Houghton on her future, husband Stephen's fight with MND and Olympics

‘Pep told me I have to become a manager, so maybe I should!’: England captain Steph Houghton on her future, husband Stephen’s fight with Motor Neurone Disease and her Olympic hopes

  • England’s Steph Houghton will write exclusively for Sportsmail during the Euros 
  • The Manchester City defender will also captain Team GB at the Olympics 
  • Houghton spoke to Sportsmail about her husband Stephen’s fight with MND
  • The 33-year-old is considering going into management after her playing days 

‘Pep Guardiola wants to see you in his office in 20 minutes,’ the receptionist announced calmly.

At first, Steph Houghton thought it was a wind-up. Guardiola’s team were in the thick of a Premier League season, and four days after thumping Tottenham 3-0 at the Etihad Stadium, were due at Goodison Park for a tricky-looking fixture with Everton.

The Manchester City and England captain had only called into the training centre to pick up a piece of equipment to aid her rehab from an achilles injury.

England captain Steph Houghton will represent Team GB at the Olympics this summer and will write exclusively for Sportsmail during the Euros

She was, it is safe to say, not expecting to be called upstairs.

‘I told the receptionist she had to come with me because I was nervous!’ Houghton jokes. ‘But it was the most amazing 40 minutes with him. We spoke about my career, the women’s team, the men’s team, life in general. For him to make the time for me was unbelievable. It was pretty cool.’

Guardiola was adamant about two things. ‘He told me to play for as long as I possibly could,’ Houghton, 33, explains. ‘He also told me that I had to become a manager because he could see me leading a team.

‘I’m doing my B Licence at the moment but wasn’t too fussed about going into management. I’ve got a sports science degree and have often thought about being a strength and conditioning coach but then I thought, if Pep can see it then maybe I should!’

Guardiola also enquired over the wellbeing of Steph’s husband, the former Liverpool and Bradford City defender Stephen Darby, who had to retire at 29 following a devastating diagnosis of motor neurone disease, which came just four months after the pair had married in 2018.

‘Pep checks in and a lot of the men’s players do, which means a lot,’ says Houghton, who will write exclusively for Sportsmail during the Euros. The answer to his query about Darby is, as always, positive. The family view is that there is no time for questioning the fairness of it all.

Pep Guardiola believes the Manchester City defender should go on to become a manager

‘He’s doing amazingly — and what’s the point of thinking negatively?’ says Houghton. ‘You’re just wasting what time you have trying to find answers that aren’t there so it’s never, “Why us?”’

Instead, the pair concentrate on keeping life as enjoyable — and normal — as possible.

‘He’s so positive, so pro-active,’ she explains. ‘It’s not about going away and doing things, it’s about doing our normal lives. Seeing our families, seeing our nephews, enjoying it while we can and not letting it affect us as much as we can.’ There are, obviously, tough moments. Darby has teamed up with Doddie Weir and Rob Burrow, fellow sufferers from rugby union and rugby league — and via their bravery and exposure the trio have ensured that awareness of MND has never been higher.

‘As a wife you watch the interviews they do and it is uncomfortable, but you’re proud because that’s who Stephen is,’ Houghton says. ‘He always wants to give back to people. Part of how amazing he is, is that he puts others first.’

Houghton, who will head to Tokyo with Team GB later this summer, is donating her fee for being a Sportsmail columnist to the Darby Rimmer MND Foundation, which her husband set up with friend and fellow sufferer Chris Rimmer. In 18 months, it has raised more than £800,000.

‘Because I’ve been injured these past few months, sometimes I’ve had to get up at 6am to go on the bike and sometimes I can’t be bothered,’ she says. ‘But if I’m going to sacrifice spending the time with Stephen to go to the Olympics, then I need to do it properly. I see how hard he works every day and how he puts me first. The only way I can repay him is by playing as well as I can. Wanting to make Stephen proud gives me even more motivation.’

Houghton’s husband, Stephen Darby, helped set up the Darby Rimmer MND Foundation after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2018

So there was no discussion about missing the flight to Tokyo. ‘The only doubt was the injury,’ Houghton says, and then laughs.

‘If I’d ever brought up the subject (of not going), he’d tell me to p*** off! He’d probably be happy to get me out of the house, and be having Euros parties while I’m away.’ Houghton and her team-mates are already preparing for the Japanese heat.

‘We’ve been wearing raincoats in training and we’ll be going in the tent at Bisham Abbey before we go to Loughborough for the pre-Olympic training camp,’ she says. ‘We’re not thinking about it being cancelled. We’re concentrating on training and doing better than we did in 2012 (GB were knocked out in the quarter-finals).’

Post-Olympics, Houghton may well make more TV appearances, after her debut on Sky’s Monday Night Football last season.

‘Jamie Carragher and (presenter) David Jones were unbelievable with us,’ Houghton recalls. ‘Being female there’s probably a bit more pressure but you just have to be honest.’

Did she become the target of abuse from social media trolls? ‘Not really, but I know not to take what people say on there too seriously. It’s about changing perceptions and female players have to keep getting ourselves out there and producing good performances on the telly.’

It is a long way from Houghton’s early days at Sunderland, where her dad would pay her £250-a-year subs, she would wear ill-fitting, hand-me-down kit and where her grandma would bake post-match pies and cakes for her and her ravenous team-mates.

The defender has seen the growth of the women’s game after starting out at Sunderland

The 33-year-old has one year left on her City contract but hopes to play on for another year

‘If you’d told me when I started where I’d be now, with nutrition looked after, staying in the best hotels, getting the best flights, I wouldn’t have believed you,’ she says. ‘We’re lucky with the facilities we have at City and the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea, but there are other clubs where it is not like that and we have to try to get to a place where there are similar facilities across the league.

‘We want the English league to be the best in the world but there is also a responsibility on us to ensure the games are watchable and that we raise standards.’

Houghton has a year remaining on her contract at City and then she will have a decision to make. ‘It depends on Stephen, but if he’s happy then I’d like to play on for another year,’ she says.

Pep will be pleased.

To donate to the Darby Rimmer MND Foundation visit: www.justgiving.com/darbyrimmer-mnd

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