Steph Houghton and the remarkable journey to 100 England caps: a tribute by those who know her

Steph Houghton and the remarkable journey to 100 England caps: a tribute by those who know her

Currently residing on 99 caps, the first of which came against Russia in March 2007 as a 73rd-minute substitute, Stephanie Jayne Houghton is preparing to join an array of legends in reaching her century, a feat the 30-year-old will do in front of her home fans in Rotherham against Sweden on Sunday afternoon.

Houghton was introduced to football at an early age, kicking a ball about in the garden and park at the age of three. She was a regular spectator at her dad Len’s cricket and football matches and was found playing on the sidelines – usually instead of watching. As she grew older and became more at one with her love of football, Sunderland became her team and a chance at the big eventually presented itself. 

At South Hetton Primary School, she was always in the thick of the five-a-side games, where the rules stated “winner stays on”. Consequently, Steph’s team would play the entire break and lunch time. This dedication and passion enabled her to become the first girl to represent the school team, despite opposition from some of the boys’ parents. Nevertheless, she scored five minutes into her debut and went on to net another before the game was out. 

At a summer coaching school, organised by Sunderland Football Club, she won player of the week and, as a result, was selected to join the Sunderland School of Excellence. Meanwhile, she had moved to Hetton Comprehensive School, where she captained the team alongside her local side and county. Altogether, this led to Houghton making her first team debut for Sunderland at the age of 14.

“Our policy was to grow our own players, Steph was one of those,” says Mick Mulhern, who was Sunderland manager and director of the club’s Centre of Excellence when Houghton made her debut. “I gave her her debut for the women in the national league against Lincoln,” he recalls. “She was a centre-forward at the time, she had the attitude that she could play anywhere. She was called up to the England-under 17s when she was about 16 and was actually a fill in. We had one player called up who couldn’t make it so they called up Steph. During that time with Mo Marley, she played right-back and to be fair, she played everywhere for me, captaining the team in centre midfield.”

Throughout the course of her career, Houghton has gone on to play in almost every position except goalkeeper, before finally settling down into the current centre-back role she is well-known for from her days at both Arsenal and Manchester City, as well as the Lionesses. “Some would say a jack of all trades, master of none,” adds Mulhern. “But for me, Steph mastered everything and was absolutely brilliant in her time with me and beyond.”

Houghton went on to be one of a long line of players who would progress into the England setup after originating from the Sunderland Centre of Excellence. Jordan Nobbs, Lucy Bronze, Demi Stokes and, from the same team as her, both Carly Telford and Jill Scott soon after followed by Lucy Staniforth and Beth Mead. “All those girls who made it, they were ahead of the game at the time. I guess you could never imagine back then where the game would get to, but from a dedication and attitude point of view I’m not surprised Steph has got to where she has.

“She’s a terrible loser, which is a great attitude. She’ll take her team by the scruff of the neck, she was always destined to go as far as the game would allow her. Ten years ago, it wasn’t all that before the FA WSL, that was as good as she could be so it doesn’t surprise me now the game has moved forward that she is where she is.”

After a young Houghton helped Sunderland to promotion and promptly won the FA Young Player of the Year award in 2007, Sunderland were relegated after losing several key players and, for the sake of her career, Houghton had to leave home behind and pursue her career elsewhere.

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Arsenal and Leeds were her keenest suitors and it would come to pass that Houghton chose the latter, managed at the time by Rick Passmoor. “We spoke about where she’d go,” says Mulhern. “It was a good move for her as it wasn’t too far from home. They were a good club managed very well by Rick. I got on well with him and there was no need for her to go to London at the time.”

Goalkeeper Telford would go with her, their careers having crossed paths already pre-Sunderland and would continue to do so after, with Telford growing up at the same time and just a few miles away from Houghton. “I remember when we first went on an England camp together and she was a number nine,” says the Chelsea goalkeeper. “We were playing under-15s and 17s for Sunderland and she was scoring goals. Now she’s rated as one of the best centre-backs around.

“She was one you hung your hat on and said, ‘This girl has massive potential.’ You wondered how far she could go. She went from a nine to a seven to midfield and then full-back, centre-midfield and centre-back.”

Joining Leeds in the summer of 2007, Houghton was all set to be called up by England head coach Hope Powell for the World Cup later that year, but one of a series of twists of fate would leave her facing tough challenges from a young age. “I took over in 2007 and we were looking at a recruitment drive for youngsters,” says Passmoor. “One of the many times driving up the motorways meeting potential players, one time I met with two or three players and one of them was called Steph Houghton.

“She was an England youth player at the time and she was after a new club after being relegated. She was a shy, quiet girl, but coming down with Carly Telford helped her. You couldn’t tell then she would go on to be the icon she is now but straight you away you could see the talent.”

