Steph Houghton: I may be retired but I am not done with football yet

Steph Houghton: I may be retired but I am not done with football yet
Steph Houghton: I may be retired but I am not done with football yet

Her illustrious playing career encapsulated the rapid rise of the women’s game from the days of her family paying £250 subs per year when she broke onto the scene with Sunderland, through to becoming the face of a fully professional sport and leading her country to back-to-back World Cup semi-finals.

But Steph Houghton’s involvement in football is not done yet.

The former England captain, who shot to fame with her performances for Team GB at the 2012 Olympics and went on to lift 16 major trophies at club-level, says she remains undecided on exactly what role she wants to do next, after hanging up her boots at the end of the Women’s Super League season earlier this month. But as she sits down in front of a small group of reporters in the press room at Manchester City’s Joie Stadium, the 36-year-old has one eye on teaching the next generation.

Houghton is one of 17 current and former women’s players who recently embarked on their Uefa A Licence coaching qualification course with the Football Association at St George’s Park; the first-ever all-female cohort for an A Licence course. On the 12-month programme, Houghton is alongside other big WSL names including Arsenal trio Kim Little, Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema.

“I like to learn,” Houghton said. “I like to try something new. That [all-female cohort] just shows a lot of women are wanting to stay in the game and wanting to contribute in a way that can help clubs, help national teams and help influence girls and boys - and I’m not necessarily saying you have to just go down into women’s football. It opens more options for more females to be involved in football.

“I feel as though everyone [assumes] you’re going to go into coaching after you’ve played. I completed my B Licence over Christmas and I think that was probably part of my decision to retire. I’m not saying I definitely want to coach or manage, but I feel like this time can be used to allow myself to get qualifications. I don’t want to go down one route, I want options.”

Houghton has also already worked as a pundit, including television work for the BBC during last summer’s World Cup, and she is unlikely to be short of job offers post-retirement, after a playing career which saw her earn 121 senior international caps. She knows as well as anyone, though, that women’s footballers haven’t always had such opportunities, which comes across as she reflects on the start of her playing days.

“You always had to pay to play, you had hand-me-down kit, you didn’t really get any training kit. You had to bring your own stuff,” recalled Durham-born Houghton, who played for Sunderland and Leeds Carnegie before joining Arsenal in 2010. “We certainly never got any boot [deals], which is probably now a given in the game, especially for internationals. But would I change where I started? No, because you really become humble for the journey that you’re on.

“Probably around 2009, because England got to the [Women’s Euros] final that year, I think that’s when people started to actually go ‘We’ve actually got some really good players in this country,’ [and then] 2012 [the London Olympics] really put us on the map. There’s still a long way to go, but I think we can be really happy with where we’re at now. Now the changes are probably going to be a bit more subtle compared to the last few years, it [the rate of change] might slow down a bit compared to say from 2012 to 2020.”

Houghton’s switch to Manchester City for the start of 2014, when they were forming a professional side, was another symbolic moment in the WSL’s development, and she went on to help them win the 2016 WSL title. In her 10 years with the club they also won seven domestic cups, including three Women’s FA Cup finals staged at Wembley. For the first eight of those years, though, she was also carrying the responsibilities of being the Lionesses’ skipper, having been named captain in 2014 seven years after her senior debut, and she was the game’s biggest ambassador in the country prior to Sarina Wiegman’s arrival as head coach in 2021.

Wiegman initially selected Houghton as captain in her first squad, but the centre-back suffered an ankle injury before Wiegman’s first game in charge and the captaincy was subsequently awarded to Leah Williamson. Houghton would never play for her country again. She returned to match fitness and made a preliminary Euros squad but ultimately had to watch from afar as England won their first major women’s trophy at Wembley and then reached the World Cup final last summer.

‘It was a tough time... but perspective is a big word for me’

“Of course it hurt because I know how much I put in, in terms of [being] away from my family, away from Stephen [my husband], to actually get myself fit for that tournament - and it didn’t work out the way that I wanted it to,” Houghton said, on missing out on the Euros. “But that doesn’t stop me being absolutely buzzing for the girls. I was their biggest supporter.

“That time was tough, but I think you learn a lot about yourself in those periods of adversity and setbacks. I would be lying if I said it was easy because it wasn’t. You go from being England captain for eight years and having a lot of communication with a lot of people from the FA and England, to absolutely nothing for two years. That’s quite hard to take. But I think, with everything that’s going on in my life, perspective is a big word for me. Ultimately there are more important things than actually being a part of that squad, and that allowed me to spend more time with Stephen.”

Houghton’s husband, former Liverpool, Bradford and Bolton right-back Stephen Darby, retired in 2018 aged 29 after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND). In March, Darby and Houghton were part of a 178-mile ‘March of the Day’ trek in aid of MND, from Bradford to Liverpool, which has so far raised over £172,000. Spending time together is clearly something Houghton is looking forward to immensely.

“The idea is to have a little bit of a rest and go on holiday with my family and maybe have a little bit of a switch-off,” she said. “Then we’ll see where we’re at when it comes to July. But I know exactly what I’m like, I will want to be doing something and I will be wanting to drive and aim towards something. We’ll see.

“I’m actually most looking forward to the simple things - being able to have a Sunday dinner, see my nephews grow up more and spend more time with Stephen - that’s probably the most important thing.”

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.