Steph Houghton: England star, role model, leader

Steph Houghton
Steph Houghton will lead England's 2015 World Cup campaign in Canada this June
'Steph' - England's World Cup Captain
Broadcast on BBC One in the North East and Cumbria and North West on Friday, 5 June at 19:30 BST, shown nationwide on BBC Two Monday, 8 June at 23:20 BST

Steph Houghton has become one of the most recognisable faces in women's sport following her success with the Team GB and England football teams.

The 27-year-old exploded onto the national scene when her winning goal under the Wembley floodlights earned Team GB a famous 1-0 win against Brazil during the 2012 London Olympic Games.

It was one of three goals in four games for Great Britain - and since then the South Hetton native has become a key player for club and country, as well as an important role model for millions of sportswomen.

With BBC Two's documentary 'Steph' to be broadcast before the Women's World Cup kicks off in Canada on Saturday, BBC Sport looks at the story behind Houghton's emergence and hears from those who have been with her along the way.

Formative years

Steph Houghton as a girl
Steph Houghton played in school football for South Hetton Primary School

Steph grew up in South Hetton in County Durham, a hotbed of football, as is nearby Sunderland, up in the north east of England. Her first introduction to the sport came in the playground, where her skills and determination proved a match for the girls, and boys, in her class. They were the first steps on the ladder and Houghton remains close to the school, sometimes visiting to give talks to pupils.

Steph Houghton: "Playing with the boys made me a better footballer, it made me more competitive and made me want to win even more. You were playing against the boys and wanted to prove how good you were."

Lucy Griffiths, head teacher at South Hetton Primary School: "All of the children know who Steph is, although she's so busy and we never really see her. But for her to come into school is such a treat, it's fantastic for them.

"She's sat in their classrooms, played on their pitch, she's someone real to them, they can aspire to her and they all want to be Steph Houghton."

Ha'way the Lasses

Steph Houghton and Jill Scott (left) now play on the same team at Manchester City
Sunderland old-girls Steph Houghton and Jill Scott (left) now play on the same team at Manchester City

Having impressed in the schoolyard, the introduction of a women's team at Sunderland was the turning point from playground pastime to a more competitive path for Houghton. It was there that she was to come across Mick Mulhern, then manager of the Lady Black Cats.

Houghton, despite leaving in 2007, along with fellow England internationals Jill Scott, Lucy Bronze, Jordan Nobbs and Demi Stokes, set the platform for the club to climb the leagues and reach an FA Cup final in 2009 before their WSL 2 entry in 2013.

Steph Houghton: "The fact it was the team I supported, I always wanted to play for them. My all-time hero for Sunderland was Kevin Phillips, he was the one I looked up to."

Mick Mulhern: "Different players had different strengths. Steph's was to score goals, that's what got her into the first team. It was only later that she developed as a player in most positions on the pitch.

"She was a proper captain who hated losing. She was a winner, and would do her job and that of her team-mates to make sure the team weren't losing."

Premier Passion

Despite Houghton's love for the Red and Whites, their relegation from the Women's Premier League saw her move to Leeds United Ladies. It was with Leeds that Houghton would win her first silverware - the FA Women's Premier League Cup in 2010 - and, amid serious injuries, establish herself as a regular England international.

Team-mates such as Sue Smith, Carly Telford, Sophie Bradley and Ellen White all progressed with Carnegie until the Women's Super League was introduced and Leeds opted not to apply for membership.

Sue Smith: "There was lots of talk about her at Sunderland. I remember a lot of teams wanted to sign her and when she came to Leeds we were all made up - we wanted this new player to come and play with us.

"She's so versatile, she came to us as a midfielder, but played up front and when we first went away with England she ended up at centre-half. That's the sign of a good player."

Gunning for glory

Steph Houghton
Steph Houghton signed for Arsenal after four years at Leeds

The Super League brought a first taste of professional football to the women's game and Arsenal - one of the most successful clubs of the modern era - were the initial pacesetters. They were the perfect fit for the ambitious Houghton, who was a regular England player and desperate to add more honours to her name.

She helped the Gunners lift the Women's Super League title, the FA Women's Cup and the WSL Continental Cup - the latter two both achieved as captain - before moving to Manchester City in 2014.

Steph Houghton: "It was the launch of the Super League and unfortunately Leeds weren't going to be a part of that. The only club I was really interested in was Arsenal, I didn't need encouragement to be part of a winning side.

"I wanted to win trophies and no other side was winning more than Arsenal at the time."

Full-time status

Steph Houghton
Steph Houghton captained Manchester City to the 2014 WSL Continental Cup

Manchester City Women made the step of turning fully professional in 2014 on the back of the Women's Super League - and subsequently set about the same dominance their men's side had enjoyed in the transfer market and the league itself. The upshot was that Houghton was on their wishlist of talent, and her switch to the Etihad Campus was sealed in January 2014.

The move reunited her with former Black Cats team-mate Jill Scott and her authority on the field led to her taking the captaincy. The WSL Continental Cup was won in her first season, while City finished mid-table in the league.

Steph Houghton: "The fact it was an opportunity to play professional football was a massive draw. I love getting up in the morning and coming down to this magnificent facility, training every day and getting myself in the best shape.

"It's allowed me to focus on football. There was no better feeling than lifting that Continental Cup."

Nick Cushing, Manchester City Women manager: "Steph's been a real catch for us. We're trying to produce boys that can play in our men's first team and to have the England women's captain - they look at Steph and what she's achieved in the game and she's an inspiration for them too."

Captaining her country

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Houghton blasts England ahead in Paris

Although injury has struck on several occasions to dent Houghton's international ambitions, she has still racked up 54 England appearances since making her full debut against Russia in March 2007.

Seven goals, including a screamer against France in Paris, have highlighted her attacking threat - even from centre-half. Having missed the 2007 World Cup, Houghton is ready to make an impact in Canada, particularly after she was handed the captaincy in 2014 by boss Mark Sampson.

Steph Houghton: "The conversation was a bit of a blur. I was pulled aside and asked if I wanted to be captain, and I couldn't stop smiling, I said: 'Of course'.

"Mark was nice and kind and I feel I have the full support of him going forward.

"I won't say we'll definitely win the World Cup but we've got experience and have been to a quarter-final, and we have girls who have never tasted a World Cup."

Mark Sampson: "Being England captain is a huge honour and a big position within the game. Steph had to be someone who could handle the responsibility. She clearly showed with past experience she can handle the media spotlight, the pressure on her and live up to expectation.

"She epitomised the values the team wanted to epitomise, she's very hard working, ambitious and had a great honesty. She's gone from strength to strength."

Toni Duggan, Manchester City Women and England forward: "Being captain is a big responsibility but she takes it in her stride. Over the years she's only got better and now we're seeing the best of Steph."

Len Houghton, Steph's father: "When she was made captain of England it was the best. That was really good, it's something we'll always be proud of. Not many people get the chance to do that."

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