Steph Houghton

Letter to a Budding Footballer

Dear future star,

My name is Steph Houghton, Manchester City and England national team captain, and I am so delighted to meet you.

As a young player and person, about to embark on an exciting new chapter in your life, I just want to say: I have stood in your shoes – or boots! I was once a young girl who dreamed of pursuing a career in the sport that I love and today, as we celebrate the increasing opportunities for women and the breaking of barriers around the world, I want to share with you my journey and advice on what it takes to become a professional footballer.

The way I am, I try to look forward rather than back – as a player, there’s always the next game to look ahead to – but sometimes, it’s good to reflect and things have certainly changed a lot since I was your age. It’s crazy to think how much... I started my career at Sunderland and I can always remember training at a place called the Charlie Hurley Centre. We were always last on the pitches and there were no floodlights so during winter, when it got darker earlier, we would end up training for three hours to make the most of the daylight and play until we could hardly see!

One day, the coach came over with a big bin bag and said: “Right girls, I’ve managed to get you some kits!” and we were buzzing, even though they turned out to be extra-large men’s kits.

I remember they were blue and mine had the initials ‘J.S.’ on the front – I guess it would have been better off going to Jill Scott! – but I absolutely loved it. I never took it off! Looking back now, it’s absolutely ridiculous but back then, we were grateful for anything. It’s safe to say we’ve come a long way since those hand-me-down kits…

Image credit: BBC Sport

Image credit: BBC Sport

Back then though, things were very different. We had to pay to play, we hardly trained, there were hardly any games… but a few years later, women’s football started to become bigger. Centre of Excellences were introduced and I was fortunate to be part of that, and I made my first-team debut at the age of 13, which seems mad now!

I was there for four years and I made my debut for England at 17, and that’s when things started to change for the better with central contracts, which allowed us to focus on football. These were small but positive steps… Now, here we are in 2022 with a fully professional league with some of the world’s best players training every day and the chance to pursue football as a full-time job. It’s incredible to see how the game has grown and I cannot wait to see how much further it can develop.

I feel very lucky that I have seen both parts of the women’s football journey – before and after it turned professional – and I’m so proud of what we have accomplished in the game. Unbelievable things have happened to our sport and I’m so proud of the people that have been part of the journey. As players, you always want to leave the shirt in a better place for the next generation and right now – quite literally – as a young player hoping to follow in our footsteps, the world is at your feet.

In previous years, people have been judged by their sex or gender but I’ve always been a big believer that if you’re good enough to do it, it shouldn’t matter how you identify. And there are opportunities in other areas of the game too: pundits, journalists, photographers, coaches, sports scientists, nutritionists, sports therapists and so on… It’s great to see so many women involved in football within different roles. It’s a great sport to be part of and hopefully, when I stop playing, I’ll be involved in one of those areas as well.

The future is so bright. If you’re ambitious and you’re driven, there’s nothing stopping you from achieving what you want to achieve because the support is there to help you – on both a personal and professional level. I was very fortunate to have had a lot of support around me. My family loved me playing football and they recognised that I was a half-decent player, and I will be forever grateful for their encouragement and guidance, and the roles they have played in my life and my career.

As is the case with anything in life, you may come across people who are jealous of you and try to knock you down. When I was younger, there were players and parents who piped up and made comments when I took their place or their kids’ place on the teamsheet.

There was also one PE teacher who wasn’t very keen on women playing football and made some outrageous statements, and told me I’d never play for England… How wrong she was.

I think stuff like that still happens today but looking back, that was a big lesson for me. Not everybody is going to want you to do well but that just gave me more motivation to prove those people wrong, as well as proving to myself that I could do it.

People will criticise you – it’s part of the game, especially now with social media and the press – but although it’s hard, you must try not to read things or take things to heart. You can’t let that stuff affect you. The older you get, the more you realise that people on the outside have short memories and that they don’t know you or know what goes on behind-closed-doors.’

You have to block that stuff out, take things with a pinch of salt and focus on yourself and the people around you. They will give you the strength to do it and you have to have the mindset that the only opinions that matter are those of your manager and teammates.

There’s so much more to being a footballer than what you do on the pitch and being a good teammate is a key part. It’s important to remember: it’s not an individual sport. I’ve never seen a team that relies on just one player to win all of the trophies, or keep clean sheets, or score hat-tricks – it’s a squad effort.

Everybody has got a part to play and that’s why the squad is so important – no matter the game. Even if you’re not playing, you have to do what’s best for the team and everyone has their role: from those in the starting XI to those on the bench, it’s about supporting each other and bringing that positive energy to help the team to win. You need to be a good person as well as a great player. Don’t get too high with the highs – stay balanced and true to yourself.

At your age, you’re probably entering a crossroads in your life, deciding which path you want to take so first and foremost, you have to figure out what it is you want. For me, I was quite sure from an early age (probably around 12 or 13 when I was starting to get into the first-team at Sunderland) that I wanted to be a footballer, and I realised it was going to take more than just turning up for training – it was something I would have to put my heart and soul into every single day.

