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England National Team

Exclusive: Steph Houghton – Leading, going unbeaten with Manchester City and FA developments

Manchester City and England captain Steph Houghton has grown into her leadership role for both club and country. We caught up with the 29-year-old as she chases a fourth FA Women’s Super League career title…

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Photo: Reuters

Captain of club and country. Not many players can claim to have achieved that feat during their careers.

For Manchester City Women’s Football Club defender Steph Houghton this was a dream realised at just 25 years of age, when then-head coach Mark Sampson handed her the England Women’s National Team armband on a full-time basis.

“I have had to work hard to become the leader that I am”, she told The Boot Room, in an exclusive interview. “I was quite a young captain getting the armband for both City and England at the same time. In this environment, I feel like I’ve been able to be myself and really grow as a leader.

“There is more responsibility in terms of ensuring everyone is maintaining high standards and sometimes that can be challenging, but ultimately it’s the proudest honour you could have in the game to captain both Manchester City and England.”

Leadership may not have come naturally to the now-29-year-old but, with over 200 clubs appearances and 100 international caps to her name, it is a trait she has acquired through gaining experience and realising new levels of achievement outside of her comfort zone.

This success has seen Houghton discover unchartered territory with England and Manchester City, leading the Lionesses to a third-place finish in the 2014 World Cup finals and the Blues to the club’s first ever Women’s Super League (WSL) title in 2016/17.

The Lionesses, who have become the pride of the nation, came agonisingly close to the World Cup final in Canada, with only a devastating injury-time own goal preventing them from a shot at the most prestigious prize in the women’s game.

Aside from the exemplary team spirit that the squad possesses, Houghton believes that the improved level of England performances over the years comes down to a tactical awareness that has set them aside from their opponents.

“Over the last four years, we’ve been adaptable in the way we play. We are very competitive. We want to win and we’ve found ways to win.

“When I think back to the World Cup in 2015, we played so many different formations that teams didn’t know what we were doing. That is a credit to the coaching staff and all the players who adapted to those different scenarios to outwit an opponent and most importantly win.”

After reaching a landmark 100 appearances for the Lionesses, Houghton celebrated a City milestone earlier this season, marking her club century against former club Sunderland Ladies.

Her 100th game came with a 3-0 triumph against her hometown side, with whom she spent five years at the beginning of her career before enjoying spells with Leeds United and Arsenal Ladies.

Houghton led Arsenal to an FA Cup and Continental Cup double in 2013 and was twice a Women’s Super League winner with the Gunners prior to joining Manchester City in 2014.

“I loved my time at Arsenal, it was a fantastic club and still is, but on a personal level, I wasn’t flourishing as much as I wanted to,” she said.

“Then Manchester City came in, a brand new team that was giving me the chance to play full time, compete in a fantastic stadium and also be closer to home. It really wasn’t an opportunity I could turn down.

The first few months were difficult, but I think in your career you have to go through those moments to come out even better.

“I know I made the right decision and I’m as happy as I could ever be here at City.”

Since making the move from London to Manchester in 2014, the Lionesses’ skipper has earned a number of titles and accolades, not least of which being awarded an MBE in recognition for her personal achievements and contributions to the game.

The Blues skipper is a respected figure both on and off the pitch and has become a huge inspiration to sportswomen everywhere.

Undoubtedly, reaching 100 games with City was a hugely proud moment for the 29-year-old, who has experienced a number of incredible moments throughout her time with the Manchester outfit.

However, she says the club’s domestic success throughout the 2016/2017 campaign remains the personal highlight among all her achievements.

“It was a massive honour and I never thought when I joined the club that I’d be able to play 100 games, but I was fortunate enough to be able to do so.

“There have been some amazing memories, our first Continental Cup final win, we were the underdogs and the feeling that night was unbelievable.

“But, I think winning the double in 2016 and then the FA Cup in 2017, capturing all three domestic trophies, has to up there because of the way we played.

