The England women’s football captain and former Leeds United player Steph Houghton talks to Gabrielle Fagan about her motivation and how she deals with life’s ups and downs.
Steph Houghton is the England women’s football captain who’s shown courage both on and off the pitch.
The Durham-born sports star, 31, thrilled the nation when she led the Lionesses through to the World Cup semi final in France in June, proving her mettle even more when she stoically dealt with the crushing disappointment of missing a crucial penalty in the closing minutes.
With characteristic determination, she insists that moment won’t “define” her and her career - and she’s intent on the next season, captaining both Manchester City and England.
“I’m OK about it but obviously I’m a winner and was disappointed not to score,” the former Leeds United player says. “I think I’m old enough and wise enough not to let it get to me. Of course, there’s a tendency to replay that moment in my head if people mention penalties or the World Cup.
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“You can’t help thinking, ‘What if I’d scored that?’ - but if I dwell on that too much, I won’t be doing myself justice or be in the right state of mind going into the season.
“At the end of the day, I just didn’t catch it properly and I’m not going to let it define me as a person or as a footballer, because I know what I did for the team in the seven games.
“I played well and gave my all along with the rest of the girls. I’m just looking forward now to starting the season with Manchester City and England.”
Even more reserves of courage are called for in Houghton’s personal life. She married fellow footballer, former Bolton Wanderers defender Stephen Darby, 29, in June last year, and three months later he was forced into early retirement after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease, a rare and incurable degenerative condition that affects the brain and nerves.
In April, she reportedly said “it’s obviously been a really, really tough year on a personal level”, adding that her husband is her “no. 1 priority and he always will be”.
“[My family] motivate me because I want to make them proud, especially because of the support and sacrifices they made when I was younger, taking me to trials and watching all my games,” she says.
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“My dad was a semi-professional player and almost as soon as I could walk, I was kicking a ball around. There’s nothing better than seeing them in the stands when I’m standing on the pitch singing the national anthem, or while I line up to play for Manchester City.”
Houghton’s parents encouraged her to play, taking her to a soccer camp at Sunderland FC during the school holidays.
She began her playing career at the club, before joining Leeds United ladies in 2007. There, she helped the team win the 2010 FA Women’s Premier League Cup, before joining Arsenal and later moving to Manchester City in 2014.
At national level, Houghton made her England debut against Russia in March 2007 and was appointed captain seven years later, leading the Lionesses to a third-place finish at the 2015 World Cup in Canada.
One of her highlights was being appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2016 New Year Honours for her services to football.
“It’s a dream come true to captain my country,” she says. “I’ll never forget taking my grandma to Buckingham Palace to receive my MBE.
“Although I’m a logical person on the field, I’ll get emotional when I look back on some of those moments and I was close to tears when I saw supporters who came to France when we competed in the World Cup.”
“You can’t beat winning,” she adds. “I think it gets addictive. As a professional athlete, you are exposed to such a roller-coaster of emotions with lots of highs and some lows, but nothing beats the sound of a stadium full of fans cheering you on.
“On a personal level, I want to be the best centre half, not just in England but in Europe as well as the world. I know I’m not quite there yet, which drives me on to keep improving every single bit of my game.”
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Despite facing setbacks, including an injury she feared would end her career, Houghton says the challenges have only made her more determined to succeed.
“I always remember my secondary school PE teacher told me I’d never play for England,” she recalls. “I didn’t play football there because it was unheard of at the time for girls, but I was playing out of school for Sunderland.
“Some people might have stopped playing because of that comment, but it made me more determined to prove her wrong and helped drive me to be where I am now. Those sort of comments are so small to me now.
“I had a lot of setbacks, especially injuries. When I broke my leg and subsequently injured my ACL (a major knee ligament), I feared my career was over, but that happening really shaped me to become the person I am today. You have to search inside yourself and find more determination and the discipline to overcome those things.”
Discipline is key for Houghton when it comes to looking after her health to help her achieve on the pitch. “Sleep’s incredibly important, as it’s when the body renews itself,” she says. “I’m always in bed by 10pm and try to get eight or nine hours. I drink loads of water and aim for a healthy diet.
“I start the day with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, for lunch it’s salad with chicken or fish, and in the evening it’s meat/fish, vegetables and rice or potatoes. Treats for me are a Mexican meal with fajitas and nachos, and I can’t resist a bag of pic ‘n mix.
“In the season, I train every morning with Manchester City and I’ll probably also go to the gym twice a week. On my once-a-week recovery day at home, I have a swim, a stretch and use a bike in the gym.
“Pre-season, I follow a programme of weights, cardio and running. I work on my legs and core strength, so lots of squats, split-squats and dead lifts. I also do upper-body work using weights.
As for her wellbeing, “it’s natural to be up and down sometimes, when you’re performing in an elite sport, and in life when you’re have to deal with bad days. If I’m a bit tired, I can a bit moody! “Generally, I’m quite a humble, happy-go-lucky, bubbly person. Luckily I know how to switch off from the pressures.
“Spending time with my family makes me feel better if I’m a little bit low, and I’ll go for walks, play golf, or chase my gorgeous godsons around the garden.”
Houghton was speaking after recently being named as a new ambassador for Always’ #EndPeriod Poverty campaign - to help reduce the number of youngsters prevented from taking part in sport because they can’t afford period products.
"Women's football is massively established on the sporting map, especially after the World Cup, and I think it can now be seen as one of the big sports for the nation," she says.
"We've got to make sure young girls have every opportunity to take part and our league is the best it can be. That's why I'm so behind the End Period Poverty campaign - it's so sad to hear that period poverty is not only affecting girls' education but also stopping them from taking part in activities they love (Always research found 31% of girls have avoided out-of-school activities or sports as a direct result of period poverty).
"I was able to follow my passion - football - through taking part in school holiday camps, where I got spotted. I joined Sunderland Ladies at 13. Every girl deserves that sort of opportunity to build her confidence and take part in sport."