of course a slight irony that Houghton’s injury may have opened up a spot for her in the Lionesses’ backline.
Williamson’s double-pivot in the midfield with best friend Kiera Walsh is keenly accepted
But there is no need to worry. England are not blessed with too many midfield options so Williamson’s double-pivot with best friend Kiera Walsh is keenly accepted. She is able to provide a strong defensive shield but also contribute going forward, showing she is much more than just a centre-back turned holding midfielder.
Meanwhile in defence, Bright has forged a new steel-like partnership alongside Alex Greenwood.
Yet just when you thought those selections were fixed, there was a reminder that the Lionesses can set up differently. For their final pre-tournament friendly against Switzerland last week, Williamson dropped into centre-back as Wiegman reshuffled her backline due to Lucy Bronze’s illness.
That kind of versatility, combined with Williamson’s calm yet determined leadership style, might just see her become only the second England captain after Bobby Moore to lead the country to major tournament glory.