Exclusive: Steph Houghton on her Olympic dreams and following in the footsteps of Sunderland and Newcastle legends
Steph Houghton has already added one piece of silverware to her bursting trophy cabinet this season - and is hopeful of adding another before the summer is out.
The Manchester City and England captain was back on Wearside on Sunday evening to collect the North East Football Writers’ Personality of the Year award, becoming the first female to collect the prestigious honour.
And the importance of such an accolade is not lost on the 31-year-old.
Speaking exclusively to the Echo, she said: “It’s obviously a massive honour to be here, first and foremost, but to win the award - once I heard I was shocked and surprised.
“But I’m really honoured to be the first female to win it after some really prestigious winners previously.”
Alan Shearer and Jermain Defoe were among the winners of the award in recent years, and Houghton - despite her own distinguished career and Sunderland leanings - admits she is somewhat in are of those whom she is following.
“Yeah, I’m a Sunderland fan, and I’m really really pro-Sunderland, but the likes of Alan Shearer - he’s a legend in the North East and the things he’s done for this area and in general for football is really special.
“I’ve got the utmost respect for him and I’m a little bit in awe of the previous winners of the award.”
It was fitting that Houghton was honoured at the Ramside Hall, scarcely ten minutes from where the South Hetton native began her footballing career.
While her footballing career has taken her to the North West via Arsenal and Leeds, she remains a keen advocate of women’s football in her homeland.
For this is a region that produced seven of the England squad that jetted off to the World Cup in 2019, and continues to have a profound impact on the national team despite Phil Neville rotating his side in recent months.
And although Houghton is naturally delighted with how the North East continues to lead the way in the women’s game, she believes more can be done - starting with getting local clubs back to the elite level.
“I look at our England squad and how many North East girls are involved, and there’s six or seven of us involved, which is fantastic for the region in general.
“But we need to push harder. I think there’s a great opportunity to get Sunderland into the Championship, and Durham are doing well there.
“We’ve got a hotbed of talent in the North East and girls who absolutely love football from the north east.
“I’m delighted we can produce as many players as we can from this area, but we can still improve.”
Houghton’s return to the North East came days before she was set to team-up with the England squad ahead of their trip to America for the SheBelieves Cup.
The competition, which was won by the Lionesses last year, will be used as a chance for manager Neville to blood in a number of young players - something his captain feels will lead to an ‘exciting’ few weeks Stateside.
“It makes me feel old, to be honest!” she joked of Neville’s squad selection.
“I think I’ll be the second or third oldest there. That’s what international football is - especially after a tournament year, it’s important to bring young players in and for them to establish themselves.
“It’s exciting. We’re going through a little bit of a transitional period but for us as senior players, we need to lead these girls.
“They’re going to be there for longer than we are going to be, but if we can have an influence on them and help them to be even better than us in the future then we’ve done our job.”
After She Believes comes the small matter of the Olympics in Tokyo - although Neville is keen to play down any ideas that the tournament, which will see England take on Japan, the USA and Spain, is an audition for the games.
Houghton, however, believes players will still be keen to catch his eye and stake a claim for a spot in Neville’s Team GB roster.
“I think because of the teams that are involved - Japan and the USA - they’ve qualified for the Olympics, so for us it could be an audition.
“I understand what he [Neville] is saying because it’s England. We need to concentrate on England and what we’re doing and play the game that we have done.
“ But as an individual you want to impress, and it’s not just about impressing at England level - it’s about impressing every single week in the WSL.”
And Houghton is hoping that the North East Football Writers’ trophy won’t be the only prize in her possession come the summer.
“It would be nice to win a medal in Tokyo.
“We obviously experienced 2012 which was an absolutely incredible experience - not just around the football, but around the Olympic village and the other athletes, it was really inspirational.
“For us to go and experience something like that will be a special moment.”