Leah Galton suspected her love affair with football was over. After a highly promising stint playing professionally in North America, the left winger hit an unexpected wall at Bayern Munich and, suddenly, craved a different life.
She remained in fantastic physical shape but Galton was mentally jaded, low on confidence and in urgent need of a fix of “normality”. A restorative six-month sabbatical spent reconnecting with friends and family in Harrogate beckoned.
“I did normal things; seeing old friends, going out for meals, the stuff I’d never been able to do before,” says Galton, as she explains how a meeting with Casey Stoney and subsequent move to Manchester United reawakened her passion for the game. “It did me good. I was 23 and football was all I’d known since I was five.”
Less than three years on from that brave decision to take a break, Galton and Stoney are preparing for Sunday’s Women’s Super League summit meeting at Chelsea as the newly crowned Barclays WSL player of the month and Barclays WSL manager of the month.
“I’m absolutely back in love with football,” Galton says as Stoney plots ways of extending United’s three-point lead at the top of the table. Given that Emma Hayes’s second-placed defending champions hold a game in hand and are fresh from last Sunday’s 5-0 demolition of Reading, it will not be easy but this is precisely the sort of game Galton signed up for when she joined the then newly formed United in 2018.
Stoney’s team quickly celebrated promotion from the Championship and, after swiftly establishing themselves in the top tier, have morphed into genuine title contenders. “It’s not just about this season, we intend to be challenging for trophies for many years to come,” says Galton, who five months into that sabbatical became “bored” and started craving not merely “routine” but football itself.
Manchester United may not be the most obvious place for a lifelong Leeds fan to find contentment but, within minutes of first meeting Stoney in an Old Trafford office in 2018, she felt completely at home. “I thought: ‘Wow, this is the team and the coach I want to play for.’”
It is hard to overstate the impact the former England captain’s coaching has exerted on the 26-year-old. “I’ve never had a manager that believes in me as much as Casey,” says Galton. “She’s made me so much more confident on the pitch. And because she’s so recently been a player she knows how you feel. Sometimes in training she’ll join in and help us to figure out situations, she’s even marked me occasionally! If you need extra help, she’ll stay on and keep working with you after training.”
While Galton’s devastating change of pace, repertoire of tricks and capacity to score as well as create goals have played a significant part in United’s progress, their upward trajectory was further accelerated by Stoney’s recruitment of two United States World Cup winners last summer.
“Christen Press and Tobin Heath have changed minds and our mindset,” says Galton who, despite her stellar crossing ability, has sometimes been moved more centrally to accommodate the American duo. “They’ve brought a different, much more positive, mentality. They’ve given us belief and the confidence to keep pushing forward, to create and to take more chances. They’ve given me the confidence to shoot from outside the area.”
United consequently seem set to push Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City all the way in a title race likely to be complicated by fixture congestion following a rash of Covid induced midwinter postponements.
Much depends on how the title rivals handle the onerous schedule ahead. “Our squad’s got the necessary depth to keep challenging,” says Galton. “Even if we end up having to play three times a week, we can cope; we’ve got an incredibly strong togetherness.”
This “can do” mantra swiftly became part of her student life in New York State during a physically and emotionally demanding football scholarship at Hofstra University on Long Island. “Going to America was tough but, apart from joining United, it was the best decision of my career,” she says. “It was an experience that I know is going to influence my whole life. I learned so much, I got a degree, I got to know New York; America brought me out of my shell. It made me a more confident person.”
After Hofstra, Galton was drafted to play for the New Jersey side Sky Blue but everything changed with that subsequent move to Munich where the language barrier only exacerbated her burnout.
Three years on she is not only back at the top but, most importantly, feels fully at home there. While the pandemic brings its unique frustrations, her partner Sheridan – the woman responsible for the winger’s invariably eye catching hairstyles – their dog Rhubarb and a renewed ability to relax in front of the television (the BBC drama Our Girl is a favourite) help maintain Galton’s equilibrium.
She likes to tell a story about walking into Stoney’s office “as one person and leaving as another”. The process of turning her back on self doubt and taking the first step on the road towards challenging for the WSL title had begun.
“I’ve played with a few of the Chelsea girls in the past,” she says. “But we’re obviously enemies for the day on Sunday.”
Leah Galton is the Barclays WSL player of the month for December Read our interview with October’s player of the month, Vivianne Miedema, here