“We went unbeaten and we only conceded four goals and that was a credit to every player and all the staff.”

Already holders of the WSL title and Continental Tyres (League) Cup, after a season without losing during 2016/17, the Blues claimed the full set with an FA Cup final victory over Birmingham City Ladies in May 2017.

For Manchester City Women’s this marked quite an achievement, having turned fully professional only three years earlier – on the back of the creation of the WSL.

After going full-time, City set about the same dominance their men’s side had enjoyed in the transfer market and the league, the outcome of which saw Houghton appear on the club’s radar, with manager Nick Cushing keen to add strong leaders to his ranks.

Houghton credits Cushing, who was named the club’s full-time head coach just a month before she signed for the Etihad outfit, for the significant role he has played in her development, both as a player and a person.

“He is the best coach I’ve ever played under and for me, and for the rest of the players, he’s really developed us into a team that knows a lot more about the game and are much more tactically aware.

“On a personal level, he has helped my game so much over the last four years. We work every day on the finer details, it’s about being good with the ball and without it.

“I owe a lot to him over the last four years, not only on the coaching side but also managing me as a person, really allowing me to be myself and develop as a leader.”

Cushing’s City side remain in an excellent position to challenge for a second league championship this term, just one point behind current leaders Chelsea Ladies, last season’s runners-up, after 11 games. 

Success in the Women’s Super League would have been the main target for the Blues prior to the season, defending the title they worked tirelessly to claim last term. However, the quadruple remains a possibility, with the club still competing on all fronts.

“As a club, we are so far meeting all the objectives we set at the beginning of the season.”

“We’re still competing in the Champions League with the quarterfinals coming up in March. We’re still in the FA Cup and have the Continental Cup final to look forward to, and we’re also challenging for the Women’s Super League.

“Ultimately, we want to keep winning football games and competing in all competitions, so we’re really happy with how the season is going.”

The fabric of a title-winning team comes in its ability to become resolute when the going gets tough and that is exactly what Manchester City showed in their last WSL fixture, against the league leaders.

City’s league hopes looked to be in a perilous position at half-time of their pivotal top-of-the-table clash against the Blues, with the Manchester outfit trailing 2-0 at the break, courtesy of strikes from Millie Bright and Ji So-Yun.

Nonetheless, an excellent second half City performance ensured the points were shared at the Academy Stadium, with goals from Nikita Parris and Georgia Stanway pegging back Chelsea’s first-half advantage.

Defeat would have been a devastating three points lost in the race for the title and, therefore, the eventual draw will be considered a valuable point gained. This game-by-game approach is one that Houghton knows will serve the club well during the run-in.

“This season, we need to take each game as it comes, we know it’s possible and we should be proud of what we’ve achieved, but we’ve still got a long way to go so we’ve got to remain focused if we’re going to achieve success.”

On the continent, City remain unbeaten in the Champions League and will play Swedish champions Linkopings in the quarter-finals in March after reaching the semi-finals of the competition last season.

Houghton and co. were knocked out of Europe by Lyon in 2016/17, and could face the four-time Women’s Champions League winners in the last four if both sides progress from the current round.

“We’ve got to believe. I think we performed well in the Champions League in our debut season, to make it to the semi-finals was an achievement, but we want to build on that.”

Away from the pitch, Houghton acts as an Ambassador for UEFA – a women’s football development role – the purpose of which is to provide models to young females wishing to participate in the sport.

As a leading English female footballer, the City captain holds a strong commitment to accelerating the progress of the women’s game – an objective that has been catalysed by the establishment of the FA WSL in 2010.

Finally committed to developing women’s football, the FA believed creating a viable elite league, which would initially be semi-professional, was to prove vital for the sport’s credibility. This was a decision backed by Houghton.

“The best idea we had was to introduce the FA WSL and having it as a summer league at first allowed clubs to focus on making their teams full time, providing more coaching hours for their players and ultimately drawing in as many crowds as possible, as well as allowing for more tv coverage.”

