Leah Williamson and Beth Mead are two of the best players in the game right now. These are just the facts. Two of England's finest ballers have been unstoppable in recent months on the international stage. In their last four games for the Lionesses they've kept four clean sheets, and have wracked up an impressive 32 goals as a team. Under the guidance of newly appointed manager Sarina Wiegman – who coached the Netherlands to the Women's World Cup final in 2019 – the duo have gone from strength to strength.
Williamson has captained the Lionesses to four consecutive wins, helping the team maintain their 100% World Cup qualifying winning-streak. The 24-year-old scored a screamer in her most recent fixture against Latvia, meaning she’s now scored four goals so far this season for club and country – a new PB for one of the game’s most versatile players. England will be sorry to miss their talisman in upcoming fixtures against Austria and Latvia, after she picked up a hamstring injury in the North London derby earlier this month. There's no doubt this baller will come back bigger and better, but until then Mead will help steer the ship. The forward notched up a hat-trick against Northern Ireland at Wembley, the first English female baller to do so. And she did it within the space of fifteen minutes coming on as a substitute. Levels personified. Everything these two touch at the moment seems to turn to gold.
We caught up with them both to talk about their football journeys, the people who helped them along the way, and the future of the women’s game.
Photography by Sulay Kelly.
VERSUS: Let’s take it back to the beginning. You’ve both been playing football your whole lives, but at what point did you decide you wanted to pursue it as a career?
Leah Williamson: I think I was maybe about 15? At that point I realised: “Okay, I am actually good enough to do this.”
Beth Mead: I was maybe 18 when I realised I could make a career out of football. I also got my first professional contract then, which made it all seem possible and ‘real’.
LW: At 15, I knew I needed to make a choice: am I going to really apply myself and go for it, or am I out? A lot of the girls at that age who I played with decided not to pursue it because they thought it wasn’t worth the risk. So when I decided to stick with it I told myself: “Right, you’re going to do this now.” And a few years later I left school and walked into a professional contract.
BM: Whereas I was at University, and decided to leave during my second year because I got offered a pro-contract from Sunderland. Thinking about it, it’s quite funny how we’ve taken different paths. I’ve always thought you could make a career out of football, but at the same time thought you needed to have something else outside of the game for later on down the line. Which was one of the reasons why I finished my degree. Whereas Leah – who’s a little bit younger than me – looked at going straight into a professional contract.
It shows how much the game has changed in a short space of time.
LW: And it’s always changing!
Is that something you notice as a player?
LW: Massively. Even for us now ‘profile-wise’. One of the ways I can tell is by how many people come to watch us play, or are engaged with the game online. That all makes us feel ‘seen’. Or at least, that’s how I’d describe it anyway.
BM: Every aspect of the women’s game has changed. For example, social media and the level of coverage the game now receives – plus the level of analysis and critique that’s available – with Sky is amazing. It definitely feels different, and very new.
We can feel the game is still moving forward, and we’re always trying to get those little ‘edges’ to make it even better.
“Being role models, it’s still really surreal…we think of ourselves as just Beth and Leah. Two people who just want to play football!”
Representing your country is always an honour, but what was it like to receive your first England senior call-up?
LW: I was in Nandos when I got the call-up.
What’s your order?
LW: Ah no! I don’t know why I even tell this story…I’m not going to tell you my order. I’ll be judged for it!
BM: You will judge her for her food orders.
LW: So, I was just having some chips…And then I got the call. I cried, then called my mum straight away and said: “Bloody hell, I’ve done it!”
BM: My first ever call-up was in 2015, I ended up going to China with the England team. I can’t even tell you where I was or what I was eating, it was so long ago! But that was my first camp, and the China camp in general was a really tough environment to play in. I actually didn’t get a chance to play in any of those games. I was still honoured to be called up, but I had to wait two years before my next call-up.
LW: Did you! That must’ve been tough?
BM: Yeah, it was. Obviously you get a taste for it, playing for your national team, and you want more. But I had to wait until Phil (Neville) became manager for my second call-up.
How did you feel making your debut? Especially after having to wait two years.
BM: I came on as a sub against Wales, so quite a competitive game to be involved in. It was 0-0 at the time, and unfortunately finished 0-0, so it was a little bittersweet for me. I was over the moon to receive my first ever England cap! But we expected to win that game.
LW: I get it. You want everything to be perfect for your first cap, and to have everyone be absolutely buzzing for you.
BM: Yeah, exactly. Plus we just go into every game wanting to win.
How did you feel making your debut Leah?
