Manchester City and England captain Steph Houghton has opened up about the challenges, sacrifices and triumphs of her football career in the latest episode of Sky Sports’ new docuseries Driving Force.
In an interview now available On Demand, the Lionesses star speaks candidly to Judy Murray about her journey in the game – from the mixed football team on the school yard where she wanted to “prove she belonged” to the honour of leading her country.
As well as opening up on the obstacles she overcame on her rise to the top, Houghton talks about the coaches who shaped her, the psychology that developed her leadership skills and her hopes for the future of women’s football…
‘Beckham among my early heroes’
“Ever since I could walk or run it was always trying to kick a ball: playing football with my dad or my mates in the street, then my brother was born and it was a little competition between me and him.
“I was a big Sunderland fan – I watched them all the time. My heroes were the likes of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Kevin Phillips; I was always trying to replicate them. The love of football I have now is the same as what I had back then.”
‘I wanted to prove I belonged’
“It was just mixed football when I was growing up. The bell rang at break time and everyone ran up to the top yard. If you were first, you’d play – until you got beat. I used to think, ‘Right, I’m staying on this yeard for 15 minutes – we’re not getting beat’.
“I remember my first game for that mixed team like it was yesterday. It was probably frowned upon by some parents that I was starting ahead of one of their sons but when you play well, you’re putting the message out that you belong. That’s always been a massive driver for me – trying to prove people wrong and change perceptions.
“If I were a young girl now, I’d have so many role models to look up to; it gives me a lot of enthusiasm to do what I’m doing. If I can affect one young girl who wants to be involved in football in some way, I’ve done my job.”
‘Work ethic took me to the top’
“We only trained once or twice a week at Sunderland – it’s was about trying to find a pitch on a Friday night, latching onto the last bit of floodlight. I started to think about how I could progress but the only way we could do that was to try and train extra myself. You realise as a professional athlete, you can be in control; a lot of it is about the work you put in.
“I’ll be forever grateful to the likes of Hope Powell. She gave me my England debut. She really pushed us, challenged us. As a 17-year-old making my England debut it was important not to get ahead of myself; it was about being a better player and person; being the fittest and best I could be.”
‘England captaincy scared me a bit! It’s a massive responsibility’
“When you get told, it’s a massive honour and everything that you’ve dreamed of. It was probably more for my family for all their support. I was a little bit scared [when Mark Sampson told us], I’m not going to lie. I knew it was a huge responsibility.
“I was trying to find my way at first. I was trying to be everyone’s mate. But I developed my leadership skills in that time. I had to go back to basics. I expected I had to have this top performance every game – I had to realise I had to let my football do the talking first and foremost. I wanted to lead by example with my actions. I don’t get too high or low – even though I hate getting beat! – but it was about trying to be true to myself.”
‘Injuries made me stronger’
“I’ve had my fair few injuries that have meant I’ve missed out on major championships. I missed the 2007 World Cup through breaking my leg days before we were due to fly out. I was absolutely devastated. In 2009 I ruptured my ACL, which was a long-term injury.
“It’s part of sport but it doesn’t make it any easier. But I used the time to try and get as strong, powerful and robust as I possibly could.”
‘Opportunities now for girls to live football dream’
“There are unbelievable opportunities now for young girls when I look at Man City, with the facilities, coaches, nutritionists. From a technical and tactical point of view, if I looked at me when I was 21, [players at 21 today] would be further on in their careers than I was but in terms of mentality, we had to really fight to be where we are – nothing was given to us.
“For young players coming through it’s our role to try and educate them that you have to earn the right. We’ve seen both sides – at Sunderland where you had to pay for our kit, get on a minibus at 5am in the morning. Now a lot of the stuff is provided for us and we’re able to train full-time.
“For for young girls growing up now, there’s a massive opportunity for them to live their football dream. I’m fortunate enough to be captain of England and Man City but it won’t last forever so it’s about trying to impact as many young girls as possible – to say that it’s ok to be a female footballer. Sport gives you confidence, friends, alliances.”
Watch Driving Force on Sky Sports
Driving Force, led by Judy Murray, is a docuseries exclusive to Sky Sports that explores the making of 10 legendary female British athletes.
Household names such as Victoria Pendleton, Rebecca Adlington, Dame Kelly Holmes and Katie Taylor lift the lid on their challenges, sacrifices and triumphs, as well as shining a light on important issues around racism, social media abuse and inequality in sport.