A true blue leader
By Caroline Oatway
Captain, leader, legend
"To play 200 games for this Club is a huge privilege and the fact I've been here from the start makes it even more special. I feel I've given absolutely everything - 110% - every single day to be the best professional and best captain I can be. Hopefully, there'll be a lot more to come!"
- Steph Houghton
Steph Houghton is no stranger to making history.
Widely regarded as one of the world's best centre-backs and one of the most successful players in the game, the City and England captain boasts a glittering CV of individual and collective awards, and has earned deserved acclaim for her impact and influence both on and off the pitch.
Adored for her commitment, leadership and consummate professionalism, Houghton is an inspiration to budding footballers – female and male – all over the world. She has broken barriers, smashing perceptions and lifting women’s football into the spotlight, utilising her role model status to glorious effect.
Having become City's first 'Centurion', clocking 100 appearances for the Club back in January 2018, she has now doubled her tally, becoming the first female player to reach 200 appearances in sky blue - the latest milestone in a memorable career, which has seen the defender also become the first to hit 150 FA Women's Super League appearances, as well as 100 wins in the competition.
Recently hailed by City boss Gareth Taylor for her 'top drawer' displays, the centre-half is hitting new heights, as she looks to add to her already-impressive collection of silverware...
Awarded the England captaincy in 2014 (a day she regarded fondly as ‘the best day of her life’), she has since clocked up more than 120 appearances for her country, guiding the Lionesses to three major semi-finals and a bronze medal at the 2015 World Cup in Canada, in addition to representing Great Britain at the Olympics.
She also made history by becoming the first female player to feature on the front cover of Shoot Magazine and has since made numerous media appearances as a pundit for both men’s and women’s games on television.
Her services to football were recognised in the 2016 New Year Honours List, as she was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).
Starring for Team GB at the 2012 Olympic Games, Houghton became a household name - most notably for her impressive goalscoring exploits from the left-back position!
At the time, the Sunderland-born defender was plying her trade at Club level with the imperious Arsenal, leading the Gunners to an indomitable period of domestic glory.
Today, she has replicated that success with City, leading her side to a clean sweep of English silverware with seven trophies in seven seasons: three FA Cups, three Continental Cups and an FA WSL title, plus consecutive Champions League semi-finals in our first two attempts...
To say she has been 'integral' to that success would be an understatement. Her leadership, courage and commitment to the cause have pulled City through in the most challenging of moments, while her technical ability and dedication has cemented her status as one of the Club's most consistent and reliable performers.
It was exactly those qualities, which led Managing Director Gavin Makel and former manager Nick Cushing to do everything in their power to try and recruit Houghton once City re-launched as a professional outfit in 2013. Topping the list of potential targets, the Arsenal captain took a huge risk in leaving the country's most successful women's team to join a new Blue revolution.
It was up to Makel, Cushing and co. to sell the dream: the dream of a team yet to play a game, the dream of facilities yet to be built and the dream of a star-studded squad yet to be assembled... So, how did City manage to convince the Gunners’ skipper to join a brand new, unestablished Club? The answer: our ambition…
"When we first started out, we drew up a list of players we were interested in and she was top of the list," Makel explains. "There was a feeling she could come and almost be our 'Vincent Kompany.' She had great technical ability, a willingness and desire to improve and a real passion and love for the game.
"I remember going to watch her when she played for Arsenal against Everton. Jill Scott and Toni Duggan were also playing for Everton so that was a good game for us to go to!
"We spoke to her and laid out our ambition. She came to Manchester too and we showed her around the city and what would be the City Football Academy. We were all wearing hard hats and high-vis jackets!
"It took a while for her to come to a decision, which was fair enough, especially as Arsenal were still in competition at the time. She had the same agent as Karen Bardsley and I remember getting a call late one night and he said: 'Both players have made a decision but I won't tell you until tomorrow morning. I want them to have another sleep on it!'
"That was a bit of a sleepless night for me! I remember thinking: 'If they don't come, it's going to be difficult to find another two players like them' but thankfully, the phonecall came and it was good news!
"It was a big leap of faith for Steph to jump from Arsenal to us at the time but it says a lot about her that she made that choice to come into what was the unknown because she wanted to be part of something from the get-go.
"That has paid dividends since. She's lifted seven trophies to date as well as everything else she's achieved in the game: becoming England captain and leading the Lionesses to the semi-finals of the World Cup and Euros... Her profile and status has gone up and up.
"She's an unbelievable leader and person, and there's never a game that goes by where I'm not in awe of what she brings to the team - on and off the pitch. I have so much admiration for her, especially given what she's been through personally over the last couple of years. I know her family is so important to her but she never moans or complains. She's just a consummate professional."