That means you have to sacrifice a lot – Friday nights out with your mates, birthday parties, weddings, hen dos... It takes some getting used to and even now, no matter how many times I’ve said it, I still feel guilty for missing things – but ultimately, my family and friends understand. They know it’s my job, they know I’m doing things to better myself and make them smile when we lift trophies and create amazing memories for them – and they know that when I do have a day off, I’ll always prioritise them above anybody else. You have to have quite a mature outlook at a young age and admittedly, it can be hard to do that.

I remember I struggled a little bit in secondary school when there are all of these other pressures, growing up – you want to fit in and your friends are encouraging you to go out, asking why you’re not more ‘girly’ and why you’re ‘such a tomboy.’

At times, it can be hard to fit in with certain groups but looking back, I definitely wouldn’t have changed anything on my journey. I knew I could potentially play for England and make a career out of football and those sacrifices I made were so worth it. I look at what I do as a job now and I love being a professional footballer. I love coming into the City Football Academy, training every day and playing the game I love and improving, trying to become the best version of myself I can be.

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Nowadays, looking after your body is probably the most important thing in football and there’s so much support available, such as medical and nutritional advice, mental wellbeing support and information on the menstrual cycle, to help to keep players healthy – and that hasn’t always been available.

Growing up, England players were fortunate that we could tap into physios so we were able to do strength and conditioning – but only once a week. That kind of thing was still developing and only for international players. At Club level, it wasn’t really an option – it was more a case of: “Who’s got the balls? Who’s got the kits? Do we have water?” and that was pretty much it! You can’t imagine it now.

In terms of the menstrual cycle, it’s been quite interesting to find out how much it affects athletes’ performance, as well as your mood, your appetite, your sleep… and we’ve done a lot of research on that through City and England. There are a lot of things to consider when you want to be a professional athlete and having access to that information to understand your body better and know what you need to become the best athlete you can be is crucial.

Admittedly, it isn’t an easy ride. Obviously, there are challenges – just like there are in any job and any aspect of life – and my biggest take-away has been to stay connected to the people around you. Whether it’s your teammates, your friends or family, or the backroom staff, use them as a soundboard, tell them how you’re feeling and trust in them.

On your journey, you will have a lot of difficult choices to make but regardless of what anyone else says, you have to do what you think is best for you and your career. When I was 21, I made the decision to move to London to join Arsenal. I’d been playing for Leeds but we were only training twice a week, and I was doing my degree at Loughborough University as well as training with the FA.

I knew what I wanted and to do that, I had to go out of my comfort zone, moving down to London away from home and living by myself, paying bills, in the real world… It was a big step but I had to do it.

A big part of being a professional athlete is having a strong mentality and willingness to win and be the best you can be, and it was when I got into that environment at Arsenal that I realised: ‘This is what it takes to do this as a job. You have to work hard because if you don’t apply yourself, you won’t play for a top team like Arsenal.’

I had a great career there and then I had another big decision to make in joining City – I would be leaving a successful team for a completely new one – but I believed in the vision of the Club, I loved the family-feel and I wanted to play full-time, so I took a chance. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made and I suppose the rest is history…

The best teams I’ve been part of are the ones with the best people – those who put the needs of the team first, and that includes taking responsibility to look after yourself to ensure you can maintain peak performance. Within any squad, everyone needs to be ready to be called upon at any time – you need to know the person sitting next to you is 100% ready, physically and mentally.

Your team is like your family – you probably see them more than your family, as you spend most days together – and having positive relationships, trust and a shared mindset is key. I look at my best friends as people – not as footballers – and I trust them with my life. Those relationships are built by treating people the way you would like to be treated – with respect and compassion – and conducting yourself with the utmost professionalism.

Personally, I don’t see myself as a ‘role model’ but I appreciate that representation is important, and when you’re running off the pitch and you meet little girls and boys who want your shirt and they say they’ve watched you play, or that you’re their favourite player, it does mean a lot. We want to get more girls and boys into football and I always try to do things properly and try to be the best person I can be. Hopefully, I’ll continue to do that for the next few years.

Reflecting now, I wouldn't change the part I’ve played over the last however many years but for budding female footballers today, I could not be more excited and I will be so proud to see what the next generation go on to achieve because you are the future of football and with the opportunities to go alongside your talent and mindset, you can go as far as you want to.

So, I wish you the very best of luck in your journey. The best advice I can give you is: to stay focused, give your all every single day and be the best teammate and person you can be. I can’t wait to see what you go on to accomplish.

You can do anything you want to – don’t let anyone’s opinions affect who you are and don’t let anyone stop you from pursuing your goals because the path you choose to take is completely up to you.

Live your dream, star of the future. I’ll be cheering you every step of the way.

Steph Houghton