England manager Phil Neville says he receives 20 Instagram messages a day from fans desperate to see Leah Williamson pull on the Lionesses shirt.
And when the 22-year-old was named in the starting line-up for this month’s friendlies against Brazil and Portugal, there were many messages of support on Twitter.
The Arsenal defender, who played just six minutes at summer’s World Cup, has become renowned for her desire and commitment, and is now one of England’s most promising prospects.
“I screenshot all the messages and send them to Leah,” said Neville. “She’s so popular.
“But 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.
“That may have been the making of her.”
‘I was too passive at the World Cup’
A brief cameo in the group-stage win over Cameroon was all Williamson had to show for her World Cup in France. Most 22-year-olds would have been happy just to be involved.
“I was too passive at the World Cup and too happy with what I had got because I was in the squad,” said Williamson.
“There were times when I’ve thought to myself I really don’t want people to perceive me as comfortable with not playing.
“I play for a top club at Arsenal. I’ve been striving my whole life to be the best I can be so playing for England will make me better.”
Williamson and Neville discussed these frustrations after the World Cup and the defender has started two and appeared in all four of England’s friendlies since France.
Neville plans to play her in midfield soon with the friendly against Germany on 9 November at Wembley, in front of 77,000 fans, an option.
“If I even dared to moan about the position I’m in, especially at my age, playing for Arsenal and England, I think I’d get a slap,” Williamson added.
‘Cut her open and she would bleed red and white’
Williamson made her 100th appearance in the Women’s Super League in January, having made her Arsenal debut a day after her 17th birthday.
In April she was celebrating in the stands with her mum as she helped the Gunners lift their first league title in seven years.
“You could cut her open and she would bleed red and white,” said London City Lionesses manager Chris Phillips, who worked with Williamson for four years at Arsenal’s academy.
That passion to play for Arsenal was evident as a teenager when she came off in tears after getting injured in an FA Youth Cup final.
“I told her not to worry because there were bigger games to come,” said Phillips.
“Almost a year to the day, she came on and helped the first team win the FA Cup in the same stadium at MK Dons.”
‘Now she’s ready’
It hasn’t taken long for Williamson to stamp her authority on England.
During the friendly win over Portugal on Tuesday, a victory that ended a five-game winless run for the Lionesses, the youngster was screaming at team-mates and at one point offered encouragement to Uefa Player of the Year Lucy Bronze, five years her senior.
It’s testament to her resolve, determination and confidence that she’s put World Cup disappointment behind her to become one of the more vocal Lionesses in the squad.
“I think those minutes against Cameroon were nowhere near enough for Leah,” said Neville. “I remember her going on and you could see the emptiness in her eyes because she wanted more.
“When I left the World Cup I thought long and hard about it – about how we can get this girl in our team. And I spoke to [Arsenal manager] Joe Montemurro about playing her in midfield.”
After watching recognised centre-back Williamson play in the middle of the park for Arsenal in pre-season, Neville said he now has “utter trust” in her to do a similar job for England.
“There comes a point in a young player’s development where you physically can’t leave them out,” said Neville.
“When you put them in a game you know how they are going to perform. Now she’s ready.”