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England National Team

Steph Houghton on 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…



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.

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England National Team

Should Ben Foster be in the England World Cup squad?

With Joe Hart out of form could Foster head to Russia despite Baggies struggles.



England are heading to the World Cup this summer with one very significant problem position – goalkeeper.

The current number one is Joe Hart. His loan spell at West Ham United has been a disaster. His poor form saw him dropped for Adrian. England do have good young options. Everton’s Jordan Pickford and Stoke City’s Jack Butland look likely to be on the plane. In terms of experience however, England are lacking. Tom Heaton of Burnley has spent much of the season on the sidelines with a shoulder injury. His deputy Nick Pope has been brilliant, but has no England experience.

during the Premier League match between Stoke City and West Ham United at Bet365 Stadium on December 16, 2017 in Stoke on Trent, England.

Gareth Southgate should therefore try and convince a West Brom player out of retirement.

Whilst most of the Baggies players this season certainly don’t deserve a place at the World Cup this summer, one that might is goalkeeper Ben Foster.

The 34-year-old has been in his usual consistent form for West Brom this season. If England decide that Joe Hart should be left behind then experience will be necessary. Based on form, that should be the case. Hart has been poor this term and his confidence appears to be shot.

Foster would be a perfect replacement. He is a no-nonsense option whose eight caps for England do not represent his talent. He is excellent at claiming crosses and quick off his line. His injury record goes some way to highlighting that bravery is one of his best attributes. When it comes to shot-stopping he can’t quite rival Butland or Pickford, but he is no slouch.

Ecuador forward Enner Valencia heads the ball as England goalkeeper Ben Foster (L) and England defender Luke Shaw try to stop him during the friendly match between England and Ecuador at Miami Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida on June 4, 2014. AFP PHOTO MLADEN ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

He has previously made himself unavailable for the England team, after a series of injury troubles. This summer England boss Southgate must consider asking him to re-enter the fold once again. He could be the guiding stopper for Pickford and Butland in Russia whilst Hart takes some much needed time away from the national team.

Bringing in Foster to the England fold again might be the best option for all parties this summer.

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England National Team

England youngsters begin to repay Gareth Southgate’s faith



Gareth Southgate

It has not been a vintage few years for England’s national team. Many have tried to find the root of the problem but perhaps the man most qualified is the head coach of the reigning World Champions, Joachim Low.

Speaking a year after Germany’s success in Brazil (where England were dumped out after finishing bottom of their group), he claimed that England must “face up to the fact [that] their young players don’t get the minutes for their clubs”.

It is widely acknowledged that any green shoots of talent which emerge are trampled down by the Premier League and its preoccupation with expensive foreign signings. This, he added cheerfully, also meant that “in the last few years £100 million has been put back into [German] youth development”.

However, failure in Rio was by no means the peak of English embarrassment, emphatically beaten to that title by the defeat to Iceland in Euro 2016. It was this result that led to Chris Waddle’s memorable complaint that the products of England’s development system are “all pampered, they’re all headphones and you can’t get anything out of them”.

Waddle did it most colourfully, but he was one of many to attribute the defeat to a failure to deal with adversity, an inability to adapt in tough times.

After witnessing another leisurely stroll through qualifying for 2018, this time under Gareth Southgate, England fans will be searching for evidence that the next tournament could be different. Friday night’s match against Germany showed that Southgate is beginning to address the problems.

He introduced five debutants at Wembley, the most notable of which were Chelsea starlets Tammy Abraham and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who have finally received some top flight game time following loan moves to Swansea City and Crystal Palace, respectively.

Now at less illustrious clubs, their inclusion shows Southgate’s willingness to select players from any team, a stark change in selection policy.

Loftus-Cheek and Abraham will benefit not only from the playing time, but also from the unique experience of playing for a struggling team.

The former, just seven appearances into his first proper season in the league, has managed to impress in a Palace team infamous for suffering the worst ever start to a Premier League campaign and changing their manager after just four games. It appears that Loftus-Cheek is not a player who shrinks in adversity, but one who thrives.