Initially running over the summer, in July 2016 it was agreed that a calendar shift would take place. This moved the WSL to the winter months, to be played between September and May, in line with other divisions across Europe.

In September 2017 it was announced that the top tier of English women’s football will be only for full-time clubs from 2018-19 after proposed changes to Women’s Super League licences were approved by the FA.

This means that all clubs must re-apply for their places in the division, while new teams could earn licences to join the top tier that will have between eight and 14 teams. In addition, top-flight clubs will be required to run an academy under the new criteria.

This is a significant milestone in the progression of the women’s game and is likely to transform key elements, including the quality of resources and the level of performance on the pitch. Houghton explained the positive impact of such a decision.

“I think it’s the right step now, after making it a winter league, to continue this growth and increase our competitiveness on the international stage.

“There are a lot of big clubs pushing to make it more professional and from an international perspective, that is what you want, everyone training full-time and to be as fit as they possibly can be.

As a club, I think Manchester City have set the standards in terms of the professionalism and ensuring we have access to the same resources as the men’s team, both on and off the pitch.”

A leading figure in the English game, both on the pitch for Manchester City and the Three Lionesses, and as an ambassador for UEFA, Houghton recognises the progress of the women’s game. However, she says there still remains room for improvement. 

“I’m happy with how far the game has come.

“To be able to live my dream of being a professional football player and to be at a club like this is unbelievable and I think the games are now more competitive than they ever were, which makes it all that much better.

“The stadium we play in, the pitches we train on, the crowds that we draw in are incredible too, it’s really grown. It’s important that we keep pushing in all those areas.

“You’d like to see regular TV matches every week, which we’re starting to do. I’m optimistic about what the future holds.”

Decisions made regarding the development of the women’s game may largely sit outside of her influence, but on the pitch, Houghton will be hoping to galvanise City’s pursuit of Chelsea at the top of the WSL, while next year’s World Cup in France will be at the forefront of preparations with the Three Lionesses.

Chris is the founder of The Boot Room. He is a Swindon Town supporter, having lived in Wiltshire for most of his years. His work has also featured on Squawka, Bleacher Report and Eurosport.

England National Team

Should Kieran Trippier have missed out on World Cup spot?

The Tottenham Hotspur player is heading to Russia this summer.

Mathew Coull

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Gareth Southgate announced his World Cup squad earlier today and Tottenham Hotspur find themselves well represented yet again. Eric Dier, Danny Rose, Dele Alli and Harry Kane are all present, with the latter expected to captain his nation this summer.

However, the other Tottenham player included can surely count their lucky stars to find themselves included.

A lot of the talk on social media since the announcement of the squad has centred around the right-back position.

Southgate is spoiled for choice with Premier League winner Kyle Walker and Champions League finalist Trent Alexander-Arnold both included in the 23-man squad. With Ashley Young also present, right-back or right wing-back is well covered.

For many, Trippier is now simply taking up a space in the squad. The former Burnley man is indeed a very good player and an excellent crosser of the ball. But with Walker the most consistent right-back in the Premier League this season and Liverpool teen Alexander-Arnold on fire in recent months, Trippier should have naturally been left out.

(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Many Tottenham fans will of course disagree, but some will also be able to see that Trippier’s inclusion is just not necessary.

His place could have gone to another central midfielder or a wildcard option, someone like Fulham wonderkid Ryan Sessegnon immediately springs to mind.

There is, of course, the fact Walker may be operating as part of a back three this summer, which could allow for the taking of two other right-back options. But he would still be available and ready to move into his more natural position anyway.

The likelihood now is that one of the three players will not get a look in out in Russia, when their spot in the squad could have been used more effectively by Southgate.

As good and consistent as he is, the Tottenham man should have been left at home.

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Crystal Palace

Wilfried Zaha would surely be in England World Cup squad if he had waited

Wilfried Zaha has been in fine form for Crystal Palace this season.

