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City DNA #31: Captain, leader, legend

City DNA #31: Captain, leader, legend
Steph Houghton turns 33 today....

To celebrate, we look back at the City DNA released last year to celebrate our skipper's anniversary of joining the club...

The word ‘legend’ is bandied around far too readily in 21st Century conversation.

Today, a legend is described in the dictionary as ‘a very famous person, especially in a particular field, who is admired by other people’ without necessarily making any specific acknowledgement to their contributions.

It is those who dedicate their lives in pursuit of positive change who truly deserve such lofty status; one woman who certainly deserves that title is Stephanie Houghton MBE.

READ: City DNA #30 | Eccentric, limited... but loved

A captain, a leader, a trailblazer; an inspiration, an Olympian, a Champion… a true footballing legend.

Houghton, 33, has deservedly earned recognition for her influence both on and off the pitch – for both Club and country, as one of the most successful English players in recent history.

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 100 for the Lionesses, guiding her country to three major semi-finals and a bronze medal at the 2015 World Cup in Canada, in addition to representing Team GB at the 2012 Olympics, where she became a household name for her goalscoring exploits.

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.

She 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 efforts were acclaimed in the 2016 New Year Honours List, as she was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).

Boasting a glittering CV before she joined City, having led Arsenal to domestic glory, Houghton’s experience and presence has been an integral part of the success Nick Cushing’s side have enjoyed since the Club professionalised our women’s team in 2014.

She became our first professional women’s Centurion, aptly marking her 100th appearance for the Club back at her hometown side Sunderland – and has lifted every English trophy in sky blue: three Continental Cups, two FA Cups and a Super League title.

Her signing from Arsenal back in 2014 – one of the first Cushing ever made – proved a major coup in the women’s game… So, how did City manage to convince the Gunners’ skipper to leave the most successful side in the country to join a brand new, unestablished Club? Our ambition…

“City want to make sure they are one of the best clubs in England and their professionalism was so impressive. I just couldn’t turn the move down,” she declared at the time.

“I’m so glad that City came in for me because as soon as I heard their plans for the future, I knew I wanted to be part of it. Coming here was a massive risk for me. In the first year, it was a bit of an unknown but we took that risk and we’ve seen the Club grow. I joined the Club to win trophies – I knew that’s what it was going to be about.”

Manager Cushing knew just how significant capturing a player of Houghton’s quality would be. He later dubbed her ‘the most professional footballer I have ever worked with’, adding he has to ‘tear her off the training pitch!’

Still, as Houghton admits, the first year was an unknown, as newcomers City originally struggled to adapt to life in the top-flight. After a difficult start, Cushing’s side settled, eventually earning a respectable fifth-place finish in the league but most notably, impressing on a surprising Continental Cup adventure which saw them defeat Chelsea in the semi-finals before being pitted against none other than Arsenal in the Final.

Needless to say, the Gunners were heavy favourites heading into the clash – but City produced a stoic display to snatch an unlikely 1-0 win, courtesy of Izzy Christiansen’s second half header – and Houghton and co. held on to lift a first piece of major silverware, against all odds.

"It was an honour to collect the trophy again," Houghton said. "Being ex-Arsenal, it was a strange feeling, but my focus was always Manchester City and this meant so much to every one of us. We experienced that feeling and it spurred us on.”

It certainly did. Sparked by their shock success, now supported by top-level facilities at the City Football Academy and inspired by England’s historic World Cup achievements, Cushing’s side secured a first top-two league finish, clinching Champions League football for the first time.

“Getting that Champions League spot was a massive step in the right direction,” Houghton reflected, “and showed how much we'd progressed over only two seasons.”

The following season was a roaring success, as City stormed to a league and cup double, claiming our first Super League title and second Conti Cup triumph before embarking on a first European adventure, which rolled all the way to the semi-final stage when eventual competition winners Lyon edged a closely-fought two-legged tie – the first of two successive last four finishes in the tournament.

Houghton would not have to wait long to lift another trophy though, as further history was made with a first FA Women’s Cup Final victory – in front of a record Wembley Stadium crowd, as City defeated Birmingham 4-1 in May to complete a clean sweep of domestic titles.

The skipper had in fact referred to the trophy as ‘the one we were missing’, as she smiled: “Credit to all the girls and all the staff. We worked so hard. We'd had a tireless schedule, but we were the best team on the day. To be captain of this club is unbelievable – but to win the FA Cup at Wembley, it's what dreams are made of."

That feat would be repeated two years later, as City secured a cup double with yet another Conti Cup victory – this one clinched with a penalty shoot-out win over Arsenal at Bramall Lane – and a second FA Cup win: a 3-0 Wembley victory over West Ham.

In the midst of her sixth year at the Club, Houghton is a stalwart. The first name on Cushing’s teamsheet, she has tallied 159 appearances, scoring 15 goals – including a Goal of the Season winner and numerous trademark stunning free-kicks: her speciality.

Although beloved by fans, teammates, staff and pundits, she remains ever humble; gracious in both victory and defeat. She sets a perfect example to both young and older players – kind to all and thoroughly dedicated to her job and her role as a captain.

Upon Houghton's 100th England appearance, goalkeeper Ellie Roebuck tweeted: "Walking out beside you is an honour... Your help, guidance and support has been top class and reflects massively on the type of person and leader you are! Here’s to many more caps." A fitting tribute.

Indeed, she carries herself with great dignity, even in the face of adversity. Last September, her husband and former player Stephen Darby was sadly diagnosed with motor neurone disease and Houghton has drawn praise for her strength and courage, and received the PFA's Special Achievement award.

The newly-crowned Northwest Football Awards Women’s Player of the Year has enjoyed a fine 2019, following City’s cup double and England’s World Cup journey to the semi-finals in France. Awarded the Club’s own Player of the Season and Goal of the Season gongs, she hailed the 2018/19 campaign as the best of her career, having played every game but – ever the professional – she believes there is yet more to come.

We look forward to it, skip…

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