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.
Three England youngsters who will be part of Gareth Southgate’s next generation
The 2018 World Cup in Russia has been widely acclaimed as being one of the most exciting and enjoyable tournaments in recent memory.
Whilst France were ultimately crowned as world champions, the entire competition was filled with goals, drama and tension that took football supporters across the globe through the full range of emotions.
It was the complete spectacle and you were drawn into the tournament regardless of whether you were in the stadium, watching on TV or listening via the radio.
England exceeded everyone’s expectations as they reached the semi-finals and it is difficult to remember when the country last united so powerfully behind the national side.
Gareth Southgate will quite rightly receive much of the plaudits for his team’s performances, yet he is already likely to be thinking about how to mould a squad capable of going one better at Euro 2020.
Here, The Boot Room highlights three young players that will be a key part of England’s next generation.
Trent Alexander-Arnold – Liverpool
The 19-year-old started the season as nothing more than a promising prospect that sat on the periphery of the first-team picture at Liverpool, yet he ended the campaign as the first-choice right-back at Anfield and playing in the Champions League final.
His performances were so impressive that Gareth Southgate named him in his England squad that contested the World Cup this summer despite his relative inexperience.
There are few players that have undergone such a dramatic rise in their career trajectory in such a small period of time and it is safe to say that Trent Alexander-Arnold will continue to develop and improve over the forthcoming years.
He will undoubtedly become a central feature at both club and international level and he is an extremely exciting prospect.
Naturally athletic and technically efficient, he possesses all of the attributes required to become an elite modern full-back. However, it is his positivity that makes him stand out.
The 19-year-old has never looked daunted and his first instinct when he receives the ball is to find a forward pass, drive into the opposition’s half or whip a cross into the box.
He already has two senior England caps to his name and if he continues to maintain this rate of progress then he represents the long-term future for club and country.
Phil Foden – Manchester City
When England won the under-17s World Cup final in India last year it signaled a breakout moment for many of the young stars included within the squad.
Phil Foden was widely perceived to be the standout performer at the tournament and was subsequently awarded the FIFA under-17 World Cup Golden Ball in acknowledgment of his outstanding displays.
He received widespread attention from the media over the ensuing months and he has continued to make rapid progress since, making him one of the most highly anticipated prospects in English football.
The dynamic central midfielder joined Manchester City at the age of eight and he quickly rose through the academy ranks and into the first team picture at the Etihad Stadium.
Pep Guardiola was so impressed by Foden’s development that he handed him a competitive debut in November 2017 as a substitute against Feyenoord in the Champions League and has made a scattering of appearances since.
In the process, Foden became the youngest English player to start a Champions League match (at 17 years and 192 days) and the youngest player ever to receive a Premier League winners medal.
Despite still only being 18 years of age, both Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and England boss Gareth Southgate are expecting big things from the central midfielder in the near future.
It will be intriguing to see if he can maintain his current rate of development and force his way into contention for a more prominent role for club and country.
Ryan Sessegnon – Fulham
Fulham youngster Ryan Sessengnon may only be 18 years of age but he has already made a significant impact that has resulted in him becoming one of the most talked about talents in English football.
He was the outstanding performer in the Championship last season where his 16 goals helped The Cottagers to secure promotion to the Premier League.
His contribution was recognised at the end of the campaign when he won an unprecedented five awards including Championship Player of the Season and Young Player of the Season in addition to becoming the first player from the second tier to be nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year Award.
Sessengnon is an exceptional talent that combines pace, power and strength with technical ability, creativity and intelligence.
He is capable of playing anywhere along the left side of the pitch, being equally comfortable when deployed as a full-back, winger or forward, with his versatility making him a unique prospect.
The 18-year-old has already made over 80 appearances at club level and it will be interesting to see whether he can maintain his current high level of performance when the Premier League season kicks off.
If he continues where he left off last season for Fulham then he will quickly find himself fast-tracked into the senior England squad.
Three Arsenal youngsters who could help England bring football home in 2022
The Gunners’ academy continues to develop some of the very best youngsters.
After a successful tournament got the nation dreaming, England fell at the penultimate at the World Cup and may require Arsenal‘s help in 2022.
