Even the Premier League has not yet come up with the wheeze of having the name of players’ Twitter accounts on their shirts. The FA Women’s Super League beat them to that one in April this year ahead of the launch of their first summer competition and found a willing “digital ambassador” in Steph Houghton, the personable full-back of Arsenal Ladies.
“Stephhoughton2” now adorns her Arsenal kit and since her exploits for Great Britain at these Games, her number of followers should be rocketing. In scoring in all three group games – two of them winning goals - she has helped Hope Powell’s team to top the table and qualify for a highly winnable quarter-final against Canada at Coventry on Friday.
“Unforgettable night at Wembley. Thank you all so much for support which has made it even more special” read yesterday’s tweet under the modest description of herself as “Sunderland girl who plays football for Arsenal and England Ladies”. The “Sunderland” part is obviously important to her as a proud north-eastern girl – hence the pronunciation of her name as ‘Horton’ - who played for the local club and only left, for Leeds, when Sunderland were relegated in 2007.
That was an eventful year, in which she made also her full England debut but also suffered the first of two serious injury blows, breaking a leg by tripping over a hurdle two days before the squad were due to go to China for the World Cup. Two years later came a depressingly similar blow, damaged ligaments forcing her out of the European Championships.
“She worked so hard to get back into condition, and is now one of the fittest players in the squad,” said Powell, who has become a huge admirer of Houghton’s attitude and dependability, not to say versatility: “She can play anywhere across the back line or in midfield. She’s not naturally left footed but she’s so pleased to be part of it all and wants to do well.”
Playing at left-back, it is her right foot that has struck all three goals: the first from a beautifully curled low free-kick to win the opening game against New Zealand, the second with a much fiercer effort against Cameroon and then the lovely touch and turn in only the third minute to put GB on their way to Tuesday’s night epic 1-0 victory against Brazil. In an adventurous team whose other full-back, Alex Scott, also loves to go forward, it was typical that she should have been so close to the opposition goal for the two goals from open play.
The other thing that pleases Powell, with her 30 years’ involvement in women’s football and constant struggle to win recognition for it, is that Houghton, 24, has come all the way through the system, playing for England at every age level and now approaching 30 international caps.
Her role models and heroes are impressive, and significant, comprising midfielders David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Michael Essien and Darren Fletcher, the latter pair being those she seeks to emulate despite her nominal role as a full-back. Given a central contract by the FA in 2009 ahead of the eventual launch of the FAWSL, she has a sports science degree from Loughborough University and would like to a career in it eventually; women’s football may be progressing but even Arsenal and England players do not retire without ever having to work again.
“If men are successful, they make a living from it, whereas girls tend to give up playing and put their effort into something that will give them a career,” she has said.
The sweep of that right foot in front of more than 70,000 people and a live television audience on Tuesday may just have pointed a few more of them in the direction of football.