Mathew Coull

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Crystal Palace fans will be over the moon today, as Ruben Loftus-Cheek was confirmed in the England squad for this summer’s World Cup. Whilst he may be a Chelsea player it is his loan spell with Palace that has helped him make the cut.

But some less informed fans on Twitter have been causing a bit of a stir, by insisting another Palace player should have been in the squad heading to Russia this summer. The player in question is Wilfried Zaha.

Undoubtedly, the 25-year-old would have been a great option for England this summer. His inclusion, perhaps at the expense of Danny Welbeck, would have been popular with fans.

(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

But here’s the problem, Zaha has eight caps for the Ivory Coast.

He may have played twice for the senior England team, but last year he decided to change allegiance and play for the country of his birth.

At the time of his decision, it appeared as though Zaha was hitting a glass ceiling with the England team and the decision to play for the West African nation was taken.

He has since gone on to score two goals for his country and he loves representing The Elephants. But it is not difficult to imagine a tinge of regret at his decision.

(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Zaha has been magnificent this season and played a key role in keeping Palace in the Premier League. He would have surely been an absolute certainty to make the England squad ahead of Welbeck if he had still been eligible.

Unfortunately for Zaha, the Ivory Coast failed to qualify for the World Cup this summer so he will be watching the competition and his buddy Loftus-Cheek from home.

Perhaps Zaha will now regret not giving his England career more time. But Palace fans will be happy their star man can rest up this summer, ahead of a hopefully even better campaign 2018-19.

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England National Team

Exclusive: Jodie Taylor – Seattle Reign start; Phil Neville and World Cup hopes

The forward spoke about her adventures in the United States and time with the England Women’s’ National Team.

Jake Jackman

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Jodie Taylor
Photo: Getty Images

Jodie Taylor has had a globetrotting career to date and made the most of her talent since breaking through at Tranmere Rovers as a 15-year-old.

She is currently playing in the National Women’s Super League with Seattle Reign after joining the team from Melbourne City. It didn’t take her long to make an impact at the club as she scored on her debut against Washington Spirit.

In an exclusive interview with The Boot Room, the England international spoke about the importance of her good start:

“It was great to get my first goal for the club. It is a challenge joining a new club, settling in, getting to know teammates, staff, gelling with players on the pitch. So, to get on the scoresheet so early on in the first game was a great first step.”

The 31-year-old has played in a number of leagues across the world and those experiences have helped her develop into the clinical forward that she is today. However, the USA has provided her best times as a player.

Soon after breaking into the professional game, she took a scholarship with Oregon State University and that gave her a taste of the country. Since then, she has played for several teams in America.

(Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

“I love the US – both on and off the pitch. I love the competitiveness, the speed and the intensity of the game here. There is no easy game, every match is a test physically and mentally. It’s a challenge. Off the pitch I love the lifestyle and the people. The Pacific North West is a beautiful place and I feel fortunate to be at such a great club in a beautiful part of the world.”

It has long been thought that the NWSL is the best domestic league in women’s football and the comments from Taylor show why players opt to move there. The competitiveness of the league helps the development of the players, while the lifestyle of the USA is appealing to European players.

The England international was first introduced to the country as a as a teenager and has been keen to ply her trade there ever since.

Throughout her career, Taylor has spent time in the States, England, Sweden and Australia. Although each country will have provided different challenges, she will have learned equally from each. Consequently, she is keen to encourage other players in the women’s’ game to test themselves in new cultures.

“Playing in different countries, experiencing different philosophies and playing styles, experiencing new cultures, being challenged and being out of my comfort zone has really helped me develop both on and off the pitch and I would recommend more players to experience this.”

Her career path has been unconventional and it held her back for a period. Taylor proved her quality early on as she scored 29 times for Tranmere before taking up a scholarship offer in America.

(Photo by Tobias Schwarz/Getty Images)

It was clear then that she had the tools to play for the national team, but her first England cap didn’t arrive until 2014. This was 12 years after her professional debut.

Since then, she has played her part as the team have become beloved and the increasing support underlines the growth of the women’s game.