Gareth Southgate’s youthful squad exceeded pre-tournament expectations and suddenly Greg Dyke’s objectives for the 2022 World Cup seem within grasp – and the Three Lions now have four years to build towards glory in Qatar.
Come November 2022, when FIFA has confirmed the World Cup will commence, Southgate is likely to call upon a number of the players who starred for the Three Lions in Russia but changes to his squad are also inevitable.
“The two targets I have for the England team are – one, to at least reach the semi-finals of Euro 2020 and two, win the World Cup in 2022.”
Fortunately, English football is breaming with exciting young talent at the moment and Arsenal may hold the key to success with three of their most highly-rated prospects.
Bursting onto the scene in November 2017, Eddie Nketiah became an instant hit at the Emirates Stadium after netting twice against Norwich City in the Carabao Cup. Since then, the 19-year-old forward has gone on to make three Premier League appearances.
Competition for places at Arsenal is fierce, particularly following the captures of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the past 12 months, which means he may have to be patient to get his chance – but the situation is entirely different on the international stage.
In four England U21 appearances, Nketiah has scored two goals, per TransferMarkt stats, following on from eight goals in eight games at U18 level and four goals in two games for the U17 side. In just over a year, Nketiah rose to Aidy Boothroyd’s U21 ranks from the U17’s and shows no signs of stopping his rise.
Becoming a regular for Arsenal in Arsene Wenger’s final season at the Emirates Stadium, Ainsley Maitland-Niles showed his versatility by catching the eye playing as a full-back. His natural position is in midfield though and this is where he could be of value to England.
It is fair to say that England’s options in the middle of the park sitting in front of the defence are extremely limited, with neither Jordan Henderson or Eric Dier doing enough to cement their spot in the position for the long-term.
Maitland-Niles could become the man England are looking for in the coming years and further first-team experience with Arsenal looks set to follow under Unai Emery, as the 20-year-old penned a new long-term deal with the Gunners last month.
Arsenal fans have been excited about 18-year-old Reiss Nelson for a while now and saw the teenager break into the fringes of the first-team last term, as Whoscored data shows he finished the campaign with 15 appearances across all competitions.
Eight of those opportunities came as a starter, including two in the Premier League, and there is every chance Nelson could earn further action under the guidance of Unai Emery next term – especially as Alex Iwobi has not done enough to warrant continued action.
Should the Nigeria international continue to suffer with poor form, the eight-cap England U19 international could be Arsenal’s breakthrough star of the year – following in the footsteps of players like Maitland-Niles, Jack Wilshere and Hector Bellerin.
Who will bring football home? England’s predicted World Cup 2022 squad
Players from Everton, Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester United and even Bristol City feature.
England were desperately close to making it into the World Cup final, after defeat to Croatia in the semi-finals.
The Three Lions did however bring back some pride and promise from the long-suffering England fans.
With England also the World Under-17 and Under-20 Champions, the future is brighter than ever.
So who will be at the World Cup in 2022?
It seems impossible to guess four years in advance. Not many would have suggested the likes of Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire or Jesse Lingard four years ago.
The squad, hopefully, will not change much and the experienced players in the squad will likely still be around.
However, for the sake of the article and debate, anyone who will be over 30 in 2022 has been ignored. That leaves Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, Kieran Trippier, Gary Cahill, Phil Jones, Ashley Young, Jordan Henderson, Fabian Delph, Jamie Vardy and Danny Welbeck in the cold, even if some of them will likely be present.
Eric Dier also got nudged out, as his form recently has been a concern and Nick Pope has been replaced.
So who makes the XI and the overall squad of 23?
The Everton stopper cemented his place as England’s new number one during the quarter-final triumph over Sweden. Highly-rated by club and country and with excellent distribution it will be no surprise if he remains England’s first-choice in 2022.
What a deputy. The Stoke City goalkeeper could easily be our number one. The Potters relegation will hopefully not set him back and he should push Pickford for years to come.
The son of a Scotland international has so far rejected their international calls. Recently joined Southampton for £13.5 million and will hope to cement his place as a Premier League regular.
Honourable mentions: Nick Pope, Freddie Woodman, Dean Henderson.
Despite one lapse of concentration which cost England crucially against Croatia the Manchester City man was excellent in Russia.
