Artist In Residence is a series of articles showcasing the work of a specific artist over the course of a week and the stories behind the featured people and moments as well as a Q&A to kickstart the series. This series’ illustrations are from the brilliant Harry G Ward.
When you think of Sunderland, the first thought is not of footballing glory. Languishing in the lower reaches of the football pyramid after decades of mismanagement both on and off the pitch, most football fans would equate Sunderland with failure.
However, if you scratch beneath the surface you will find footballing success in abundance. Not for the Sunderland AFC team, but for three individuals who all started their careers at the club and come from the local area.
Steph Houghton, Jordan Henderson, and Jordan Pickford all started their footballing journey in the youth set up of SAFC. Different paths were trodden, with destinations reached at different stages, but the overriding success of this trio can be measured by them all appearing in World Cup semi-finals for England within the last three years.
We are all familiar with Pickford’s heroics during England’s penalty shoot out win against Colombia in the summer of 2018 and Jordan Henderson has been arguably the most consistent performer in the Premier League in recent years. But it is to the female member of this Macken triumvirate we must look for trophies, triumph over adversity and the work she has done to help raise the profile of the game.
Steph Houghton is footballing royalty. Growing up in South Hetton as a Sunderland fan, she attended football camps put on by the club who soon recognised her talent. In the absence of an academy system, she found herself as a 10-year-old, training with the U16s as well as playing mixed football at school and in her local team.
The exposure to both older players and competing against boys at an early age has helped mould the player we see today. Currently one of the world’s best, and most recognisable centre halves, she has incredible versatility and despite starting life as a goal scorer, her transition to the ball-playing centre half we see today began at Sunderland.
After making her mark in the North East, and despite her attachment to the club she grew up supporting, the club’s relegation from the Women’s Premier League paved the way for a move to Leeds United Ladies and the first silverware – and serious injury – of her career.
The world seemed to be at her feet. A move to Leeds at club level finalised, her international career had developed through various junior levels, with her transition to the senior team swift, she found herself on the cusp of becoming the youngest player to represent England in a World Cup finals in China in 2007.
Then disaster struck. A broken leg in training led to her missing the finals and a lengthy lay off. Testament to her character and mental strength, she fought back to full fitness and regained her place in both the Leeds side and the England squad in the run up to the 2009 European championships.
They say lightning does not strike twice, Houghton may argue this point, as she suffered another career threatening injury, rupturing her ACL before the tournament began and once again having to withdraw.
This catalogue of injuries, bad luck and mental suffering could be enough to finish careers. Not Houghton’s. She again battled back to full fitness, regained her place in the Leeds side and was rewarded with the 2009/10 Women’s Premier League Cup.
From this point on, her career went from strength to strength. After a move to the dominant team of the period, Arsenal, honours, and international appearances followed in equal measure. Winning the WSL and the WSL cup in her first season with the London club, Houghton was called up to represent GB in the 2012 Olympic games.
After suffering injury heartbreak prior to the two previous international tournaments, the Olympics was a great personal success, with Houghton being named team GB leading scorer, as well as left-back in the team of the tournament.
Notwithstanding a disappointing defeat to Canada in the quarter finals, Houghton’s exploits, particularly a stunning strike in front of 75,000 at Wembley stadium, did a huge amount to raise the profile of the women’s game.
More trophies were to follow with the Gunners, this time with Houghton as team captain, and her profile continued to grow through her assured performances and leadership for both club and country.
The consistency shown by Houghton throughout this period did not go unrecognised, as Manchester City ladies turned professional and began raiding the transfer market, in similar style to their male counterparts. Houghton was added to the ranks in 2014, teaming up once again with another Sunderland success story, Jill Scott.
Quickly installed as captain, Houghton helped city to the WSL Continental Cup in her first season despite a disappointing mid table finish in the league. Her rise to the top, and influence on the wider game was cemented during this period when she became the first female footballer to appear on the cover of Shoot magazine.
The following years at City were trophy laden with 3 WSL Continental Cup, 3 FA women’s cups and a super league title all being delivered under Houghton’s captaincy. Success on the pitch was once again rewarded off it when she was made an MBE in 2016.
At the time of writing, Houghton has 120 senior England caps to her name and still plies her trade at Manchester City ladies. A recognisable face and icon of the women’s game, Houghton’s rise from County Durham village to global superstar has been far from smooth, however it is testament to her character that she has achieved so much in the game and shows no sign yet of slowing down.