Arsenal star Houghton has sights on Olympics

Steph Houghton dives on top of England team-mate Jill Scott
Steph Houghton dives on top of England team-mate Jill Scott
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WEARSIDE is not blessed by a glut of potential Olympic heroes.

Anxious organisers of 2012 may have gone out of their way to stress the national impact of the games, amid the torrent of cash invested in the capital, but competitors from this neck of the woods are scarce.

Just one Olympian has a chance of reaching the podium in an individual event – trampolinist Kat Driscoll after prevailing in the make-or-break qualifying event last weekend.

But there will be no-one from Wearside on the track, no-one in the pool and no-one in the velodrome.

So while some may scoff at the prospect of football as an Olympic sport, there can be few complaints here at the prospect of local medallists in both men’s and women’s football.

Sunderland striker Fraizer Campbell is among the 80 or so players who have made the initial list of those who will be considered by Stuart Pearce for the gents team.

Yet with Euro 2012 providing saturated coverage of men’s international football, will Pearce’s side be able to capture the nation’s imagination, even if they provide the novelty of an amalgamation of British talent?

Most are household names already and part of the joy of the Olympics, is to see unheralded athletes suddenly thrust into the limelight.

Step forward ex-Black Cats duo Jill Scott and Steph Houghton as potential integral cogs for Hope Powell’s women’s side.

Both have made the initial shortlist and should discover later this month, after the next round of Euro 2013 qualifiers, whether they have made the final 18-strong squad.

For South Hetton’s Houghton, the opportunity of featuring at the games is a unique one, a chance to help propel women’s football from the shadows of the male dominance, onto a temporary level playing field.

The Arsenal midfielder said: “With the fact that the men have got the Euro’s, the Olympics have been put to one side from their point.

“But for the women, the fact we’ve sold over 40,000 tickets for the Great Britain v Brazil game at Wembley (the final group game) is something that you can only dream of doing.

“It’s a massive opportunity and it’s going to be great for the women’s game, particularly with it being on telly as well.

“Women’s football is already going well, but the fact that it’s at the Olympics, in London, can only be good for our game.

“I’m sure a lot of people will watch it just because it’s the Olympics, it doesn’t matter whether it’s football or not.

“Hopefully we can get a lot more fans and eventually get to the same level as the men.

“This will be our first Olympics, but we’ve seen how sports like hockey are now taken really seriously.

“Football is all about World Cups and European Championships and if you’d asked me a few years ago, I wouldn’t have thought about playing in the Olympics.

“But there’s an opportunity now to get in that Olympic squad, and even though there’s a long way to go, I obviously want to be in it.”

Houghton has become a regular member of the England squad since making her senior debut as an 18-year-old in 2007 – clocking up 25 international caps and appearing as a late substitute in the 2011 World Cup quarter final defeat to France.

But while Everton’s Sunderland-born midfielder Scott will surely be involved in the Olympic party after becoming an integral part of the England side, Houghton faces more of an anxious wait to discover the make-up of the Britain squad.

After the other home nations eventually relented on their initial opposition towards a Britain side, there lingers an over-hanging suspicion that both Powell and Pearce will have a political element to their squad selection.

That is mere supposition though, with little concrete emerging over the selection process, other than the initial band who have been selected.

Even the players remain largely in the dark on their chances of appearing, their contact restricted to a solitary invitational email to the shortlisted squad.

But Houghton expects that to change when the build-up to the tournament begins to intensify after England’s Euro 2012 qualifiers with Holland and Slovenia later this month.

“It’s about 50 to 60 players at this stage and it will eventually be narrowed down to 18 so it’ll be tough to get in, but it’s a great opportunity if you can make the squad,” said Houghton, who made her debut for Sunderland Ladies aged just 14.

“We’ve been kept in the dark about the process a little bit. I’ve basically just received an email to say I’m on the shortlist.

“To be fair, it’s been quite quiet among the girls themselves because we’ve had to concentrate on England. It’s not one of the subjects that’s been mentioned too much by the manager.

“A lot of people don’t really know how it will happen or how we find out if we’re picked.

“Everyone just has to wait and see.

“We’ve got a few Scottish girls at Arsenal who are in contention and it’s the perfect opportunity to get the best squad possible for the Olympics.

“It’s going to be such a great event and we should have the best players in Britain to go and play in it.”

Houghton is desperate to make the cut after experiencing her share of major tournament heartbreak.

The 24-year-old missed out on the 2007 World Cup before cruciate knee ligament damage kept her sidelined for the European Championships two years later.

“I played in the World Cup last year for England which was a dream after missing out on two major tournaments before that,” she added.

“I’ve just got to make sure I’m playing well with Arsenal and then see what happens with England.

“It’s really exciting when you get to a major tournament.

“Everyone is buzzing for training and people are a lot more interested because it’s a big tournament.

“There’s lots of press, fans want to come and watch training, it’s just really professional and players love that because there’s more exposure for yourself and the team.

“They’re things that you always want to be involved in.

“Playing for Arsenal is a massive honour, but big tournaments with your country are something you should be really proud of.”