If he maintains a starting place at City and his career is not derailed, then Stones will be one of the leaders in Qatar.
Became a national hero this summer. A swashbuckling defender with an eye for a goal and a great meme. Should be a multi-cap England international.
Replacing Kyle Walker as the pace-man in a back three is Liverpool’s Gomez. If he can combat his recent injury troubles he will be a certain future England player. Remember how he shackled Neymar back in November.
For many people, the Newcastle captain should have been in Russia ahead of Phil Jones or Gary Cahill.
Rightly so. A brilliant leader who would slot into a back three perfectly and deserves to be in the England fold for the next four years.
The Middlesbrough defender is one inclusion that may cause derision. But this lad is extremely talented.
A reliable defender, good with the ball at his feet and a favourite at St George’s Park. Fry will hope to emerge as an England hopeful in the years to come.
Honourable mentions: Eric Dier, Alfie Mawson, Michael Keane, Ben Wilmot.
Already in the England picture and shone v Belgium. Will likely play in the ¾ play-off this weekend. In four years he might be playing in the final.
A tough call this but the Everton defender is like the Kieran Trippier to Alexander-Arnold’s Walker-like characteristics.
Whilst the Liverpool man has the pace and the power Kenny is more deliberate and his crossing is fantastic.
A favourite with the England youth management and the eventual successor to Seamus Coleman at Goodison Park.
Honourable mentions: Kyle Walker-Peters, Dujon Sterling, Steven Sessegnon.
A shoe-in for 2022 if he remains fit and healthy. The Fulham star is perhaps England’s most exciting prospect.
He might even be considered an attacker by 2022 but for now, he would be an excellent left wing-back and will hopefully make his England bow this season.
This might be the biggest swing and potential miss in the squad. The Bristol City star is wanted by a host of clubs this summer after his fantastic form at Ashton Gate.
But he is a hard-working and super-fit young man who, given the right opportunities, is easily capable of playing for his nation.
Honourable mentions: Lewis Gibson, Luke Shaw, Ben Chilwell
Absolutely adored by the England camp the Bournemouth man has already made his England debut. More positive in his passing than Jordan Henderson and more dynamic than Eric Dier, he is surely the future of England’s composed holding role.
Set for a big break at Tottenham this season he has the potential to be an England star. If he can overcome his current injury trouble he would seem like being a shoe-in for 2022.
England lacked a midfielder who could pick the locks of the Croatia defence in the semi-finals. This is the young man to do just that. The Manchester City youngster needs to break into the first-team fold but given what he has already achieved that should not be a problem.
A lot depends on his next move, as Chelsea does not seem to be the right place for RLC to develop.
Showed in all his England performances that he is a talent to keep an eye on for the future and England will surely nurture him.
May not have set the world alight in Russia, but the Tottenham star’s talent cannot be overlooked.
If he can get to the level he is capable of, then Alli is a 100-cap man with ease.
Can he continue to prove people wrong for another four years?
Excellent at the World Cup and been in fine form for Manchester United. If he continues to progress in this way, then he should still be in the England set-up four years from now.
A tough choice considering the wealth of attacking midfield talent but the Leicester newbie seems the most likely to reach the levels necessary to play at a World Cup.
The £24 million talent can play a number of positions and is a special talent the Premier League will enjoy watching next term.
Honourable mentions: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Nathaniel Chalobah, Ross Barkley, Jack Grealish, Kieran Dowell,
He divided opinion among some at this summer’s World Cup. But under the guidance of Pep Guardiola he will continue to improve.
Whether out wide or through the middle, England will surely stick by the attacker.
The nation’s current captain and front-runner for the Golden Boot award at this summer’s tournament it is hard to see how he won’t lead the line again in four years time.
If he keeps going at his current rate, Kane will surely take Wayne Rooney’s goal-scoring record for England.
Some felt the Everton attacker was unlucky not to go this summer. After thriving on loan at RB Leipzig it seemed he might make a late lunge.
This summer is big for Lookman. He needs to decide where is best to carry on his career which could be key to a future England career.
The Manchester United talent can surely only get better. If he can become a regular starter, wherever he happens to play his club football then the teenager will hope to secure a place in Qatar.
Honourable mentions: Dominic Solanke, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Eddie Nketiah.
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