Abraham, similarly, has been thrust into a Swansea side who are current favourites for relegation and his four strikes this season represent over half of the Swans’ league goals. He is raw, but is clearly a player able to perform for a struggling team, something which may well come in handy during his England career.

Gareth Southgate has recognised that the many who fail to break into top teams can still become top players. This is not an issue specific to English players, prospects from overseas have also been spun out by the revolving door transfer policies of moneyed clubs.

In the first of his few appearances for Chelsea, Loftus-Cheek took the place in the squad of a young Egyptian who was subsequently loaned out before being discarded. However, despite failing to cement a first-team place at Chelsea, Mohamed Salah is doing brilliantly at Liverpool. His reaction to that setback is an example to all English youngsters.

The England manager will continue to put his faith in players from ‘unfashionable’ clubs and has called up Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook for Tuesday’s game against Brazil. This should encourage the next generation to step out of their academy comfort zone and seek real footballing experience.

If the precocious talents of England’s all-conquering development sides are encouraged to broaden their footballing horizons, we may finally produce players capable of dealing with the glare of an expectant nation. Rounded professionals not ‘pampered headphones’; music to the ears of England fans.

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Crystal Palace

Has Crystal Palace’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek put himself in contention for World Cup selection?



It was a game that everybody had written off, labelled as just another fixture in what has been a seemingly endless stream of uninspiring and unwanted international matches over the past months.

The tepid nature of England’s recent matches at the end of their European Championship qualifying campaign left a bad taste in the mouth of a lot of the country, and as such the frequent nature of international breaks across the past three months has drained most enthusiasm for the Three Lions.

A number of high-profile withdrawals from the squad did little to whet the appetite ahead of a showdown with old foes Germany either, leaving England’s resources depleted against a world-class side.

Yet whilst Friday’s match did little to inspire before kick-off, with many wondering what Gareth Southgate could possibly take from a match that pitted so many debutants against a strong and well-drilled German outfit, one man ensured that any pre-match script was ripped up and abandoned from the off.

The game may have ended goalless but on-loan Crystal Palace midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek truly lit up Wembley Stadium with an expansive display full of potential and flair to turn a fair few heads.

One of three debutants in the starting line-up, the 21-year-old defied any fears of being overawed by the occasion in front of a packed-out home crowd by putting in an individual display that provided a rare sense of excitement in an England shirt, something not felt since Marcus Rashford’s emergence.

If he felt any signs of nervousness ahead of kick-off then it certainly didn’t show on the pitch, taking just 20 minutes to make his first telling impact with a silky Cruyff turn followed by a sublime nutmeg.

It was a move that exuberated confidence and it set the pattern for Loftus-Cheek’s evening.

He nearly earnt himself a debut assist before half-time, setting Jamie Vardy away with the most delicately chipped ball over an advanced German defence, and it deserved a finish from the striker.

As the match went on it became clear that he held the key to unlocking their opponents, being involved in almost everything good about England’s attacking play, creating two chances in a matter of second-half minutes when he found the late runs of Jake Livermore and Eric Dier in imaginative fashion.

However, aside from these moments, his all-round demeanour showed awful amounts of promise, often holding off German midfielders whilst marauding forwards before threading a pass between a gap.

There was one particular occasion inside the final ten minutes when, despite giving his all for 80 minutes of end-to-end football, he still managed to find the energy within him to burst out of defence and put England back on the front foot, drawing in three players before squeezing a pass away.

The way Loftus-Cheek acquitted himself to the task at hand was admirable and he almost played without fear, showing no signs of being weighed down by the shirt as many others have been in recent years.

He showed signs of elegance and trickery yet he utilised all of his 6’3” frame to bully Germany at times, and the decision to award him man of the match was a fully justified and well-received one.

It is certainly no mean feat to make your international bow against the reigning world champions and leave with the accolade of being the best player on the pitch but it was simply testament to how Loftus-Cheek asserted himself onto proceedings, adding tempo to the hosts’ counter-attacking approach.

