Why surprise star of the games Steph Houghton will never forget the Wembley roar
Steph Houghton tells Martin Hardy how she realised a dream by scoring against Brazil at Wembley and a cheesy tune inspired her Olympic feat
The home dressing room, Wembley Stadium, 31 July 2012. Steph Houghton is sitting at her station, usual routine: left sock first, left boot first, superstitions to run through, a new one, a wrist band (an Olympic one, obviously) added. An iPod is being turned up, it is no classic by anyone's standards (surely) but the message has become anthemic for every woman putting on their Team GB Olympic strips, deep within the home of English football.
"When the world leaves you feeling blue, you can count on me I'll be there for you. When it seems, all your hopes and dreams are a million miles away, I will assure you."
The atmosphere is changing, players are starting to stand up. The singing comes first, then the dancing. Team GB are coming together. Houghton gets to her feet, opens her lungs and joins in: "Reach for the stars!"
There was no singing in an empty changing room at South Hetton Primary School, in 1996. Houghton was eight years old and putting on her football kit on her own, away from the boys she would be playing alongside for the first time, for the school team. Outside were new team-mates (all boys), the opposition (all boys), and a couple of parents who had voiced their disapproval that a girl had taken their son's place in the team. All alone, Houghton fastened up her boots and took a big step into the unknown, into a future no one, least of all a little eight-year-old girl who just wanted to play football, could ever have foreseen.
Shortly after the game had started, Houghton took a pass in the opposition penalty area, did a Cruyff turn and, in her words, "Laced it into the top corner. I was shocked. I was like, 'Did that really happen?'" There has been a fair bit of that this year.
"I always used to rush out at break time to play football on the top yard at school. I'd want to get out first so you could get on first and try and win every game and stay on for the whole 15 minutes. I always loved my football at school.
"They had an 11-a-side team and they asked me to play and I was like okay, I'll play. I was nervous. I was the only girl. You get changed by yourself. You run out onto the pitch on your own. After the game, I got into my mam and dad's car and went home."
From that step into the unknown has come a career to make her parents proud. When she was 10, Sunderland took her to their school of excellence. She played for the first team when she was 14 and helped her hometown club reach the Premier League. When they were relegated she moved to Leeds, combining a Sports Science degree at Loughborough University with a burgeoning football career. There had even been a part-time job – in a sport shop of course: "My mam and dad have always said you have to work hard." At 19 she was an England international and two years ago, when Arsenal came calling for a second time, she moved to the capital.
At present there is the England central contract (£16,000-a-year), a semi-professional career with Arsenal and a part-time job as a recruitment officer for the University of Hertfordshire. Perhaps that work ethic drew people to women's football this summer.
This year, Houghton has picked up a League and League Cup winners' medal. She played against Barcelona in the Champions League and helped England to reach the European Championships next summer.
There was still something approaching mild panic when an unknown number flashed on her phone, in the living room she shares with two of her Arsenal team-mates, Jordan Nobbs and Dan Carter, near the club's Shenley Training Centre, two weeks before the Olympics.
"The phone flashed and I didn't recognise the number," she says. "I had to walk out into the garden and it was Hope [Powell, the GB coach] and she said, 'Hello Steph Houghton, you're in,' and I just went, 'Get in!" She said, 'You sound happy!' I was on the phone to my mam and dad straight away, going, 'I'm in, I'm in!" Everything becomes a dream from then on.
"The kitting out day at Loughborough was an unbelievable experience," Houghton adds. "You have your own personal guide to tell you what sizes you need. You get fitted for your opening ceremony stuff, you walk away with three or four bags of stuff and you're just, 'Wow!'"
She scored in the first two games, against New Zealand and Cameroon, from her left-back position. Then came Brazil.
S Club 7's closing words, "That's when your dreams will all come true," were still buzzing around Houghton's head as she left the changing room, with her Team GB team-mates, to walk down the tunnel at Wembley, to walk into a brave new world, where 70,000 supporters were waiting.
"I'll never forget the roar as we walked out," she adds. "It gives me goosebumps even now just thinking about it."
There was a final superstition, to make sure there had been a wave to the corners of the ground where her parents and family were sitting. In the second minute, after a corner, the ball came her way.
"It was a shock more than anything when I scored. I didn't know what I was doing. I tried to get a touch to it and then tried to hit it as hard as I could and it went in. You actually don't know what to do. I'm rubbish at celebrating. The noise. That's what I can remember. And when I watch it back, with the commentary, Guy Mowbray was brilliant, it gives me goosebumps. My grandma has got it on Sky and she keeps telling me that she watches it all the time.
"We fought so hard to win that game. It was unbelievable when the final whistle went. We all just jumped on each other. After the match I jumped over the barrier to give my dad a hug, and then I went to see my mam and gave her a kiss and a cuddle as well. She was crying, she was really blubbing.
"She told me after she was getting on the tube and all the people were talking about me and she said, 'I just had to say, that's my daughter, I was so proud of you.'"
There is still disappointment that they did not go further, beaten by Canada in the knockout stage, but after breaking her leg before the 2007 World Cup and rupturing her cruciate in 2009 before the Euros, the heartbreak has a serious dose of context.
Houghton was picked by the Football Association to be a figurehead for its five-point plan to build on the Olympics. The 24-year-old is polite and engaging company when we meet in the plush surrounds of Seaham Hall, a short drive from the family home she has returned to in the Women's Super League off-season. "I'm running out of superlatives for 2012," she says. "It is a little bit surreal to be honest. I love it. I don't think I've kept a smile off my face all year [she admits to being starstruck at the Sports Personality of the Year awards last weekend]. You've just got to enjoy what you do. I hope we go full professional next in the women's game now. I think that is what we are working towards. The FA has been brilliant. The enthusiasm is there to do it.
"You've just to enjoy what you do. What has happened this year is what I dreamt of when I was playing football in the school yard. All I ever wanted to do was play football."
It is a simple enough wish.
3 Goals scored by Houghton at the 2012 Olympics – one in each of the group matches. Only four women scored more.
29 Caps won for England by Houghton since making her debut against Russia in 2007. She has scored five goals in total.
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