LW: I was a little bit annoyed…so, I made my debut in Russia. And my mum comes to every single one of my games. But because I was playing so far away, she couldn’t come. It was still unreal, obviously! And I came on for Keira (Walsh) who’s one of my best mates. To be welcomed onto the pitch by someone so close to me, made it extra special.
“For me, I’ve felt so positive these past few camps. I’ve just been enjoying every minute of it.”
Music is a massive part of football, whether it’s in the changing room or on the coach travelling to a stadium. What are you listening to prepare yourselves for games? And who’s the designated DJ in the England squad!
BM: Well, this is the easiest question ever! It’s Leah. She’s the DJ at Arsenal and England. Leah is a crowd pleaser. I’d say she’s got a good mixture of songs and artists on the playlist. Right now, we’re listening to a lot of Adele.
LW: Oh yeah, Adele is getting played in the changing room ahead of every game at the moment, I don’t care! There will be crowd pleasers like Beth said, but there are also necessities, and Adele is a necessity.
I think music is important, and I quite like being responsible for it at England camps because it’s so easy for people to remember specific moments through songs. If I played you a certain song Beth, you’d be able to tell me where we were, what we were doing and what game we were preparing for. Right now, I can think of when we were on a bus in France for the World Cup a couple of years ago and I played ‘Ironic’ by Alanis Morissette. The bus was rocking! With some songs, everyone can just tune into that one moment. I love it.
Beth, congratulations on being named the WSL Player Of The Month recently. Leah, you’ve already matched your PB for goals scored so far this season. You’re both clearly on fire at club level. How does that help you when you play for England?
BM: To even be here you’ve got to be performing well at club level, but it gives you such a good level of confidence and energy coming into these camps.
LW: Sometimes I feel like if you’re struggling a little bit at club level and you come here, you put so much pressure on yourself to perform well. You think to yourself: “I have to play better at England!” just because it’s a change of environment. So when you are playing well – for me personally – I just let it be. What will be, will be!
I also think when your team’s winning everything seems a bit easier. And we’re coming into this camp with no worries, so we feel a lot more ‘free’ than others. For me, I’ve felt so positive these past few camps. I’ve just been enjoying every minute of it.
Do you think both Jonas (Eidevall) and Sarina (Wiegman) coming in have played a role in that?
BM: I think so. It’s a fresh start. It is crazy how much a new manager can have an effect on your mindset. They bring a new type of energy.
LW: The best thing about having a manager is they simply want to tell you how it is, and you want to hear it. You’re constantly trying to process their feedback to put yourself in the best possible position for selection.
When you’re playing, in the back of your head you’re telling yourself: “I want to play well because I want this person to know what I’m about”. Sometimes you can get complacent because you know what’s expected of you, so you might know how to take a short-cut or two. But when a new manager comes in you can’t do any of that, so they get everyone at their best. The level of competitiveness – in both of our teams – right now, is the highest it’s ever been.
BM: That level of competitiveness has 100% made me a better player this season. When you think of the players that have come and joined us at club level, Tobin Heath and Nikita Parris for example. If you’re having a bad day in training, you find yourself worrying about whether you’re going to start in the next game. So it’s really helped me to get to a better level.
“My parents have been there for me in moments where I probably could have walked away and not pursued things. They’ve been my rock.”
One thing that’s interesting about football is how players’ personalities can often shine through on the pitch. How would you describe yourself on the pitch, and does it match up with how you are off it?
BM: I would say for me, I can sometimes be a bit silly and cheeky. Off the ball obviously, not when I’m on it! And sometimes I think being like that can help me when I need to laugh off something I’ve done that isn’t great.
LW: I think I am an interesting one. I can be very fiery, and I think everyone knows that. But I recently had a conversation with someone who thought I was a player capable of being wound up. They basically thought an opponent could get ahead of me on the pitch, and get into my head. Which has never happened. I’ve never lost my head because of an opponent.
I just don’t ever want to give anyone an advantage over me, which is how I am in my everyday life too. I would never show my cards to anyone. So, I’ve had to adjust to that. And so far this season the most comments I’ve had have been about how I’m now coming across a lot calmer on the pitch. Maybe it’s because I’m a little more mature!
Players are human beings, we all have to overcome obstacles. How important is family, and life outside of football for you?
BM: My family’s been there every step of the way for me.
LW: Especially when it came to club football, eh?
BM: Yeah, it’s a long way from home. It isn’t just a quick drive away. My mum and dad have always been amazing when it comes to my football. I struggled to get out of my comfort zone, so when it came to moving down South it was difficult for me. I knew a few players already from England camps, but it wasn’t the same as having your family nearby.