Speaking post-match, as relayed by BBC Sport, the youngster was delighted by his debut – and rightly so. He said:

“If we won it would have been better but I’m really happy. It was a really tactical game. It was good for us young players and I certainly learned a lot.

“The manager has said do your best. I had Gareth [Southgate] in charge for nearly three years at the Under-21s and the boys have been great. I’ve settled in really well and they gave me a platform to go out and play.”

Loftus-Cheek’s impressive debut could resonate far deeper than just a one-off friendly match though, not least with next year’s World Cup in Russia gradually growing closer on the horizon.

Yet as a nation we have to be careful.

It doesn’t seem like that long ago that a certain someone called Jack Wilshere arrived on the scene at Arsenal before making his England bow and being largely dubbed as the next big British prospect.

Both expectation and injury have significantly stalled his career – almost to the point of no return considering his struggles to get into Arsene Wenger’s side – and it is important not to get too carried away about Loftus-Cheek’s potential despite his very impressive performance against the Germans.

That isn’t to say that he shouldn’t make the World Cup squad though, as based on Friday’s display against one of the best teams in the world the Palace midfielder is ready to take this huge step up.

Addressing thoughts of the World Cup, Loftus-Cheek remained coy, though:

“To go to the World Cup it’s a long season and I still have to improve. I have to keep learning and getting better and hopefully there’s a chance to get on the plane.”

Whilst Loftus-Cheek himself confessed that he needs to continue learning if he harbours any hope of making England’s World Cup squad, supporters alike will pray his development doesn’t stall.

The next step of his England career – after the friendly against Brazil on Tuesday – remains unclear though, with Alli almost certain to return to the fold and reclaim his role as the attacking midfielder.

Loftus-Cheek’s involvement then depends on how prepared Southgate is to move away from his formation used in qualifying and the usage of both Jordan Henderson and Dier – two very defensively-minded players – and whether the ex-Under 21 boss will be bold and drop one of them from his team.

Either way – and even if Loftus-Cheek doesn’t earn a starting berth – his impact as a squad player could be monumental, and there simply aren’t many homegrown players that can match up to him right now.

It’s likely that his competition for a World Cup berth will come in the shape of Wilshere himself, Jake Livermore and fellow debutant against Germany Jack Cork, and there’s nothing about those midfielders that Loftus-Cheek should be concerned about in his fight for a place on the plane to Russia.

Loftus-Cheek’s sudden emergence onto the international scene shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise though as he’s been a rare bright spark in a troublesome start to the year for Crystal Palace.

The 21-year-old has been the player to drive Roy Hodgson’s side forward, creating nine Premier League chances in his nine appearances – a tally only bettered by Yohan Cabaye and Andros Townsend – and his 83% passing accuracy is the highest of anyone to feature eight times or more.

He has also shown his tendency to be penetrative and direct on the ball – as he proved at Wembley Stadium – by completing 23 of 31 take-ons, averaging just less than four direct dribbles each match.

It’s this attacking intent and consistent ability to pull off his daring moves that will excite most, potentially able to add a new box-to-box dimension in England’s midfield that’s long been vacant.

Nobody will argue that he’s far too good to be playing for a relegation-battling side but the concept of regular football until the end of the 2017-18 campaign will only be a good thing in his efforts to make Southgate’s World Cup squad, able to continue progression against top opposition each week.

Loftus-Cheek’s prior relationship with Southgate from their time spent together at Under-21 level will undoubtedly fall into his favour and it’ll be interesting to see how the upcoming months unfold.

It’s seemingly a quintessentially English thing to do when a player impresses on the international scene, to hype them up and set them up for a fall, but something seems different about Loftus-Cheek.

He has the manner of a man that’s been patiently waiting for his chance on both a domestic and national front – after all, he’s only made 30 Premier League appearances over the course of the past four seasons – and during that time he appears to have built up a thoroughly encouraging attitude.

As with anything, time will tell as to whether he has what it takes at the top level. But for now we should all give credit where credit is due, and look forward to the development of a fresh homegrown prodigy.

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