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Steph Houghton: 'I have had a lot of setbacks in my career but my husband will always be my top priority'

Steph Houghton, England women’s football captain, has shown courage both on and off the pitch, recovering from serious injuries and caring for her husband who has motor neuron disease, as Gabrielle Fagan finds out

Steph Houghton
Steph Houghton
Steph Houghton with husband Stephen Darby

By Gabrielle Fagan

The Durham-born sports star thrilled England when she led the Lionesses through to the World Cup semi-final in France in July, proving her mettle even more when she stoically dealt with the crushing disappointment of missing a crucial penalty in the closing minutes.

With characteristic determination, she insists that moment won't "define" her and her career as captain of both Manchester City and England.

Even more reserves of courage are called for in her personal life. She married fellow footballer Stephen Darby (29), the former Bolton Wanderers defender, in June last year and three months later he was forced into early retirement after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease.

In April, Houghton (31) reportedly said "it's obviously been a really, really tough year on a personal level", adding her husband is her "number one priority and he always will be".

Recently named as new ambassador for Always' #EndPeriod Poverty campaign - to help reduce the number of youngsters prevented from taking part in sport because they can't afford period products - here, Houghton talks about that penalty, what drives her, and coping with setbacks...

Have you come to terms with missing that penalty?

I'm okay about it, but obviously I'm a winner and was disappointed not to score. I think I'm old enough and wise enough not to let it get to me.

Of course, there's a tendency to replay that moment in my head if people mention penalties or the World Cup. You can't help thinking, 'What if I'd scored that?' - but if I dwell on that too much, I won't be doing myself justice or be in the right state of mind going into the season.

At the end of the day, I just didn't catch it properly and I'm not going to let it define me as a person or as a footballer because I know what I did for the team in the seven games. I played well and gave my all along with the rest of the girls. I'm just looking forward now to starting the season with Manchester City and England.

What motivates you?

You can't beat winning, I think it gets addictive. As a professional athlete, you are exposed to such a roller coaster of emotions with lots of highs and some lows, but nothing beats the sound of a stadium full of fans cheering you on.

On a personal level, I want to be the best centre-half, not just in England but in Europe as well as the world. I know I'm not quite there yet, which drives me on to keep improving every single bit of my game.

What does your family mean to you?

They motivate me because I want to make them proud, especially because of the support and sacrifices they made when I was younger, taking me to trials and watching all my games.

My dad was a semi-professional player and almost as soon as I could walk, I was kicking a ball around. There's nothing better than seeing them in the stands when I'm standing on the pitch singing the national anthem or while I line up to play for Manchester City.

What have been the highlights for you so far?

Personally, of course, getting married and it's a dream come true to captain my country.

I'll never forget taking my grandma to Buckingham Palace to receive my MBE. Although I'm a logical person on the field, I'll get emotional when I look back on some of those moments and I was close to tears when I saw supporters who came to France when we competed in the World Cup.

What do you think about women's football today?

It's massively established on the sporting map, especially after the World Cup, and it can now be seen as one of the big sports for the nation.

We've got to make sure young girls have every opportunity to take part and our league is the best it can be. That's why I'm so behind the End Period Poverty campaign - it's so sad to hear that period poverty is not only affecting girls' education but also stopping them from taking part in activities they love (Always research found 31% of girls have avoided out-of-school activities or sports as a direct result of period poverty).

I was able to follow my passion - football - through taking part in school holiday camps, where I got spotted. I joined Sunderland Ladies at 13. Every girl deserves that sort of opportunity.

Were there any particular moments that have made you more determined to succeed?

I always remember my secondary school PE teacher told me I'd never play for England. I didn't play football there because it was unheard of at the time for girls, but I was playing out of school for Sunderland.

Some people might have stopped playing because of that comment, but it made me more determined to prove her wrong and helped drive me to be where I am now. Those sort of comments are so small to me now.

I had a lot of setbacks, especially injuries. When I broke my leg and subsequently injured my ACL (a major knee ligament), I feared my career was over, but that happening really shaped me to become the person I am today.

How do you look after your health?

Sleep's incredibly important as it's when the body renews itself. I'm always in bed by 10pm and try to get eight or nine hours. I drink loads of water and aim for a healthy diet. I start the day with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, for lunch it's salad with chicken or fish, and in the evening it's meat/fish, vegetables and rice or potatoes. Treats for me are a Mexican meal with fajitas and nachos, and I can't resist a bag of pic 'n' mix.

What's your workout routine?

In the season, I train every morning with Manchester City and I'll also go to the gym twice a week. On my once-a-week recovery day at home, I have a swim, a stretch and use a bike in the gym. Pre-season, I follow a programme of weights, cardio and running. I work on my legs and core strength, so lots of squats, split-squats and dead lifts. I also do upper-body work using weights.

How do you look after your wellbeing?

It's natural to be up and down sometimes, when you're performing in an elite sport, and in life when you're have to deal with bad days. If I'm a bit tired, I can a bit moody!

Generally, I'm quite a humble, happy-go-lucky, bubbly person. Luckily I know how to switch off from the pressures. Spending time with my family makes me feel better if I'm a little bit low, and I'll go for walks, play golf or chase my gorgeous godsons around the garden.

  • England football captain Steph Houghton is the new ambassador for Always' #EndPeriodPoverty campaign. Always has teamed up with UK Youth, a network of youth organisations across the UK, to ensure girls have access to period products, even out of term time, so they can take part in the activities that they love. Visit: Always.co.uk/en-gb/about-us/endperiodpoverty

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