Steph Houghton to retire from football at end of the season

Steph Houghton - Steph Houghton to retire from football at end of the season

Former England captain Steph Houghton is to retire at the end of the season, the 35-year-old has announced.

The Manchester City centre-back, who has been with the Women’s Super League club for 10 years and led them to the WSL title in 2016, is undoubtedly one of the English women’s game’s greatest players.

She was capped 121 times by the Lionesses at senior level and skippered the team to the semi-finals at the 2015 and 2019 Women’s World Cups, as well as the semi-finals of Euro 2017 in the Netherlands.

Her spell as England skipper spanned a time of rapid change and growth for the women’s game in England, including the professionalisation of the WSL.

Houghton was awarded an MBE in the 2016 New Year’s honest list for her services to football.

Her husband, former Bradford City footballer Stephen Darby, suffers from motor neurone disease (MND) and a 178-mile ‘March of the Day’ trek, led by Darby and former Ipswich Town striker Marcus Stewart, raised £130,000 last weekend. Houghton joined her husband on the march and, along with Manchester City team-mates, brought Darby to the finish line at Anfield.

Steph Houghton and Stephen Darby - Steph Houghton to retire from football at end of the season
Houghton is married to former Liverpool defender Stephen Darby, who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2018 - PA/Barrington Coombs

Born in Durham, Houghton’s career has also included spells at Arsenal as well as Leeds Carnegie, and she represented Team GB at the Olympics in 2012, scoring a famous winner against Brazil at a packed Wembley.

She was a League Cup winner with Leeds in 2009-10, and won the Conti Cup [modern-day League Cup] twice with Arsenal and a further four times with Man City.

She has been an FA Cup winner five times, twice with the north London club and three times with Manchester City, where she is a club legend.

Steph Houghton - Steph Houghton to retire from football at end of the season
Houghton is Manchester City's record appearance holder and is part of the squad in contention to win the WSL title this season - Getty Images/Matt McNulty

“There is no easy way to say it, but I am retiring from football at the end of the current WSL season,” Houghton said on social media platform X. “Taking the decision to retire, is such a difficult thing to do. Whilst age comes to every player, it makes it no easier having to say the words out loud. Football has been my life; my passion and I have loved the career I have had.

“It has been an honour and a privilege to represent Sunderland, Leeds Utd, Arsenal and to have been on the incredible journey that I have been on, with Manchester City over the past ten years.

“Whilst I have been lucky to have had special moments on the pitch, it gives me a lot of satisfaction what the game has achieved off the pitch during my career. The game has moved so quickly from amateur to professional over the last twenty years. I thank the trailblazers that came before me, for your perseverance and commitment to effecting change for my generation. I hope that I leave the game in a better place than when I started, and that I have contributed in some small way to giving the girls of tomorrow a better future in football.

“My biggest thanks, appreciation and love belongs to my husband and inspiration, Stephen, my mam, my dad, my brother Stuart, the rest of my family, Matthew Buck, and all my closest friends for your love, guidance, understanding and support – it has been my constant.”

Manchester City’s head coach Gareth Taylor said: “Steph is – without question – an icon of the game. Although her professional career on the pitch is now coming to an end, her legacy will be felt for so many years to come. She’s paved the way for so many to thrive in the future.

“I feel incredibly privileged to have been able to work with her since 2020 and know her name will be written into the history books as a true footballing great.”

The club’s managing director Charlotte O’Neill added: “Players like Steph are incredibly special. Steph is truly someone who deserves to be remembered as a legend of the game, and I have no doubt she will continue making her mark as she embarks on this new chapter of her life and career. She will always have the support of her City family, wherever that takes her.”

Houghton was the face of the Lionesses at watershed for women’s game

Very few women’s footballers became ‘household names’ in this country prior to the Lionesses winning the Euros in 2022 but Houghton was one of the rare exceptions to that, not only because of her performances on the pitch but because of her presence off the pitch too.

She was the face of the Lionesses for three consecutive major tournament cycles prior to the Covid pandemic – in all three of which her team reached the semi-finals and inspired countless youngsters to take up the game in the process – and as the national team captain she always handled her responsibilities with the utmost professionalism.

Any England captain is automatically expected to become something of a spokesperson for the entire sport in this country and the role can be demanding but Houghton took on those duties with a calm composure. She then had the unenviable task of having to be that ‘voice of the team’ whilst the controversy around former head coach Mark Sampson’s exit erupted into the media spotlight, and yet she handled that challenging situation in typically classy style.

Steph Houghton embraces her husban Stephen Darby
Steph Houghton embraces her husband, Stephen Darby, after winning her 100th cap in 2018 - Action Images via Reuters/Craig Brough

Her penalty that was saved late on in the semi-final of the 2019 World Cup against the USA was a cruel moment that her inspirational contribution to the team and the English game as a whole simply did not deserve, for somebody so dedicated to the growth of the game. However, thankfully, supporters will much more fondly remember a wide array of great moments from this world-class centre-back, who was also one of the sport’s best free-kick specialists.

In particular, her performances during the 2012 Olympics on home soil – a tournament that truly was a watershed moment for women’s football in this country, as Wembley was sold out for women’s games for the first time – will live long in the memory and will rightly take up a prominent place in the history books.

As a defender she was also rock-solid at the peak of her powers and it shouldn’t be forgotten that her Manchester City team that won the 2016 WSL title did so as invincibles, unbeaten across the entire campaign.

In the latter part of her career, she has maintained her professionalism despite having simultaneously to deal with her husband’s illness, something none of the rest of us can truly imagine, and players and coaches across the WSL hold her with the highest respect for the way she has conducted herself as a professional.

Perhaps the only shame is that she was never given a chance to play for her country during Sarina Wiegman’s tenure. She was initially called up by the Dutchwoman in her first squad in September 2021 and named captain but an injury she suffered in training prior to Wiegman’s first game in charge brought the end to her international career, an international career which merited a much happier send-off. Hopefully, the England team will be planning a huge and fitting tribute soon, to an icon of the modern women’s game.