A collective hush fell over Houghton Cricket Club. The guest of honour was bundled in and just about every family member or lifetime friend of Steph Houghton roared. The Olympics had just finished. Houghton, the English left-back for Team GB, had scored three times, including a winner against Brazil, a feat not achieved by an Englishman in competition football.
The whole team went for tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace before the FA Cup final in May two months ago. Houghton scored in that game as well. Arsenal won. There is a theme, but Houghton, back in tournament football, in Sweden for the European Championship with England, wants more focus and less frivolity.
“I enjoyed the surprise party at the cricket club,” she says. “Everyone was there, including my best friends. It was very special, but I think we’ve gone past that now. I’d kill them if they did it again!”
There are lots of laughs. Her gran, Doreen, will be at today’s game with Russia. “I’m not sure if she’s my biggest fan or whether it’s my brother,” she adds. It is more significant because it is only the second time her gran has gone abroad.
“She’s excited. Every game she comes to she loves. This is only the second time she’s been abroad as well. That makes it even more special. I think she went on holiday once but I don’t know where she went.
“It’s massive for her. She always comes to London and stuff to watch me play for Arsenal, but not usually this far. She wanted to come to Sweden if I got selected and it makes it more exciting for her.
“She’ll find her seat, no problem. She’ll probably wander off to speak to everyone else! She’ll look after herself.”
Inside the family bonhomie is serious ambition for Houghton, now 25; from changing on her own at school before her first game as an eight-year-old, to Sunderland, to Leeds and then to all-conquering Arsenal at the second time of (their) asking.
The Olympics was life-changing, certainly in terms of recognition. Awards came with the glory and a crowd of more than 70,000; crowned England Women’s Player of the Year, photographed alongside Steven Gerrard, the men’s winner. But now it is business time.
It is almost reassuring to hear cliché: Houghton says the squad “will take it one game at a time”. The women are talking like the men. It is a sign of seriousness.
Despite a 3-2 defeat by Spain in their opening Group C game on Friday, Houghton is optimistic England can do better against Russia tonight and France on
Thursday. “We knew we had tough games in our group,” she adds. “We have to be fully prepared to take on Russia and France. We are confident in our ability to get the job done.
“The group should inspire us rather than intimidate us. When you get to the finals, you know there won’t be a bad team in the competition.
“We know we’ve got a tough group. They have individual players who can change games on their own. We want to play against that. We want to play against the best in the world, never mind Europe. We have to concentrate on ourselves and prepare properly and concentrate on getting the job done.
“The [pre-tournament training] camp was good. Everyone tried to settle down as quickly as possible. Training sessions have been good; it’s been a mixture of fun and serious. When we have training everyone has been professional and has been putting it in. It is important to have down time between training and matches.
“As the [qualifying] games went on we made sure we improved as a team. We have always focused on the positives. As a squad we always want to improve. There is general excitement around everyone.
“Training does step up. Everyone is trying their best. It does get a lot more intense before a game. We don’t feel any extra pressure. As a team we know what we want to get out of this tournament.
“We’ve been playing really well over the last couple of years, players gaining more and more experience. It is important we stick together as a team.”
They watched Andy Murray together in the games room in their hotel at Linkoping. “He finished about five o’clock and we had training at six,” she adds. “Yeah, we probably would have missed it if it had gone on another set. Thank God he won it when he did!
“We all bounced off into training after that. Of course, you want to see someone who is British and to win such a tournament like Wimbledon is historic. It’s nice to be part of it by watching it on the television.
“We would like to get some of that feel-good factor that is in British sport at the minute. It’s been a good month for British sport and we want to try and add to that.
“If we can create the same buzz as we did at the Olympics that would be great. The amount of people supporting us and the amount of media coverage then was very special. If we could get that again it would be brilliant.
“It’s heading that way and we have to make sure we do as well as we possibly can.”
Back to the focus; this time without the surprises.
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