Although Houghton herself admits her decision seven years ago took a great deal of faith and bravery, the 32-year-old certainly has no regrets, with seven trophy-laden years providing plenty of proof she made the right decision.
"It was a risk but it's a risk that paid off!" she reflects. "For me, I really wanted to play full-time and I really believed in the vision City had when I spoke to Brian Marwood and Gavin Makel. I really believed that I needed to be part of this Club and I wanted it to be at the forefront. I wanted to be there at the beginning.
"I never dreamed I'd play 200 games at the start but I think that's why it means so much: when you've actually been through the journey. We've been through it all - this Club has been through so much - so when you go on to achieve memories like this - memories that last forever - it means more. Hopefully, we can create a few more in the next years."
Strong leadership is often said to be based upon the combination of certain traits: courage, confidence, commitment, passion, ambition, and the ability to guide and inspire others to reach their full potential.
Houghton's possession of these qualities shine through for all to see on the pitch, but according to the mantra of the squad, matchday results are a product of the work put in through the week. So, what is Houghton like behind-the-scenes, and what is it about her that makes her such a great leader?
Having played alongside the skipper for Club and country, spanning careers with Leeds, Arsenal, England and now City, Ellen White has had a first-hand insight into her compatriot’s journey and the characteristics which crafted it, as she reveals...
"Steph is one of my best friends so I'm very biased but she's an amazing person and I'm really proud and pleased to be part of her journey," she smiled.
"She's definitely grown into becoming an incredible leader for City and for England, always driving the team to be better. She's very selfless and always puts the team first, and she holds her standards really high and pushes herself. She's the first in the gym and the last one out, which shows what type of person and professional she is.
"I definitely look up to her and what she's achieved. To be alongside her again is amazing for me. We push each other in fitness testing, running together, and in the gym.
"I think it's her selflessness that sets her apart. She'll always put everyone above herself. She's caring and super positive, and she'll put her body on the line for everyone. Even if her arm was hanging off, she'd still be on the pitch, giving everything she can, fighting for everyone.
"She also really loves this Club to pieces - she'd do anything for this Club and her team. She always asks for and drives anything the team need. She can tell it how it is but then she'll also put her arm around your shoulder.
"Every time she's on the pitch, she will give everything. She's very much a perfectionist - when she's practicing free-kicks at training, she won't go in until she's scored the one she wants. She'll score one and still not be happy with it, while we're all shouting: 'Come in, you've scored now!'
"That dedication shows though with the number of free-kicks she's scored. She wants to do everything right and again, that shows the person she is. She has the courage to step up and take a free-kick, or a penalty, like she did in the Continental Cup Final. She took hers and put it away to help the team win the trophy.
"She's an amazing leader - on and off the pitch."
Throughout Houghton's City career, there have been countless unforgettable memories: spectacular trophy lifts, glorious goals, fantastic free-kicks, terrific tackles, wonderful wins... but which tops the lot for the skipper? The Club's first league title win.
The England star may have already lifted the trophy with Arsenal but her first in sky blue was one she will never forget.
"There have been so many moments and I'm so fortunate to have been part of so many good things that have happened at this Club," she recalls, "but that was the perfect day.
"We wanted to get our hands on it! We wanted so much to beat Chelsea - they were our closest rivals - and to play the way we did, going unbeaten and conceding just four goals in the league was incredible. For us as a team and us as a defence, we wanted to be hard to beat and it all just came together.
"When you envisage what the perfect game looks like, that's it. There were so many fans and there was a real build-up, which got us excited in the preparation that week. Everybody was really relaxed and focused and the celebrations after the game showed what it meant: those are the moments why you make all of those sacrifices; why you want to be part of such an amazing Club."
Though far too humble to admit it, Houghton actually kicked off that campaign, setting City up and running with a moment that will live long in the memory, as she netted an injury-time free-kick to snatch all three points in an opening day victory over Notts County.
It's a skill that has since become her speciality and another example of her willingness to step up in the challenging moments and pull the team through, as Makel recalls.
"There have been countless times she's showed her leadership," he states. "She never puts herself first - she always puts the team before everything.
"I think back to the season we won the league. In that first game against Notts County, we absolutely battered them but we couldn't score... It's the 90th minute and Steph steps up for the free-kick and puts it in. It kicked us off and that year, we went on to dominate the league.
"I look back as well to the first season. We lost four of our first five games and then we played Everton at the Etihad and won. I went down to the tunnel and as she came off the pitch, she gave me a big hug and shouted: "YES!" It showed how much it meant to her.
