“It was an experience we’ll never forget. You really can't describe it and put into words how special it was. I’m really proud and privileged to be a part of it and to be part of a team that was so successful as well. I can’t stop smiling and I never want it to end to be honest. It shows that if you work hard you get your rewards.”
Steph Houghton was reflecting on what had been an historic summer for women’s football in the United Kingdom, just 24 hours after the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.
Hope Powell’s Team GB had fallen short of the medal podium, losing out to Canada in the quarter-finals, but their exploits had made an entire nation take notice.
Having played just one warmup game in preparation, a goalless draw with Sweden, the hosts finished top of Group E after earning three successive victories in their first ever Olympic Games.
At the heart of that success was a 24-year-old Houghton, who relieved the tension with a 64th-minute free-kick to hand Team GB an opening victory over New Zealand at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
Although she played at full-back, the City skipper actually finished as her nation’s top scorer at their inaugural Olympic games, finding the net in each of those group games.
The defender rounded off the scoring in a comprehensive 3-0 victory over Cameroon to seal a place in the last eight, but a tilt at top spot remained a tantalising prospect, with reigning South American champions, Brazil, standing in their way.
Despite the Seleção being hot favourites and boasting the likes of five-time World Player of the Year, Marta, it was the girl from Sunderland who lit up the occasion once again.
The game was barely 90 seconds old when Houghton landed her knockout blow, pouncing on Karen Carney’s clever ball in behind before rounding the onrushing Andreia and finishing from a tight angle.
Not only did it prove to be the game’s only goal, securing Team GB top spot in Group E, it was a strike of supreme quality in front of a baying Wembley crowd of 70,584 - a record at a Women’s game at the time.
“I think that was probably the best night of my footballing career - to be a part of an Olympics Games at Wembley, in front of 70,000 people, it was a brilliant occasion. The best part of it was probably the anthem, knowing 70,000 fans were supporting you. It gave you goosebumps. I think it kind of changed women’s football, a day in history and one that we want to try and repeat.”
The City skipper’s closing statement proved prophetic.
While eventual bronze medalists Canada, would beat Hope Powell’s side 2-0 in the next round, the result was dwarfed in comparison to the impact the tournament had made across the UK.
For many at the time, it was Women’s football’s Annus Mirabillis, a moment where the best in the business had finally been able to showcase their talents to the world, and Houghton had been at that watershed moment’s very core.
The game has grown exponentially since that hazy summer’s evening in July 2012, despite Team GB opting not to send a team to the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro.
Houghton and England have continually rubbed shoulders with behemoths such as the United States, Brazil and Germany for the game’s highest international honours and, with the advent of a groundbreaking TV deal between the FA Women’s Super League and the broadcasting giants of Sky and the BBC, that upward trajectory in exposure and investment will only continue.
Before then, however, nine years on from lighting the initial spark, Houghton will hope to lead the way as Hege Riise’s Team GB carry the torch to this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
Back in 2012, Houghton was still two seasons away from joining Manchester City but, since making the switch from Arsenal ahead of our inaugural WSL season, she’s never looked back.
As captain, she’s lifted seven trophies in as many seasons at the Academy Stadium, claiming every available domestic honour in sky blue.
A Continental Cup triumph over her former club at Wycombe’s Adams Park ensured that her first season in the north west ended with City’s first major piece of silverware.
An historic double followed two seasons later, with City going unbeaten en route to our maiden WSL title, while the skipper also hoisted the Women’s FA Cup aloft courtesy of a 1-0 extra time win over Birmingham City.
Nick Cushing’s side would retain the FA Cup the following season as we continued to establish ourselves as one of the women’s game’s true heavyweights, before Houghton’s stellar contribution to that rise was rewarded by a phenomenal personal milestone.
The captain became our first professional women’s Centurion in January 2018, and has since gone on to reach the 200-appearance mark in March 2021.
Sandwiched between those two personal achievements were another two FA Cups and Continental Cup triumph, adding further gloss to Houghton’s already glittering trophy cabinet.
However, her overall value to those around her transcends what she brings to a team on match day, as former City boss Nick Cushing explains...
“She was almost an extension of the management team, especially when I was making decisions. I was 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.”
“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.”
The 33-year-old is undoubtedly one of the finest central defenders of her generation but, as Cushing alluded to, her role as a leader is a responsibility she not only excels in but takes extremely seriously.
It’s a quality that doesn’t come naturally to all, but one that resonates from Houghton with consummate ease.
Described as a ‘shining light’ and ‘true leader’ by City boss, Gareth Taylor, her work ethic, mentality and collective ethos are an inspiration to all those around her.
And those qualities were even rewarded in the Queen’s 2016 New Year’s Honours List, with Houghton appointed a Member of the British Empire (MBE) for services to football.
“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.”
That sort of fight could prove essential for Team GB at this summer’s Olympics, as they lock horns with host nation Japan, 2016 bronze medalists Canada and Chile in Group E.
Houghton’s 2020/21 season was curtailed by an Achilles injury sustained in March but, after battling her way back to full fitness, participation in this summer’s showpiece was never in question.
Alongside teammates Jill Scott and White, the City skipper is one of only three survivors from that historic London 2012 cohort who captivated and inspired viewers in equal measure, with City teammate Karen Bardsley's Tokyo 2020 dreams cruelly cut short through injury.
The legacy of that tournament, and Houghton’s contribution to it, remain as pertinent as ever to a modern audience and, with a clash against Canada once again on the horizon, old scores and past heartbreaks could potentially be put to rest.
As the bastion of Olympics past, the 33-year-old will hope to make it another summer to remember as Team GB aim to go one step further, nine years on.
By George Kelsey