Sunderland footballing legends Jill Scott, Steph Houghton and Gary Bennett receive Freedom of the City with full honours at ceremony
Footballing legends Steph Houghton, Gary Bennett and Jill Scott have been officially honoured with the Freedom of the City in a special ceremony at City Hall.
Former Hetton School pupil Steph began her career at Sunderland, before moving to clubs including Arsenal and Manchester City. She became England captain and is currently the country’s seventh most capped woman with 121 appearances.
One career highlight was scoring the winner for Britain against Brazil before 70,000 fans at Wembley during the 2012 Olympics.
Gary is fifth in the list of SAFC’s all-time appearance makers. He was an FA Cup finalist in 1992 and was at Sunderland for 11 years.
He joined the club in 1984 when racism in football was probably at its ugliest and most widespread. He became a leading figure in the Show Racism the Red Card campaign, which began in 1996.
His civic honour is very much in recognition of that as well as his football achievements.
Jill Scott is a former Monkwearmouth School pupil. Like Steph she also began her career at her local club, later moving to Everton and Manchester City.
The highlight of her career was also her football swansong. England’s second most capped woman with 161 appearances, she played her last game in the famous Euro 2022 final when England beat Germany 2-1.
She became even more famous after winning I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here! in 2022. Unfortunately she was unable to attend the ceremony.
Leader of the council Cllr Graeme Miller was one of seven cross-party councillors who gave speeches showering praise on the three.
A proud Gary Bennett was there with a number of family members and said: “It’s a great honour. Looking around the room at the dignitaries here, it’s fantastic just to be among it for me, a normal lad born in Manchester to be here rubbing shoulders. It’s also great for my family and everyone else who’s involved.
“It’s a huge, huge honour. I was speaking to Veterans in Crisis earlier and I told them ‘I was born in Manchester, but I was made in Sunderland’.”
He added: “We’re tackling racism not just in sport, but in society generally.”
Steph, who attended beside her husband and former Bradford City star Stephen Darby, told the Echo: “I’m so overwhelmed with the whole occasion. It’s how significant it is; to be here today to celebrate with the likes of Gary and Jill.
“I know how much the city means to us and what it’s done for my career. So to be able to celebrate and be recognised for our achievements is absolutely unbelievable.”
How did it compare with her achievements on the pitch?
She said: “It’s on a par; to be recognised by the city that really supported me throughout my career and paved the way in terms of allowing me to do what I needed to do. To be given the freedom of Sunderland is really something special.”
Asked about other possible benefits of freedom of the city, Steph added: “Apparently back in the day you could herd your cattle over the Wearmouth Bridge. But I’m hoping I can get a free parking space.”