Just months after joining Leeds, Houghton was called up by Powell for the 2007 World Cup and, at just 19 years of age, she would have been the youngest player in the World Cup squad had she made it as far as China. But just two days before flying off to the tournament, Houghton broke her leg in training for the tournament. “I got a call from her and she was in a flood of tears,” recalls Passmoor. “She was with the England strength and conditioning coach, she’d broke her leg.”

Houghton would recover from the first challenge of her career to become a key part of a successful Leeds team, where she would not only impress Passmoor with her talent and versatility on the pitch, but her drive, ambition and commitment off it. “She was box to box, she had energy, technical ability, could spray passes all over the pitch. She could head it, take set-pieces and she had an endurance in her game. There were signs of resilience too. Our average age was 17 years and six months, plus players like Sue Smith and Jess Wright, but Steph was always first on the training pitch and last off. Everything she did was the best she possibly could.”

With Houghton fully recovered from her broken leg and back in form for her new team, she once again looked all set for her tournament debut at Euro 2009, in which England would reach the final, but once more injury would stand in her way. “We were playing one game at Bristol, she was too quick for an opponent, the opponent brought her down and her ACL was gone,” Passmoor remembers. “There was another bit of adversity but during those three years we got to the FA Cup final, won the League Cup, made our highest finishing position in the league and even when injured she’d be down with us, carrying the water, putting the balls out. 

“Without her knowing, she was a massive part of the culture and environment we’d created. The injury was a massive disappointment for her. She’s a very proud individual so I’m sure she had her tears away from the club, but when she was at training, whether in a boot or on crutches, she was there all the time. She was a part of it, she was enthusiastic about the players and one of the most fortunate things for her at that time was her family support. Her family are integral to her.”

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Houghton’s immediate family is made up of mum Amanda, dad Len, brother Stuart and most recently, husband Stephen, whilst her nan Doreen has also been a regular attendee at her matches throughout the years. “She’s always had her feet on the floor, which is a credit to her, her coaches and her family,” says Passmoor. “Lenny the Lion I call her dad, and her nan’s always at the games.”

Houghton’s England career did finally take off and, once she was past her injury nightmare, she became a regular in the side under Powell, and continued to do so in her captaincy role under both Mark Sampson and current head coach Phil Neville. “I always remember Steph as hard-working, disciplined, she wanted to do well,” recalls Powell. “As a defender, she was so hard to beat. Unfortunately, she’d suffered some quite bad injuries but credit to her because she knuckled down and I think she’s now bearing the fruits of her labour. She was a good kid.

“She would have played anywhere, if you’d told her to play in goal I’m sure she would have done. She was quick and she had a lovely, lovely right foot, she was quite a good technical player and has become a top defender.”

With her England career on the rise after helping Leeds win the League Cup against Everton, Houghton’s hand was once again forced when United’s sponsors at the time, Carnegie, decided they didn’t want to fund a licence for the new FA Women’s Super League, which was to begin in 2011. With a move back to Sunderland not on the cards, Houghton’s fledgling and improving talent ensured she once again was able to further her career.

“The Carnegie funding was coming to an end and she was in top form. She hit a 30-yarder into the top corner past Rachel Brown, who was at an unbelievable level at the time but she couldn’t stop that. When it came to an end, I promised the players I’d take them everywhere to fix them up. A lot came back to me with offers and I’d always say it’s about where you develop, because so many were still teenagers.”

While some players would head off around the country, Houghton got a call from the biggest team of them all, the all-conquering Arsenal, managed by Laura Harvey who had taken up the role earlier in 2010. “I got a call of Steph and she said, ‘Gaffer, I want you to be the first to know I’m going to Arsenal.’ I was delighted for her because she was going there before she came to us. What was significant for me was the unbelievable players they had. I knew she’d learn, she had to be rubbing shoulders with Kelly Smith, Rachel Yankey and Faye White.

“All she needed was the game management experience and she’d get that with those players, with Jayne Ludlow, Julie Fleeting etc. She needed to walk in the footsteps of those players, she had stardust and she oozed a genuine personality. She was a benchmark for generations to come. Good people sometimes don’t get what they deserve but Steph did.”

Passmoor’s sentiment is something Harvey agrees with as Houghton began the next chapter of her career at London Colney. “Any player who came to Arsenal looked up to players like that, players who had been there for so long. When you walked in the door you knew you had to stand with them and learn from them. 

“We had a group who joined that year. Steph, Jordan [Nobbs], Ellen [White] and suddenly they were expected to compete with those players. They were leaders but appreciated the young talent coming through and Steph was definitely one of them. She’d proven she was a fantastic player at Leeds but she was proving she could be great captain material too.”

Even away from Arsenal, Houghton’s career was on the rise. In 2009, she’d become one of the first 17 players to receive a central contract from the FA and she’d scored her first goal for her country against South Africa at the Cyprus Cup. 