My parents have done a lot for me and my career, and have been there for me in moments where I probably could have walked away and not pursued things. They’ve been my rock.
LW: My family is a really tight knit family, and quite a large one. So, priority-wise they’re above football and always will be for me. And they know that, which is why they’ve always pushed me, and made me go for opportunities that have helped my career.
When we come away to camps, I am just so buzzing to be a part of it. It also gives my family an opportunity to be buzzing too. I mean, they came and watched us play on a random field, on a rainy day! They’d take my boots off in the back of the car because my hands were too cold. And to go from then, to now having them sit in Wembley…
I’m sure they’d still take your boots off for you if your hands were too cold!
LW: Exactly! I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay my mum or dad for what they’ve done for me. Just playing my best, and being the best person I can be, will hopefully make it all worthwhile for them.
“I’ve got those idols because my mum and dad made sure they put them in front of my face to be seen.”
Role models are a massive part of the game. Who did you both look up to as young ballers? You’re both at a point in your own careers where youngsters are now labelling you as role models. How does that make you feel!
BM: It’s funny actually because two of mine were Kelly Smith and Thierry Henry. Both obviously Arsenal players. I then ended up at Arsenal, so it was a bit of a dream come true for me. Growing up, Kelly was one of those players everyone looked up to. Unfortunately, she retired the season I joined Arsenal! But those two were my idols.
As for us being role models, it’s still really surreal because we think of ourselves as just Beth and Leah. Two people who just want to play football! So when little girls come up to me and ask for a picture, it’s really nice and quite humbling, but I do find it strange that people recognise me!
LW: Thierry Henry was my ultimate footballing hero. I was there when he scored on his return to Arsenal against Leeds. It was potentially one of the best moments of my life. But I did say to Beth recently that Kelly was one of the greatest without a doubt, and potentially the best women’s footballer we will ever produce in this country. I’ve also got a video showing me wearing (Rachel) Yanks’ shirt, running around the house and pointing to her number on the back! So she was also a big inspiration.
I’ve got those idols because my mum and dad made sure they put them in front of my face to be seen. I played for Arsenal Academy growing up, and would do the gate with my mum for every women’s match. She did that to make sure I saw those players, and understood that one day I could be one of them if I wanted to.
A part of that journey is you’re now playing at iconic venues on a routine basis. You’ve played at Wembley, you’ve played at the Emirates. How does it feel to play at those stadiums, and do you think it’s potentially a long time overdue?
BM: I would say so. I mean, Leah’s played for Arsenal her whole life and only recently played at the Emirates for the first time in our game against Chelsea.
We put a lot into what we do, and yes we are forever grateful for the opportunities and things we’re now offered, but for the game to get to the next level, we need to be pushing for these things to be regular occurrences. Whether it’s Arsenal playing at the Emirates, or England playing every home game at Wembley.
We’ve still got to get more people in stadiums watching the games, but it’s not impossible and should be something we are working towards.
LW: We’ve always been very understanding of the situation, we know we don’t bring in the same crowd when it comes to numbers, but we’re fifty years behind. So, I don’t understand why anyone expects us to be in the same place as the men’s game? We were at one point, a long time ago! But if you want to be brutally honest about it, it’s because we were stopped from playing the game. So stop standing in our way and you’ll see more things like this happening. That’s how I see it anyway.
It’s matchday. What is your fit? In particular, I’d like to know what trainers you’re donning?
LW: I’ve actually had a strong kick game this year. Usually I’m quite superstitious, so if I’m wearing a particular pair of shoes and we win I think: “They’re now going to get worn for the next four years!” But I’ve got all of my shoes on show currently. So, I put my kit on and then decide what I’m going to wear. I’ve been wearing a range lately: Jordan 4s, Dunks, Jordan 1s, Air Forces.
BM: Sometimes you hurt my ears.
LW: You’ve been killing it too lately Beth!
BM: I’ve been sticking to my Dunks.
Who would you say is the best dressed in the England team? You can say yourself if you want!
LW: I always say: “If you don’t think you’re the best dressed person when you go out. Then why do you wear the clothes that you wear?”
I think the best dressed person in the England squad might be Lotte (Wubben-Moy) or Keira (Walsh).
BM: Lotte can wear anything.
LW: Yeah, that girl just oozes cool.
BM Leah’s not bad, I’ll give her that.
LW: Thanks Beth!
The Lionesses play Austria in their next World Cup qualifier on November 27th at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light. Purchase your tickets here.