"She's one of those players who is never satisfied to say: 'We did okay today.' She always has to be giving the very best. That might sound like a given for a lot of people or players but it's not always the reality.
"She's won seven trophies since she's been here and in every trophy lift, you can see the delight on her face. Every single one means just as much as the other. That's what really separates top players from the rest - they enjoy the moment but they're automatically thinking about the next one. 'What's next? How can we win it again?' You see that in the men's game with Premier League players and Steph is exactly like that."
Houghton may be regarded as one of the world's best centre-backs but the 32-year-old's career may well have taken a very different turn, if not for a radical positional switch instigated by former England coach Mo Marley, as the skipper explains...
"When I first joined up with England, we always played 4-4-2 and I was always a striker!" she reveals. "We changed formation to 4-3-3 and Mo Marley saw me as a right-sided striker of the three. Then by chance, we had a few players injured and she asked me to play at right-back, although I'd never played there in my life!
"I played quite well and she saw a little bit of something in me that no-one else had seen. From then on, I played at right-back, centre-back, left-back and centre midfield! I made my England debut as a right-back and for me, it was the best decision any coach has ever made for me - to move my position - because I would never have been able to play at the level I am playing at as a striker."
While the switch may not quite have paved the way for forward White to step in and shoot to stardom, the Lionesses' all-time record World Cup goalscorer believes Houghton's versatility has provided many strings to an already-potent bow.
"She's quite a versatile player," White adds. "She's moved around the backline, played in midfield and upfront... I definitely think the fact she moved around helped her - she had that passing ability and ability to tackle. When we were at Leeds and Arsenal, she was still finding her feet and now she's really grown into her role, cementing her place as one of the best centre-backs in the world."
Makel agrees: "She's a complete athlete. If you look at photographs of when she first joined to now, you can see the difference and that's down to the hard work she's put in.
"As did all of the players back then, she had to change her game too. None of the players were necessarily used to training full-time in that environment with the high expectations we had. We were implementing a methodology under Nick and he looked to get the best out of his players, which he did.
"Now, Gareth [Taylor] has taken that to a new level. She's been asked to do something slightly different to what she's been used to but she's rolled her sleeves up and got on with it and improved even more - on the ball, her leadership skills, tactically... She's a great asset for us."
The summer of 2020 bore the dawning of a new era with the appointment of new manager Gareth Taylor. A new boss brought fresh ideas and insights, including a new philosophy and new faces. After mastering Cushing's methodology for so long, could Houghton rise to the challenge? It was never in doubt, and Taylor also cannot speak highly enough of his captain.
"Steph has been a shining light and a true leader for this Club," he hails. "Her spirit and professionalism are great examples to any young player starting out in the game. She continues to set new levels.
"Her recent performances have been top drawer. She's defending like a warrior and has been a real leader. She's carried the team in good moments and difficult moments. She's a good personality and great character to have.
"She's a great ambassador for City and for the women's game. Considering all she's done in the game, she's right up there. She fully deserves all of the achievements and recognition."
Of all she has learned during that time, what has been the most important lesson?
"I think over the course of being part of this Club, I've learned to control what I can control and never take things for granted, but also never to stay still," she says.
"I've learned a lot about my individual role. When I first came, I didn't really know my role as centre-half as well as I do now. I had to learn the way City play and things are always changing, which has really challenged me to be even better every single day.
"I know now that whatever press we come up against - whatever striker - we can find out different ways to get on the ball and control the ball, and that's been the case under both Nick and Gaz.
"It's something that has developed over seasons against different opponents. I have a better understanding of the game and understanding of what the opposition can bring, and that's something I work really hard on - on and off the pitch.
"When I signed for City, I always said to myself: 'This is such a big opportunity. Use every resource you can.' I've played under some of the best coaches and worked with some of the best staff and teammates in this amazing environment.
"You have to keep learning. No-one is bigger than the Club: no matter how experienced you are, you are always learning - every single day. You have to have an open mindset and a desire to keep developing as a player and a person. I feel I've done that over my years here - never sitting still; always trying to improve in every area of my game.
"A lot of people only see what happens on the pitch on a matchday - they don't know what goes on at the training ground, or in the gym, or when you're doing bits of recovery at home. There are sacrifices that have to be made - you have to make the decision to miss certain things, like moving away from your family or missing some events - but I wouldn't change this job for the world.
"I play football professionally and have played for amazing clubs. Sometimes, you have to sit and pinch yourself! But it's important to remember that every day counts and you have to put the game first... and the moment you win those big games and trophies, it's all worthwhile."
