As far as her football career is concerned, Steph Houghton is all over the place. In the best possible way. Here, there, anywhere is her patch on the pitch, a one-woman Total Footballer.
"Her versatility is just amazing," says England's head coach Hope Powell of the 23-year-old Arsenal Ladies dynamo. "She can play in defence, midfield, up front, it wouldn't surprise me if she could play in goal. She is your complete player. She's got a good engine, she can distribute well – both short and long – she has a bit of flair, she can head and she can tackle. I think potentially she has everything needed to be a world-class player."
That is some testimony for the Durham-born blonde whose renowned versatility was on show for Arsenal in their 2-0 victory over Bristol Academy to win the FA Cup final yesterday. When I watched her in the Champions' League against Sweden's Linkopings recently, helping Arsenal to reach the semi-finals, she was a scampering, overlapping full-back. But she says: "To be honest, I am not really bothered where I play, but it is usually across the back or in midfield. It just depends."
She has been kicking a ball since she was four. "I started in the yard and I also used to play with friends in the street," she says. "I kind of liked all sports, even a bit of cricket, but football was always the one for me. I got scouted for Sunderland's Centre of Excellence when I was about 10 and played for Sunderland Women when I was 14. I started up front but since then I've moved around a bit."
After leaving college in Durham she went to Loughborough University (she has a sports science degree) and joined Leeds. "I was there for four years and last summer I moved to Arsenal. It was a bit of a wrench at first, coming to London, because I am really a home girl but the opportunities are huge with the WSL [the new World Women's Super League, in which Arsenal currently stand second], the World Cup and European qualifiers this year and, of course, the Olympics. It is also the best club in the country so it was an offer that I couldn't really turn down. In football there's always something you want to achieve and as an individual I have always wanted to improve."
She has won 16 England caps since she was 18, and would have been in the last World Cup squad but she broke her leg tripping over a hurdle in training two days before it was selected and was out for four months. She ruptured an anterior cruciate ligament before the European Championships too, which took nine months to heal. "I have had a rough time with injuries but luckily I have had my friends and family around me to pick me up. When I scored my first England goal against South Africa a couple of years ago, it was a great feeling."
Now the Gunner girl's targets are the World Cup in Germany and next year's London Olympics. "Obviously we don't know the composition of the team yet but I would love to be in it. There's a great spirit in the England squad. There are a few Arsenal and Everton girls, but there's nothing cliquey – we all get on well together. The Olympics will be great for women's football and will really boost the game in this country."
Indeed they will, but whether Team GB will be exactly that or simply all-English remains an irritating question as the other home nation associations insist on barring both their male and female players from participating.
Powell, whose stewardship coincides with 50 per cent growth in the women's game in the last five years – football is now Britain's number one female sport – admits frustration at the situation. "There are players from the other home nations playing for English clubs and I imagine they are hoping to be included. The discussions are obviously ongoing but I don't know any more than anyone else about what is happening."
Houghton says Powell has been her greatest inspiration: "She has done so much for the women's game and the fact that we have qualified for so many major tournaments is evidence of that." Powell adds: "Steph still has some way to go because she has been stifled a bit by injuries before major tournaments. It is unfortunate that she has missed out on that exposure and experience but you have to really admire the way she has worked hard to put herself in the position again of not only being in the squad in the past few months but to give herself the best opportunity to be selected for the World Cup.
"She has grown in stature and being such an all-purpose player has given her confidence. She is a natural athlete who works hard at her fitness, she has good pace and awareness. I am very pleased that she is such a great prospect for the future."
Women's football is now much more professional in every sense of the word and like the rest of the England squad, Houghton is on a full-time contract. A cricket fan, she has a brother who plays rugby league for Gateshead, while her boyfriend is a policeman. As you might expect, her role model is David Beckham. She can even bend it a bit like him, too.
British Olympic Association
The British Olympic Association are the national Olympic committee for Britain and Northern Ireland. They prepare the "Best of British" athletes for the summer, winter and youth Olympics, and deliver extensive support services to Britain's Olympic athletes and their national governing bodies. Go to olympics.org.uk
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