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With Arsenal, Houghton won the first two FA WSL titles in 2011 and 2012, the FA Cup twice more, and the new FA WSL Continental Cup in 2012 and 2013. “We were getting a player who was really hungry to be better,” recalls Harvey. “The expectation at Arsenal was that we won and trophies were a minimum standard. I think she wanted to show she could be a part of something like that. She wanted to be coached, she was really humble and I think that’s one of the big things that has set her up for her career. However big her career she’s had, she’s always remained down to earth.”

In the first of her FA WSL-winning seasons, Houghton predominantly played at right-back before being moulded into the centre-back she’s best known as today during the 2012 season after Alex Scott returned from a spell with Boston Breakers in the USA. “Her ability to play out from the back is a huge Arsenal trait,” says Harvey. “But she matched that with the desire to defend. We had a ton of the ball so having someone like Steph was a vital part of our success.

“After Alex came back, Steph slotting in at centre-back was a natural progression. There were things she needed to learn but she had the traits to do it. Steph’s greatest attribute is her ability to pass and be comfortable on the ball. If you didn’t have that at Arsenal at the time, you weren’t going to play.”

Despite her success, with the game still not fully professional, Houghton would often be left with the long journey home in order to see friends or family, but she never let herself fully slip away from football and becoming the best she could be. “When she came home from Arsenal she’d train with us with permission from Arsenal,” says Mulhern. “That’s how dedicated she was. She’d go to the gym during the day and come and train with us in the evening. Everything was 100 percent dedication.”

She’d also finally made her major tournament bow as England went out at the quarter-final stage of the 2011 World Cup on penalties against France. But it was in 2012 that Houghton’s career really rocketed and her name became known around the world.

As part of the London 2012 Olympics, Team GB agreed to field both a male and female team; Houghton was chosen by Hope Powell to be a member of the squad. Despite playing as a defender, Houghton scored in all three group games, including the winner against Marta’s Brazil in front of 70,000 fans at Wembley.

While others may have been surprised by Houghton’s goal scoring exploits, Mulhern was perhaps one of the few who wasn’t. “I recall the Olympics when she scored those three goals and probably apart from her family I was the only one not surprised,” he says. “Alex Scott used to be a forward too, as did a few others. Steph could do everything, go anywhere and boss it, that kind of sums her up.”

Powell recalls: “The Olympics are where she blossomed. She grew in confidence during that summer, she became a regular starter for England and really started to mature as a footballer. I think that was a big turning point in her career given where she’d been and the injuries she’d had. She dealt with adversity and she continues to do it, but she wants to be the ultimate professional and she’s just always been a really determined, hard-working player.”

While Harvey would leave the club at the end of 2012 to go and manage Seattle Reign in the NWSL, she was best placed to see whether the fame of the Olympics would affect Houghton. “She was thrown into the limelight really, they all were in fairness, but she didn’t change who she was. She stayed down to earth, you wouldn’t have known being around her all this stuff was happening to her. The best players I’ve ever worked with are like that. Social media was kicking off, the attention was growing but I don’t think she’s changed. It’s a huge testament to who she is, she’s family-orientated. The attention she got on the pitch didn’t change who she was off it.”

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In 2013, Houghton was part of the England team that was eliminated at the group stage of the European Championship, leading to Powell’s departure after 15 years at the helm. Replaced by Bristol Academy manager Mark Sampson, it would be a move that become significant as Houghton’s career continued to flourish.

Sampson almost immediately installed Houghton as captain of the team, while at club level, the centre-back joined Karen Bardsley, Jill Scott, Toni Duggan and Izzy Christiansen at the newly relaunched Manchester City Women, who were joining the FA WSL for the first time in 2014.

It’s a club Houghton still remains at to this day, having won two Continental Cups, the WSL in 2016, the FA Cup in 2017 and having reached two Champions League semi-finals in the club’s first two European campaigns. “Steph’s been essential to us,” says manager Nick Cushing. “We wouldn’t be where we are without her now. The football club is an incredible football club but on the pitch, you have to have good people and good players and Steph is both.

“She’s a motivator and she’s an incredible professional. You can see the way she plays the game, she plays it 100 percent. Without her we simply wouldn’t be where we are. As our captain she’s not only led the team to where are but she’s integrated the younger players, she’s pushing the them and letting them know their responsibilities are to play in this team.”

One of Houghton’s current teammates, Georgia Stanway, echoes her manager’s sentiments and praises her role around young players. “She’s done unbelievably well to get to 99 so to get that extra one will be a massive achievement,” says Stanway. “At City she’s a great leader and that’s evident in how many games she’s played. She’s an all-round really nice girl and a great player. She’s very good at communicating, team huddles, whether on the pitch or off it. For me, as a younger player first coming to City, she made me feel comfortable.” 

