In Steph Houghton’s own words, she has been “fortunate enough to have been involved in some unbelievable moments.” That seems to be a colossal understatement from the 33-year- old. The England and Manchester City captain has had a footballing career that most could only dream of.
From World Cups, to Olympic Games, to Women’s Super Leagues, Houghton has performed on the biggest of stages. But why would anything less be expected of yet another sporting star to be produced from the North East?
Houghton seemed to be stumped when asked to pick two highlights from her playing career, “God that’s a tough one.” A brief pause ensued. “I’d probably have to say the England captaincy, I think that was massive for me in terms of my career and also for me as a player.”
“To be given the opportunity to, first and foremost, play for your country but also to lead the side out at four major tournaments has been unbelievable and something that is more for my family than me.”
“I think to be able to represent two amazing clubs in Man City and Arsenal and to win trophies with them is up there too. I mean the Olympics as well, 2012 was unbelievable so I can’t really narrow it down.” Despite naming three highlights, we’ll let Steph off on this occasion.
Brought up in South Hetton, a village in between Durham and Sunderland, Steph’s career has taken her across the world, but her roots underpin everything she does, both on and off the pitch.
“I love the fact I’m from the North East” she tells us. “A lot of my career, the foundations of who I am today, are because of how I’ve grown up and the people I’ve been surrounded by.” Houghton came through the Sunderland Centre of Excellence, before moving into the Sunderland first team in 2005, aged just 17, and leaving for Leeds Carnegie in 2007.
Around this time, she was also studying Sports Science at Loughborough. She explained, “I always knew that I’d be playing football. I just didn’t know if it would be professionally.” This changed when she became one of the first 17 players to earn England central contracts in 2009.
Despite her time with England and at Leeds, Arsenal and Manchester City, she still credits Sunderland with giving her the opportunity and foundation to start her career. “I can never be more thankful for my football career – the basics that I learnt and how I could be as a human because of them. I’m very proud to have come from the North East and to have represented a team that I support.”
Despite the lack of success for their teams in both the men’s and women’s games of late, the North East has a reputation as a hotbed of footballing talent, and Houghton is keen to emphasise that.
She explains that “It’s obviously produced some of the best internationals, especially in the women’s side, over the last few years. There’s a lot of us that are involved, the like of Jill (Scott), Carly (Telford), Lucy (Bronze), Demi (Stokes) just to name a few. With the likes of Durham (Women) and Sunderland (AFC Ladies), it just shows that everybody has a love for women’s football in the region and wants them both to do well.”
So what’s next for women’s football in the North East? A lot of that will depend on whether Amanda Staveley comes good on her promise to invest heavily in the women’s game in Newcastle. Steph is keen to emphasise that just throwing money at women’s football will not automatically improve clubs.
“It’s important that clubs invest but there has to be some strategy behind it, it’s not just about throwing money in, there has to be a well thought out plan to allow the club to progress nicely and produce their own players, as well as trying to attract other players.”
She uses her former club, Sunderland, as an example of this, “ I went through a spell with Sunderland where they wanted to invest but did we really have the backing or was it kind of a bit of a talking gesture. At the time I wasn’t really so sure. Ultimately that’s why the club is potentially in the Championship. With the players they have produced, they should 100% be in WSL 1. It’s important to make sure it’s not just about one season, it’s about the future as well.”
Houghton is an instinctive leader and will want to explore this beyond her career on the pitch. On whether she can ever see herself managing, she said, “We’ll see. Obviously I’m trying to finish my coaching badges. While I’m injured at the moment, I’m trying to fill my time just to get it done before the busy games come around.
“You never know, whilst I’ve been out watching games I can see myself being a leader in some sort of sense. Maybe not a manager but something within first team and high-performance teams. I’m trying to leave my options open.”
Having already tried her hand at punditry and column writing, she said, “That’s something I’ve thought about, especially post career. It’s something I love, I absolutely love the game. For me it’s kind of a dream job but I think there are a few more strings to my bow than just punditry.”
But for all the talk of her post- playing career, there’s still plenty left to come for Steph on the field. All things being equal, she will lead England out of the tunnel for next summer’s home Euros and look to add to her 121 caps. She’s only five games away from overtaking Peter Shilton, the English men’s footballer with the most caps, and joining the group of six women’s players with more caps than Shilton.
Now coached by Sarina Wiegman, who oversaw the Dutch victory at Euro 2017, England should have all the necessary tools to go one better than their semi-finals at the most recent Euros and World Cup.
Steph assured us, “It’s going to be an unbelievable tournament. The girls are confident, obviously when you’re a home nation and you’re going to have the whole country behind you, it gives you that little bit more confidence to go and do well. Fingers crossed we can go and do something that makes everybody happy.”
England are joined by Austria, Norway and Northern Ireland in Group A. They face Austria in a World Cup Qualifier at the Stadium of Light on November 27th, which Steph calls a “good test to see where we are as a team” after four relatively easy wins, with a combined score of 32-0, since Sarina Wiegman took over.
Houghton will likely cross paths with Durham Women defender Sarah Robson, who has 60 caps for Northern Ireland. Despite 6-0 and 4-0 wins over Northern Ireland in 2021 alone, Houghton is full of praise for Kenny Shiels’ side, calling them a “great team” and adding that there’s an “added bit of pressure against the home nations, because we’re expected to win”.
We ask if she might make it to Maiden Castle in April to watch Durham Women face her old side Sunderland. “If I can’t come, then my Grandma will be there” she quipped back. Steph’s love of football, and the North East, is infectious and this clearly goes for her family too.
According to Steph, her footballing legacy isn’t something she thinks about often. But when asked what she would like it to be she replied, “I’d like people to think of us as someone that’s probably paved the way. I think ultimately just someone who’s stayed humble and been a good person. If people could say them few words about us then I’d be pretty happy.”
Image: Manchester City FC