- Steph Houghton has been raising money for motor neurone disease research
- Her husband, Stephen Darby, was diagnosed with the condition in 2018
- Houghton reflects on her career, France 2019 and that fateful penalty against USA
Like the rest of us, Steph Houghton has spent the past couple of months with a football-shaped void in her life. “I really have been missing it,” she reflects ruefully.
But it is, she says, the people within football that she has come to miss more than the game itself. “You definitely don’t fully realise how good you have it until something like this happens,” she told FIFA.com.
“Sometimes when you’re in the middle of things, life can seem so busy and you think, ‘I could really do with some time away from all this’. But within a day or two I was really missing all the great people we have at Man City, the conversations we have, and you realise, ‘These people are like my family now’.
“Don’t get me wrong: it’s not all been bad. If there has been one good thing from this period, it’s that it has given me a chance to recharge – more mentally than anything – because it’s been pretty non-stop in recent years. There are obviously pressures that come with captaining Man City and England, plus all the commercial and off-field stuff.
“Most of all, it’s been great to spend time with Stephen [Darby, Steph’s husband]. We’ve been together five years and this has definitely been the longest period – by far – we’ve ever managed to spend together.”
But if such words suggest Houghton has spent the COVID-19 lockdown with her feet up, killing time with a good book and a glass of wine, the reality is very different. In her role as England and Manchester City captain, she has been organising Zoom chats and quizzes with team-mates, working up a sweat in remote training sessions and helping formulate the #PlayersTogether response.
She has also been taking part in, and rallying support for, a campaign even closer to home. This ‘100K in May’ challenge has already raised over three times its initial target of £50,000, with all proceeds going to the Darby Rimmer Motor Neurone Disease (MND) Foundation – a charity set up by her husband, himself a former professional footballer, after being diagnosed with MND.
“Stephen’s first thought, even back then, was: ‘How can I help other people?’” Houghton recalled. “We’re both in a very fortunate position due to our place within the football community, so Stephen decided to set up a foundation with his friend, Chris Rimmer, who also has the disease.
“The idea for 100K in May came from a good friend back home, and it’s been great. I’ve run the 100 but my mum’s been doing it walking the dog, and Stephen’s mum and dad have been cycling. Everyone involved has a t-shirt and, when it gets tough, we can look down at that and remind ourselves why we’re doing this.
“Originally there were just 15 of us taking part. But I messaged all my team-mates and said, ‘We’re already training hard and doing a lot of kilometres – why don’t we try and raise some money while we’re doing it?’ Since then, it’s spread so quickly and we’ve been totally overwhelmed by the support we’ve had.”
The response has reaffirmed to Houghton that there is no hyperbole or over-sentimentality in describing these colleagues as “family”. After all, like the best of families, they have been there for her and her husband in the toughest of times.
“From the very beginning, when the news broke and Stephen had to retire early, the support from within football has been absolutely incredible. It really does show the strength of the football community and how many good people there are in the game. We’ve definitely seen that first-hand.”
Inevitably, the trials and experiences of recent years have also helped Houghton keep on-field matters firmly in perspective. So, while she was desperate to win last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup – and confident in England’s ability to do so – she has not spent the past year torturing herself about their semi-final loss and her much-discussed penalty miss.
“People bring up the penalty a lot, but I know that didn’t define my tournament,” she said. “I was disappointed, of course, but more because I really believed we could win the trophy.
“All the same, I came away knowing that we gave it everything and were one of the best teams in the tournament. From a personal point of view, I also knew I couldn’t have given any more to be the best centre-half there and to lead my team in the best way possible. Even though it didn’t end the way I wanted it to, I can honestly look back and say I enjoyed every minute.”
The COVID-enforced shutdown has provided time for such contemplation, and for Houghton those reflections have taken her far beyond France 2019. “I’ve been thinking back over the last ten years, and it’s just reminded me of how crazy it has been – and how the time has flown. There’s been so much packed in and this is probably the first time when I’ve been able to draw breath, take a step back and assess it all. It’s been nice because it’s made me realise how much I’ve achieved, and how far the game in England has come.”
Exciting times lie ahead too. The Women’s Olympic Football Tournament – which propelled Houghton into the spotlight at London 2012 – beckons invitingly, and there will be new coaches to work with for both Manchester City and England.
Houghton certainly sees “a lot to be excited about” with both club and country. But for now, the future can wait. With her 100K in May complete, and restrictions on socialising in England beginning to ease, she can enjoy some rare, precious and well-deserved time with her husband - and their extended football family.