With England, Houghton had shot to prominence further as Sampson guided the team to a bronze medal finish at the 2015 World Cup in Canada, a feat which fully placed women’s football, and Houghton, on the map in England. She became the first woman to be on the cover of Shoot magazine and, in the week following the team’s return from Canada, met with Prince William.

The historic bronze medal success against rivals Germany came on the day of her nan Doreen’s 80th birthday, with dad and brother able to fly out before the semi-final against Japan to see their daughter and sister respectively win a World Cup medal.

After Sampson’s dismissal at the end of 2017, Phil Neville was tasked with taking over the Lionesses and from the very off had no doubt Houghton would remain as his captain as he now looks to take England all the way at the 2019 World Cup. “My first memory is of a player I met in La Manga,” says Neville. “Casey [Stoney] came up to me just as I was about to drive away and she said, ‘You need to go and speak to Steph.’ I asked why and she just said she wanted to know my plans for her.

“When Mark took over he took the captaincy off Casey and gave it to Steph. I asked her if she was ok and she just wanted to know my plans. I just said, ‘You’re captain, can I go home now?’”

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Injury to Houghton meant she missed Neville’s first camp but when fit she has remained a mainstay and will now likely lead out her team against Sweden on Sunday to finally bring up cap number 100. Neville feels he’s developing a close relationship with his captain. “I didn’t really feel a connection with Steph until we went for a coffee in the summer in Manchester to talk about the new season. From that moment on we’ve become close. I think she’s a special person, first and foremost. I look at Steph and she’s a brilliant player but an even better person. She’s fully respected by the players, I don’t think she realised how much respect she’s got within football and that’s why I want Sunday to be about Steph Houghton.”

Recent personal news has seen an outpouring of support for Houghton and her husband, but those who know her, have worked with her and played with her tell of a player who deserves absolutely everything which will – fingers crossed – come her way in the coming days.

“What she’s going through is horrific, but you’d never know,” adds Neville. “I’m the third manager she’s been involved with for England and she just gets on with things. The work she does away from the pitch is great and on it she brings that calmness and composure, to play 100 times is a massive achievement and I can see her getting towards 170 like Fara [Williams] has. She deserves to continue playing and continue achieving for the duration of her career,” adds Nick Cushing.

Former Sunderland colleague and current Manchester City and England teammate Jill Scott, someone who has known Houghton as long as anybody and is an England centurion herself, knows what the emotion will be like when she receives cap number 100. “It’s going to be an amazing moment for her,” she says. “It’s definitely the highlight of my career. Representing your country once, twice or 100 times is a fantastic achievement and she deserves it so much. I think she would have been there a lot quicker because people forget early on in her career she broke her leg and tore her ACL which meant she missed out on two tournaments. I’m really happy for her hopefully we can make it a camp to remember.”

Another of City’s original signings back in 2014, Toni Duggan, also hopes to give Houghton a day to remember. “I think for any player to get 100 caps is a massive achievement,” she says. “She’s captained the team through a great period and her hard work on and off the pitch is paying off, hopefully we can make it a great occasion and give her what she deserves.”

Mulhern is also delighted to see the player he gave a chance to in football receive such adulation, and points out Houghton’s loyalty during her career so far. “Whichever club she’s been at, each decision to move has almost been forced. She didn’t want to leave us but we’d been relegated, then Leeds didn’t apply for the FA WSL so she had to move again, which sums up Steph’s loyalty. To get her 100th cap is so deserved, I’m thrilled for where she’s got to in the game.”

Passmoor also echoes the sentiments of others. “She’s talented, hard-working and a genuine person. She’s not just had the talent but the application and motivation. It’s great to see her get 100 caps and to see her at the top, she was a joy to work with and a delight to know as a person. That’s how I’d sum up my time with her. She still keeps in touch and I’m really pleased to say she’s a mate.”

Long-term friend Telford has the honour of rooming with Houghton for the camp with Ellen White out injured, and more than anyone, the 31-year-old expresses a sense of pride at what Houghton has achieved. “It’s a phenomenal achievement for what she’s been through. With those injuries you just wondered if it was ever going to happen.

“I just think of us all being kids and standing at Roker Park, doing mad runs down the beach. Probably myself, Jill, Lucy Staniforth, Lucy Bronze, Jordan Nobbs, Beth Mead are going to be the proudest because we’ve all stood with her at some point during her career from being about 13 onwards. Some of us played with her at Sunderland, some will have watched her who were a few years behind. A hundred caps is such a hard thing to do, only 10 others have done it. She’s not just a good person but a great leader.

“I can’t speak highly enough of her. She’s now my roommate and I’m lucky enough to share that with her. She’s a great player, a great person and I’ve been lucky to be a part of that journey.”

By Rich Laverty @RichJLaverty

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