Exclusive: Steph Houghton on retirement decision and women’s football growth

The England legend sat down with Her Football Hub to unpack her glittering career.

Steph Houghton applauds the crowd after the International Friendly between England and Germany at Wembley Stadium
Steph Houghton applauds the crowd after the International Friendly between England and Germany at Wembley Stadium on November 09, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

“I think I’m tired now. It’s a battle to keep myself motivated, without probably getting the rewards that a normal player would get.”

It’s rare to hear a player speak so openly about the circumstances leading up to their retirement. When Steph Houghton sat down just days after hanging up her boots, the defender was unflinchingly honest about the highs and lows of a career spanning more than a decade, her decision to retire, and her plans for the future.

Since the relaunch of the Women’s Super League, Houghton has been ever-present in English football. Captaining the Lionesses for eight years and spending more than a decade at Manchester City, the 36-year-old has witnessed the exponential growth of the women’s game.

“I look back at it now and to get through that stage and get to where I am, I think it takes a lot of stubbornness for one, but also that motivation to try and prove people wrong,” Houghton told Her Football Hub. “There are so many barriers for females to get into sport. Especially at that time, it wasn’t really a common thing that females would play football. To think that when I first got into the Sunderland team, I had to pay.

“For me, the only big changes I’ve really seen in terms of professionalism was probably when I moved to Arsenal. You had a hand-me-down kit, you didn’t really get any training kit, and you had to bring your own stuff. You certainly never got any boots, which now in the game, it’s probably a given that every player gets a boot deal, especially those who are playing internationally or at top clubs like this.

“In that perspective, I think the game has moved on massively since I first started. But would I change where I started? No, because I think it makes you the person that you are, and you really become humble for the journey that you’ve been on.”

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2012 Olympics shaping Houghton’s career

Houghton credited the 2012 Olympics as a key moment for both her as a player, and the growth of the game. Falling just short against Canada in the quarter-finals, Houghton bagged three goals to make her Team GB’s highest scorer of the tournament. With the competition gathering a crowd in excess of half a million, 2012 undoubtedly marked a key moment for the sport.

“I think being captain was massive in terms of even just the honour of playing for England. As a young girl, not really having seen people do that. Then being able to do that myself and being able to lead the country at two World Cups and the Euros. To have that honour is massive and to play with the players that I have on the international stage is huge.

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“I think when you speak about 2012 [Olympics], I put myself on the map a little bit in terms of the goals that I scored, the tournament that I had, but also the amount of people that came to watch us.

“People say, ‘was it a defining moment?’ I actually do think it was in terms of people actually recognising women’s football as a sport. There’s no better place to do that than the Olympic Games in London. I think that’s what made people think, ‘right, okay. We need to invest in this sport. We need to invest in these girls’. And for that, it probably is the most special because of the influence it had on the game. But also me personally.”

Steph Houghton: Her decision to retire

When asked whether she had known the 2023/24 campaign would be her last, Houghton confirmed her decision had been made for several months.

“I wanted to see where I was at in terms of getting game time. If I was able to do the job the whole season on the bench in terms of being the leader. Probably around Christmas, I was like, ‘okay, I think I’m tired now’. It’s a battle to keep motivated without getting the rewards that a normal player would get, as captain as well.

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“You’re obviously putting yourself out there, you’re using a lot of energy. We had a little bit of a young and inexperienced team, so you’re trying to motivate them. You’re trying to find that balance of keeping yourself fresh, but also helping the team and helping the staff and a lot of people come to you, especially when you’ve been here for so long.

“I think at Christmas, I was mentally a little bit like, ‘okay, apart from people respecting you and really valuing your opinion, what am I getting out of this?’ I love training every day, but that game time’s what you want as a player and I wasn’t necessarily getting that.

“I think you speak it through, you have those conversations with the people that you really trust and you respect. It wasn’t a rash decision. It was really well thought out and planned in terms of what the future holds. So I think the scary bit was actually telling everybody, but I think once I told everybody and that message went out on Instagram and socials, the weight off my shoulders was ridiculous. It does weigh heavy, but once you’ve done it, you can just kind of enjoy the last few weeks.”

Be sure to check back for the second part of our exclusive interview with Steph Houghton.

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