Steph Houghton is one of the most recognisable faces at Arsenal Ladies. As well as playing central midfield / right back/ left back / centre half / on the wing for Arsenal, she is a full England international and was Great Britain’s Top Scorer at this summer’s Olympics, scoring 3 goals (from left back no less). She is also Arsenal Ladies’ social media ambassador (and you can follow her on Twitter @StephHoughton2).
In an exclusive interview with Tim Stillman, Steph talks about the Olympics, Arsenal’s title charge, the influence of Kelly Smith, the importance of social media and the prospect of playing Barcelona in the Champions League.
Steph, firstly thanks very much for giving up some of your time. Obviously it’s been a big summer for you, representing Great Britain in the Olympics in London. You of course scored the winning goal against Brazil at Wembley, in front of a crowd of over 70,000. Has that moment changed your life?
The Olympics was such an amazing experience for all of the girls, it was a massive honour and privilege for us all to represent Team GB. Clearly Brazil was the standout game. To play in front of that many people was an incredible experience. Personally, I was proud of my performance in the Olympics and yes, now I get recognised more and support from the fans has been amazing. The moment hasn’t changed me as a person though. The Olympics has been a great platform for women’s football and I really hope it creates a greater interest in the game.
Staying with you and your career. You grew up in South Hetton, a small village in Sunderland. You supported Sunderland as did your whole family and you played for Sunderland. Was it a difficult decision to join Leeds when you were 19?
Yes, I’ve been a lifelong fan, my whole family are. I’d played for them for ten years, so I deliberated over the decision. But I wanted to improve myself as a player and Leeds were in the women’s Premier League at the time. From a purely professional point of view it was a positive step in my career so I had to take it to further myself. It was the right decision because I developed and now I’m playing for Arsenal with some of the best players in the country and the best manager in the country. I couldn’t be happier with the way things have gone.
You’re a very versatile player Steph. You started as a striker, but for Arsenal you have played right back, right midfield, centre half and central midfield. You spent the summer playing left back for both England and Great Britain. What do you regard as your best position?
It sounds odd but I really don’t know. I just enjoy playing football so much that I’ll play anywhere! I’m sure in a few years when I’m a bit older I’ll settle into one position, whether it’s full back or central midfield. I’ve really enjoyed playing in the centre since Jayne Ludlow got injured, but equally I like playing at full back. Different positions make different demands on your body. At full back there are a lot of sprints, followed by short periods of rest, whereas in midfield you’re moving all the time. But I concentrate a lot on my fitness so I’m happy to play wherever the manager thinks I can do a job for the team.
Moving onto Arsenal more generally. In the spring, Arsenal suffered a rocky period by their lofty standards. Losing a Champions League semi final to Frankfurt and then an F.A. Cup semi final to Chelsea in quick succession, followed by a defeat and a draw at Lincoln. But you strung three wins together shortly before the Olympics. Did the mid season break come at the wrong time for Arsenal?
It’s true we’d just started to get some momentum again, but most people don’t realise the squad play and train all year. There were a lot of tired bodies, a lot of the girls have now had a good physical and mental break, which can help us. We’re an experienced squad used to winning things and we can cope with the challenge.
Kelly Smith was injured for most of the first half of the season. But she showed her class in the last game before the break, coming off the bench to score two match changing goals against Chelsea. She took another slight knock at the Olympics. What kind of shape is she in?
Kelly’s a massive influence on the squad and having her in the side instantly gives us all a huge lift. We all learn so much from her in training too. Not only does she give our squad a boost, but she scares other teams and changes the way they play. But her injury at the Olympics wasn’t serious, it was just a dead leg. She played the full 90 minutes at Everton on Sunday and there are no questions over her fitness. She’s one of the fittest players in the squad. We have some tough games coming up and she’ll be used throughout the rest of the season, I’m sure.
Yourself, Rachel Yankey, Alex Scott, Ellen White, Kim Little and Kelly Smith have all been away at the Olympics. Most of your teammates and your opponents will be a little better rested after the 6 week interval. Does Laura Harvey plan to handle the Olympians carefully to cope with the extra physical strain on you?
Laura trusts us to make sure we get the rest and recovery we need. A lot of us went to the World Cup last summer and we still came back and won the league. She will have a plan in her head that she probably hasn’t shared with us just yet. But the others have had another mini pre season to get them into shape. There’s a high standard here at Arsenal and we always have to prove we can meet it. The whole squad is fit and excited for the remaining games.
Arsenal have just been drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League. Barcelona are a big name and there will be a lot of interest because of the glamour attached to that name. But it’s Barcelona Ladies’ first time in the Champions League. How will the team go about studying some relatively unknown opponents?
We’ll focus on Barcelona closer to the time. We have 6 domestic games before that tie to concentrate on so we can’t look too far ahead. Laura Harvey is very professional about her background information and she’s probably booking a flight to go and watch them play as we speak. For the players it’s harder to get to know opponents on the continent so we do what we can through other players, other managers, websites, even YouTube. But mainly we’ll focus on the way we play and look to impose ourselves on the game. We believe we can take on anyone.
You’ve taken on a bit of an ambassadorial role this season within the club. You’re the social media ambassador for Arsenal, you blogged on the Olympics for arsenal.com and recently arsenal.com interviewed you for the Arsenal Foundation this week. Has this changed your role in the squad or on the training ground?
Not especially. A lot of banter flies around from the other girls on the training ground, but we all want to do our bit to raise the profile of the women’s game. Personally I love promoting it and Arsenal are so good with social media. Through twitter and through facebook we can really interact with the fans and I’ve just loved every minute of it. But I don’t see myself any differently in the squad, we’re all here to win football games and trophies for Arsenal.
What does a typical week as an Arsenal player look for you Steph? How do you prepare for games?
Well, typically we train twice a week. We usually play on a Sunday, so Monday will be recovery, with a 30 minute bike or swim and some stretching. Tuesday morning we’ll have a gym session at Hertfordshire university and Tuesday evening we train from 5-7pm. Wednesday is recovery. I might go for a run, or a bike or swim. Thursday is gym session in the morning and training in the evening. Friday is a rest day. Saturday we rest, or if we have an away game, we might travel up on the Saturday for the game on Sunday.
Finally, do the Arsenal Ladies have much contact with the men’s team?
We use the same training ground, though we tend to use it in the evening when the guys aren’t there. But everyone at the club, not just the players, are very encouraging and supportive of us and always tracking our progress. It’s made clear that Arsenal Ladies is not a franchise, we are one club that share values and we’re really well looked after. For the Sunderland match on Saturday, the girls that played in the Olympics were presented on the pitch and the Directors put us in a box for the day. Everyone takes notice of how we’re doing and they always tell us we’re doing the club proud. We feel very much a part of Arsenal Football Club, not just Arsenal Ladies.
Steph, thank you very much for your time.
Thank you, my pleasure.
Arsenal Ladies play Bristol Academy at Borehamwood’s Meadow Park on Thursday evening, kickoff 7.45pm. Tickets are available on the turnstile. £5 for adults and £2.50 for concessions. You can find out how to get to Borehamwood here http://www.arsenal.com/ladies/boreham-wood-directions.