“We have come a long way over the past few years. It has taken a lot of hard work, sacrifice and commitment, from both players and staff to get to where we are now (2nd in the world). We have a lot of depth to our squad, which has been huge in tournaments. 

“I hope that when people watch us play, they see heart, desire and pride and what it means to represent England. “

England Women’s captured the hearts of the nations as they made the semi-finals of the 2017 European Championships held in the Netherlands and, although they were eventually knocked out of the competition by the hosts, who went on to lift the trophy, they played some excellent football and emerged as a serious force in the global game.

The tournament also represented Taylor’s breakout as an international star, as she finished as the competition’s Golden Boot winner, with five goals. This included a hat-trick against Scotland during the group stages.

(Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

“I was extremely clinical with my finishing at the Euros. However, I put a lot of my success down to the team. My teammates provided brilliant service and created quality chances to allow me to put the ball in the back of the net. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have scored any of the goals that I did.”

The Seattle Reign forward comes is very humble about her performances during that competition, but it wouldn’t have come as a surprise to those that have followed her career closely. Taylor has scored a signifcant number of goals wherever she has played. Her finishing has only gotten better with added experience.

The European Championships have provided a platform for this England team and it is important that they continue pushing as a group. The World Cup is quickly approaching and Taylor spoke with confidence when discussing the chances of the team.

“I believe it will. In the last two major tournaments we have just fallen short of making it the whole way. We continue to keep improving and no doubt we will be contenders to win the World Cup next summer.”

A controversy involving Mark Sampson meant that the team’s management structure has undergone wholesale change throughout the last six months and that will likely impact England Women’s preparation for the World Cup.

Former Manchester UnitedEverton and England full-back Phil Neville was an unpopular appointment as the new Lionesses’ manager, but Taylor says first impressions have been positive.

“I was really impressed with how much he already knew about women’s football and the teams we faced at She Believes. His knowledge and experience is phenomenal. He’s been there and done it as a player. I have no doubt he will take us to another level.”

(Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

Despite his lack of experience in the women’s game, Neville has played at the highest level and he will have expertise to pass down to the current Lionesses’ squad.

Taylor has shown that she is keen to continue learning and her new international manager will help her hone her craft further. She has scored twice since he took charge and will hope to remain a key player heading into the tournamant in France next year.

The game in this country continues to gain exposure and the appointment of Neville is likely a tool to continue that trajectory.

Taylor may now be plying her trade in the USA, but only last season she was playing for Arsenal, with whom she experienced the Women’s Super League first hand.

Her record ended as better than a goal every other game, but she admits that injury affected her time with Arsenal.

“I was a little unfortunate with an Achilles injury during my time at Arsenal. It kept me out for much of my first season and once I was back healthy for the second season the focus was on the National Team and the build up to the European Championships.

“I learned the importance of patience! It is an injury that takes time to heal and I found it very frustrating and difficult to be on the sidelines and to not push getting back on the pitch. The club were supportive throughout the process, which I really appreciated.”

(Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Although they have been dominant in the Women’s game in the past, Arsenal didn’t win the WSL during Taylor’s spell with the club.

There were some good times for the forward in North London, but her struggles with injury did limit her impact, especially during her debut season.

During her time back in England, there was an improvement in quality, but Taylor admits it remains behind the NWSL.

“The WSL has come on leaps and bounds in recent years. Teams such as Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea are extremely professional and well supported by the men. The facilities are incredible and are attracting better and better players to the clubs.

“In terms of the standard of the league overall, I don’t think the WSL is as competitive as the NWSL, as a whole, and still needs to improve the teams outside of the top clubs.”

At the age of 31, Taylor has already achieved a lot in her career and has been playing at a high level for over ten years. However, there is a lot more for her to achieve.

The NWSL and World Cup will be her priority with team success being the main objective.

It would be remarkable if England did win the competition for the first time in their history. If they are to achieve that, the Seattle Reign star will have a part to play.

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