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Steph Houghton: End of era for England as Man City defender hands over captaincy

Steph Houghton and Leah Williamson
Steph Houghton (left) was named captain in 2014 while Leah Williamson wore the armband for the first time in September

Steph Houghton has captained England in the last three major tournaments but it will feel like the start of a new era when she hands over the armband to Leah Williamson for this summer’s home European Championship.

Houghton, 33, has achieved almost everything – aside from winning silverware at international level.

She has captained her country for eight years, won over 100 caps, been awarded an MBE by the Queen, represented Great Britain in two Olympic Games and was one of the first female players to be given a central contract by the Football Association.

But with Houghton’s fitness in doubt for the Euros, a new manager is in place and England are embarking on a fresh era.

So what legacy has Houghton’s captaincy left and how will Williamson follow in her footsteps?

What is Houghton’s England journey?

Ellen White and Steph Houghton
Steph Houghton (right) led England to a bronze medal at the 2015 World Cup

Houghton began her career with hometown club Sunderland, breaking into the first team as a striker in 2002.

She played in midfield before eventually becoming a defender for Leeds United, Arsenal and current club Manchester City.

Houghton also progressed through England’s youth teams and earned her senior debut in 2007.

She missed the World Cup that year – and Euro 2009 – with serious injuries but has featured in every major tournament since.

By the time Mark Sampson made Houghton England captain in 2014, she had consolidated herself in the team having impressed at the London 2012 Olympic Games for Great Britain in a left-back role.

Houghton, with 121 appearances for England under her belt, picked up a bronze medal at the 2015 World Cup.

Penalty heartbreak and tested leadership

Steph Houghton in the 2019 World Cup semi-final
Steph Houghton missed a late penalty as England lost to the United States at the 2019 World Cup

Houghton’s career has gone upwards, alongside her reputation off the pitch and her influence on the growth of women’s football.

But she has been tested as a leader with the Lionesses.

Her first test was taking over from Casey Stoney – a strong personality, excellent defender and respected figure within the game – as captain.

“Steph had to be someone who could handle the responsibility,” former England manager Mark Sampson told BBC Sport in 2015. “She clearly showed she could handle the media spotlight, the pressure on her and live up to expectation.

“She epitomised the values the team wanted – very hard working, ambitious and she had a great honesty.”

The media spotlight grew as England were knocked out in the semi-finals of the 2015 World Cup and 2017 Euros, while Manchester City’s investment in their women’s team heightened expectations at club level.

Victory at the SheBelieves Cup under manager Phil Neville and a developing rivalry with the United States added to the pressure going into the 2019 World Cup.

For Houghton it came during a tough time personally as she began supporting her husband Stephen Darby in his battle with motor neurone disease.

So when England and the US met in the semi-finals – attracting the highest peak television audience of the year – it seemed inevitable that Houghton would play a key role.

That came in the 84th minute when England won a late penalty while trailing 2-1. Houghton stepped up to take it, realising her responsibility as captain, but it was saved and England were knocked out.

Steph Houghton misses penalty
Steph Houghton misses penalty against the US

Houghton was pulled to her feet by her team-mates at full-time and immediately fronted the media, holding back tears as she apologised for her penalty miss.

England striker Ellen White, who also plays with Houghton at City, said there are “not enough words” to describe the “love and respect” she has for her.

“What she has done for this England team and football in general… She is an absolute legend of the game,” she said.

“I feel very privileged that I was able to have had so many amazing memories on the field with her and hopefully there’s more to come. She’s an incredible person and player.”

Houghton has not taken a step back in recent years either – instead using her experience to support England’s young talent, offering advice to City team-mates Lauren Hemp and Chloe Kelly in particular and often diverting attention when asked about them in the media.

While injured this season she has still been an influence – travelling to City’s games on crutches, giving team talks on the pitch and being a calming influence in the dressing room.

City boss Gareth Taylor said in March: “She’s one of these players who would sacrifice her own personal gain to help others. She’s helped me and the staff and is a real shining light for us as a leader at the club.”

Houghton’s leadership was summed up last week when she congratulated Williamson taking over the captaincy for the Euros with this statement on social mediaexternal-link.

‘Houghton’s legacy is tough to follow’

Steph Houghton and Leah Williamson
Steph Houghton and Leah Williamson played alongside each other at the Olympic Games in 2021

So how might Williamson’s leadership differ?

“Steph has led the team to this period we’re in now. The legacy she has left behind is tough to follow,” said Williamson.

“I hope I do the armband and the badge proud and live up to that special level.”

The Arsenal defender, who has 27 caps for England, has become a key member of Sarina Wiegman’s side and has impressed with her front-footed style.

She doesn’t panic when in possession and has an aura of composure on the pitch which reflects her cool personality off it.

“Leah has done a great job. She is a very good player and connects people on and off the pitch. That’s why I made her captain,” said Wiegman.

Goalkeeper Mary Earps said Williamson was “very laid back” but showed her passion when she played – a trait vice-captain Millie Bright said she was on the “same page” with.

“She has been absolutely amazing and it’s fully deserved with the way she carries herself on and off the pitch,” added Bright.

“We have the same mindset on the pitch. I might be a little bit louder than her but we work off each other really well. I’m looking forward to building that relationship and to hopefully bring some success.”

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