2018 proved to be a year of mixed emotions for Steph Houghton as just months after getting married to ex-footballer Stephen Darby she was met with devastating news.
The no-nonsense centre back has endured injuries and setbacks during her career but nothing in comparison to when Darby was told he had Motor Neurone Disease (MND) in September.
The disease has a life-limiting impact on the brain and spinal cord, making them weaker until the muscles stop working all together.
The condition has given Darby a life expectancy of two to five years, which may force Houghton to retire early in order to support her husband.
If anything, this has made the pair more determined to give something back to the community by promoting awareness for MND. This inspired Darby and close friend Chris Rimmer (who also has MND) into launching the Darby Rimmer MND Foundation to fund research for the fatal disease.
In July a pre-season game between two of Darby’s former clubs Bradford City and Liverpool FC was set up so all profits would go to the Darby Rimmer MND foundation. Darby admitted the moment that brought him to tears was looking and seeing his wife in the stands, giving an insight into the brutal nature of having to live with MND.
Nevertheless, Houghton has remained strong and has extensively carried out her work towards her husband’s foundation as well as the other charities she supports. These include being an ambassador for Future Dreams, who support women with breast cancer as well as fellow pro James Milner’s foundation.
She told MM: “I am supporting my husband’s foundation and my close friend James Milner’s foundation, making sure I put enough work in outside of my football to give something back. I think it is vital people with a profile and who have an influence support an unbelievable foundation.
“Even before my husband’s diagnosis I would always be the same type of person. So no matter if it was football or outside of football, all my intention is how I can help people and how I can help first and foremost to be the best professional I can be.
“With the status that I have it is trying to give something back to the community and that is why I am here.”
Stephen Darby was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease last year.
— ITV Granada Reports (@GranadaReports) April 2, 2019
Her tireless work has been recognised by the City of Champions as she was given an induction into their hall of fame alongside boxing legend Ricky Hatton and the founder of Social Chain Steven Bartlett.
“It’s an unbelievable honour to be firstly invited here and inducted into the hall of fame what is a massive achievement for me. Obviously, it is for a great cause as well so I’m really happy to be here and see all the work that has been done. The testimony Vincent Kompany did to get people off the streets was unbelievable.
“It is pretty special, there have been some highlights in my career, and this is definitely one. I think it’s a special award and I am really humble to receive it and to be alongside some prestigious names like Sir Chris Hoy.”
‘CONNECTED’ MANCHESTER – WHETHER RED OR BLUE
Despite not being born in the North West, Houghton has taken Manchester to her heart and embraced the core traditions of looking after one another.
After moving here five years ago, Houghton’s reputation has grown to the point that there isn’t a promotion image for Manchester City women without her.
She may not have thought she would be in this position when she made her first team debut for local side Sunderland at the age of 14.
Since then she has endured a rapid rise to the top level playing for the likes of Leeds United and Arsenal before a stellar 2012 London Olympics prompted a move to Man City in 2014. Her leadership shone through from the moment she arrived and she was rewarded with the captaincy after an impressive 2014 season.
— Steph Houghton MBE (@stephhoughton2) October 5, 2019
City’s captain has led her side to a period of glory in terms of silverware by winning two FA Women’s Cups, three Continental Cups and a FA Women’s Super league title. The consistent success she’s enjoyed at City has made her the figurehead all supporters look up to her as she symbolises determination, spirit and a never-say-die attitude – all characteristics of Manchester.
“I class Manchester as my home now so if I can help underprivileged kids or any other causes in Manchester I will do.
“From the moment I moved here five years ago, all I heard about was that it was a special city with some special people, and they proved me right.
“You can feel that connection of people wanting their team to do well whether they are blue or red and in my case blue. At the same time, I think we got to make sure we inspire people to be good people and to look after each other and stay together.”
On the pitch this season City have had a strong start – they are only a point off the league leaders Chelsea despite losing their last game to Arsenal and exiting the Champions League at the last 16 stage to Atletico Madrid.
“I think a lot of people are looking for Man City to lose and not to do so well, but I’ve got full faith in my team and in my club. We have been successful for a number of years and we will win trophies no matter what anyone says.
“For us we remain focused on winning as many games as we can for Manchester City. We’re only in October, so there is a long way to go until the end of the season.
“Fingers crossed we look back with some silverware.”
INSPIRING A GENERATION
Houghton has been one of the key instigators in the rise of popularity for women’s football during the last decade.
Ever since England’s third-place finish at the 2015 World Cup, viewing records for the FA Women’s Super League have gone on an upwards trajectory, including record breaking viewings during the summer’s World Cup.
Both that World Cup and the most recent one this summer may have ended in heartbreak for England, however the bigger message was that women’s football was becoming a more renowned sport.
The positivity from the England Lionesses campaigns has transmitted to Women’s Super League (WSL) as the record attendance was smashed when 31,000 people went to watch the Manchester derby in September.
“Since 2015 our motto was to inspire a generation and we have certainly done that, we are selling out Wembley and all the stadiums we play in which is unbelievable,” said the 31-year-old.
“That is because we have been successful and the game’s grown which is massive for myself and women footballers.
“I think the fact it is on the BBC will promote women’s football a lot more, a lot of people knew about the World Cup and that is credit to not just us as a team, but also to the FA and the manager because we gave everything to put on a show and play our best football which we certainly did.”
— Steph Houghton MBE (@stephhoughton2) November 7, 2019
As Houghton remains an inspiration for many young girls looking to make a breakthrough in women’s football, she’s passed on some advice to those looking to follow her path into the game.
Her presence in football can be seen by being the first female to be on the cover of the popular football magazine Shoot, while her contribution to the sport has been rewarded by the PFA as she was given the 2019 Merit award for her application on a domestic and international level.
“As an individual it’s just about playing as well as you can, making sure I keep getting picked in the team and being the role model I can be off the pitch as well.
“David Beckham was my idol just because I was always watching men’s football as a child and he was the poster boy back then but also he was a world class footballer.
“Never take anything for granted, I think obviously there are so many opportunities but it’s what you make of them and how hard you work to create something for yourself.
“If there are any questions or problems then all you have to do is ask.”
You can watch Steph and her England team mates take on Germany at Wembley this evening from 5:15pm on BBC Two.
Image courtesy of Steph Houghton MBE via Twitter, with thanks.