Steph Houghton – The Big Interview
Steph Houghton will soon have the eyes of the nation on her. The England captain is set to lead the Three Lionesses into battle this summer, and her target is to lift the World Cup.
The 27-year-old centre-back has certainly come a long way – from paying to play and struggling for training equipment as a youngster in the North East, to signing pro terms with Manchester City and leading her country out at Wembley. Her rise has coincided with that of the women’s game and as we arrive at the Etihad Campus on a typically drizzly Manchester afternoon, Steph is in fine spirits. One glance around the multi-million pound training centre, which sits a stone’s throw away from the Etihad Stadium, and it’s easy to see why. “It’s a joy to come here and train everyday,” she says. The Mackem lass, who joined City in 2014, still can’t believe her luck...
How about this for a place to come to work?
It’s pretty amazing to be honest! I’m in a very privileged position to spend every single day here training. It’s fantastic what has been built here and to train alongside the academy sides and the men’s team is incredible. I’m very lucky.
Was the Etihad Campus a big draw in you joining Manchester City last year?
I think so. When I first spoke to Manchester City they had a vision, not only on the playing side but on the training facilities, which was a massive pull. Last year this wasn’t here, we were back at Platt Lane with the Under-18 boys, but to know that the move was coming was obviously a massive draw.
You joined Manchester City from Arsenal – historically the major force in women’s football. Was it a difficult decision to leave all that behind and join a newly-formed club?
Yes, it was a really tough decision and not one I took lightly. There were a lot of conversations with a lot of important people in my life before I made up my mind. At the time I’d been with Arsenal for three years, I’d played in a lot of different positions and won a lot of different trophies. Arsenal still has an incredible pull, it’s a great football club, full of great people and I was very privileged to have been a part of that, but I felt it was a time to make a change. The prospect of becoming a professional footballer, being able to train with full-time coaches and full-time players was a massive thing for me. I felt it was the best way for me to improve and develop and to be part of something really special, which has certainly been the case so far.
And of course it’s a World Cup year. How big is it going to be leading England out at the finals?
It’s huge. Absolutely huge. It’s a massive year for everyone involved in the national team. We worked so hard in qualifying to get there and now it’s getting closer and closer. Soon it will be June 5th and we’ll be lining up against France in Canada and I’m really excited to be part of it – if selected of course! To captain my country at a World Cup would be a real dream come true and I can’t wait for the opportunity.
You were part of the 2012 Great Britain Olympic side that reached the quarter finals in London. Will that experience help in Canada this summer?
I actually think it was a totally different experience to any tournament I have been to before. I’ve been part of a European Championships and part of a World Cup but the hysteria around the Olympics was on a different level.
Was that the moment a lot of people started taking women’s football seriously in this country?
I think so. The fact that it was in London and we drew in over 70,000 people at Wembley was, for me, a life-changing moment. At the Olympics we were able to interact and work alongside other athletes and you get to see close up just how dedicated and motivated to be the best they are. It certainly added a bit more inspiration for us to go and do as well as we could in the tournament. We were disappointed to get knocked out at the quarter-finals but in the three games previous to that we were outstanding – as a team and as a squad. I enjoyed every single moment; it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
In November the England Ladies side played at Wembley for the first time. What was it like leading the side out against Germany?
Amazing… well, apart from the result [a 3-0 defeat]. We’d always been desperate to play at Wembley as an English international team. It’s the home of English football so to be given that opportunity and to know that they actually had to stop selling tickets was incredible.
The attendance was almost 46,000 – a real milestone for women’s football.
Yeah, exactly. To be able to walk out and play in a stadium filled with that many supporters was a surreal experience and something that will only make the squad stronger. We played the world champions and while we didn’t get the result we wanted, we were able to play under pressure and in front of a big crowd. It shows how far women’s football has come and how big it is nowadays.
Do you think the women’s game is only going to push on from there?
We’ve made great strides over the last three or four years and I think that’s a credit to the people that are involved at the clubs and who are trying to push the women’s game on. I remember what it was like when I was 14, paying to play and struggling for training kit – it’s evident that things have moved on massively. My generation and younger players have been given the chance to be the best we can be and it’s just continuing to grow and grow.
Going back to the start of your footballing development, what was it like being a young girl who played football?
To be honest, I had no problems. I was really lucky, I had an extremely supportive family and a network of friends who were fully on board with me wanting to play football – and that includes the whole village. They’re football mad in the North East and it was no different if you were a boy or girl. I was always pushed by my parents to be the best that I could be, at whatever I did, and that was certainly the case with football.
Did you have a football hero when you were growing up?
The most obvious one is probably David Beckham. Just looking at the way he strikes a ball, his technique and passing are things I really admire about his game. Also, Steven Gerrard because of the way he leads by example and is constantly able to get a grip of the game and influence his teammates as positively as possible.
You started at Sunderland. Was it a dream to play for your hometown club?
That was the team I always wanted to play for when I was younger and to grow up at that club and to move through the ranks was special. I owe Sunderland a lot. I made my first-team debut there at the age of 14 and I also made my England debut while I was a Sunderland player, which was a really special moment for me and my family. Credit has to go to the coaches there who taught me well. There’s a mentality in the North East where you’re expected to work hard, to be able to listen and communicate properly and that was instilled in me at Sunderland. I feel very privileged to have played for them, they certainly made me the player I am today.
Was it hard to leave Sunderland and, in the process, leave home for the first time?
It was a really hard decision to leave Sunderland. Wearing that red and white top was all I’d ever known since I was eight years old. But at the time I’d just made my England debut and unfortunately Sunderland had just been relegated. The only way that I knew I was going to get better was to move clubs and move into the Premier League to play against the best players week in, week out.
The PFA have been very supportive of women’s football. How has that helped you in your career?
The PFA have made massive improvements in women’s football, mostly around central contracts for the English girls and also with the Women’s Super League contracts, because it allows players to have a little bit more security. If any of the girls want any advice the PFA are always there and I think that’s really important now that we are taking the game to the next level. As players we need to feel protected and I believe the PFA have made a conscious effort to do that. Being represented by the PFA has certainly helped my career and they’ve made it a lot easier for me to handle media commitments and appearances while also dealing with my club and country contracts. The PFA’s involvement is something that will be huge in the women’s game going forward.
Finally… are we going to win the World Cup?
[laughs] Let’s hope so. We’ll certainly do our best!