Upon Cushing's departure in the spring of 2020, Houghton hailed her manager as 'the best coach she's ever worked under' - but Cushing holds the skipper in equally high regard, revealing the defender played more of a role in her side's success than purely her on-pitch performance.
"Steph was my captain for the six seasons I was coach of the women's team - and we brought her in especially to captain the team," he recalled.
"She was already a very good player but she was also captain of Arsenal at the time and you could see her leadership qualities in the way she was captaining a huge team at such a young age.
"We knew we wanted to be led by someone who first of all, led by example by the way she played but also had real leadership qualities.
"She made a big gamble coming to City from Arsenal - we hadn't even played a game but she believed in everything we'd spoken about: all of our plans for the future.
"She really bought in and valued all of the things we were trying to achieve before we'd even played a game.
"I was also going into the job as a young coach with no experience of the professional game, or the women's game... but Steph was the one person I relied on to give me some advice, steering me or giving me little pointers as to what direction to go in - whether that was dealing with players or signing players...
"She was almost an extension of the management team, especially when I was making decisions. That's a real benefit of having somebody like Steph and she was probably the best and most consistent player I had in the team.
"She always wanted to play, even when she had a knock. She trained every day and the way she trained inspired others. Young players like Georgia Stanway, Ellie Roebuck, Keira Walsh all looked up to her and their development is credit to Steph in the way she led by example.
"Thinking back to 2018, I remember we lost Karen Bardsley early on in a game against Chelsea. Ellie Roebuck had to go in and she was only young and inexperienced - but Steph stepped up, showing real leadership and Ellie ended up having a good game. She was named Player of the Match and that was down to the confidence Steph had given her. She really showed the caring side of her personality. That's the kind of thing she always did.
"Steph was the player of the match in most games she played but she never won that title because that standard became the norm. She's been a huge asset to the Club, a huge asset for me and a real star in terms of what she's achieved on the pitch.
"I can't say enough about Steph. She's an incredible player, captain and leader and an incredible person. She's somebody I'm still close to as a good friend - even with me now over in New York. We speak to each other all the time, checking in and she always asks if me and my family are okay and vice versa.
"She's somebody I'll keep in touch with for life and I'll be following her career. Who knows...? If I ever come back into management in the women's game in the future, she'd be somebody I'd always want alongside me.
"She deserves everything she gets. Hopefully, she'll go on to reach 300 appearances for the Club! One thing is for certain: to replace somebody like her is almost impossible because she's so good in every area - as a person, a leader, a player...
"She really values and believes in what we do at Manchester City and she's just an incredible person. I can't say enough about her."
Fellow Lioness White has equally high hopes for her best friend, also tipping the defender for a potential career in coaching - another exciting option to consider, alongside her blossoming media career.
"It's a phenomenal achievement to reach 200 appearances for a Club team - and what she's achieved at the Club is crazy," White continues. "She's helped to throw the Club and women's football into the limelight, achieving massive things - trophies and individual awards.
"City are very lucky to have her to lead this Club and drive it on. She's so technically gifted and tactically astute - she could be a coach or a manager when she retires. She has a phenomenal career ahead of her - big places to go.
"I feel so lucky to have been part of it. She's a great person and I'm incredibly proud of her. Hopefully, there's much more to come... I don't know if she has 200 more games in her but 100 more would be cool!"
Fittingly, the final word goes to the skipper. Having achieved so much success - both collectively and individually - in sky blue, what keeps the captain motivated to maintain peak performance and repeat the glory days?
"It's easy!" she replies. "The feeling of winning trophies and playing for Man City - playing that style of football - is so enjoyable. It's easy to keep pushing.
"I've always been a person who focuses on the future so that when I retire, I then have something to look back on and be proud of. That drives me to be better and add competition to the squad. For me personally, it's about doing the best I can for my team, helping the girls by being the best leader I can be.
"There's no better feeling than picking up trophies for this Club and winning those big games together is what spurs us on. I want to look back and say: 'I gave everything for the Club' and now, it's a case of trying to win as many games as possible."
Here's to the next 200...?
"That makes me feel old!" she laughs, "but I'm really happy to be at this Football Club. I've always felt so welcome and part of the City Family and now, it just feels like home.
"Touch wood, I don't miss many games and when you look at how many seasons I've been a part of, I guess they do all add up!
"It's an honour and a privilege to lead this team and I'm so glad to have been able to play an important role in our success. I love coming into the training ground, I love the people I work with - and that makes it all the more special to have played 200 times for City.
"Hopefully, there are a lot more games to come!"
Steph Houghton: Captain, leader, legend.