Women's Football: If the England women's football captain won't advocate for women's football, who will?

This summer saw the launch of BBC’s ‘#ChangeTheGame’ campaign in a bid to encourage people to engage more with women’s sports across the summer – in particular, the Women’s World Cup. Naturally, at the heart of such a campaign was England Lionesses and Manchester City captain Steph Houghton – deemed a pioneer of the women’s game.

Respect, class, heart – three things Houghton has prided herself on since the conception of her career. Two weeks ago, on a podcast with Jamie Carragher, Houghton diverged from those very qualities in a shocking 30-second confession: she doesn’t watch women’s football. And she doesn’t want to. 

Unless you’re a frequenter of Carragher’s ‘The Greatest Game’ podcast, you may have missed this interview and the contents of it entirely but for the Two Girls Talk Balls podcast bringing it to everyone’s attention in their latest episode.

Carragher’s podcast is a series of episodes with some of the games greatest – either retired, still playing or celebrity fans – giving them a platform to talk openly and candidly about their lives and their careers.

Within the 45 minute episode, Houghton discusses the growth of the game and the lengths it still needs to go to in order to reach a certain level – including raising people’s awareness and engagement in the sport. She also mentions the 11 million people who tuned in to watch the Lionesses get knocked out of the World Cup by the USA this summer, gushing over its brilliance – which makes what follows even more bizarre.

Around 18 minutes into the episode, Carragher asks: “Would you rather watch a man’s game or a women’s game?”

Remarkably, Houghton responds: “To be honest, even though I’m in the women’s game I don’t really watch a lot of women’s football. If it’s on the telly, I mean, I won’t break my neck to go and watch it whereas if there’s a good game on in men’s football our whole night is revolved around watching that game. That’s me being totally honest.”

She continues: “I love watching any form of football but I think if it comes to like Premier League, Champions League, I actually just love watching the pace of the game, the intensity, watching the formations – watching the best teams play.”

The thing that stands out from that particular section is the wording of her response – how she won’t ‘break her neck’ to watch a game of women’s football, even if it means just switching on the television. It’s less about the fact Houghton probably enjoys watching men’s football more, but rather the harsh wording of her sheer desire not to engage in women’s football on the back of the biggest Women’s World Cup yet and when more eyes than ever are on the Lionesses and the Women’s Super League. 

While unlikely to be her intentions, there’s a certain level of uneasiness about the way in which Houghton implies that women’s football lacks ‘pace and intensity’, the same diction often used by misogynists who aim to minimise and belittle the quality of women’s football. It is not out of touch to recognise that women’s football is not quite at the same level as men’s football, but in the same breath, it doesn’t mean that it is less worthy of being watched by fans.

It’s completely understandable that Houghton – like many people – doesn’t necessarily want to bring work home with her (although in this case to separate men and women’s football entirely defeats the purpose of the BBC’s ‘there’s only a difference if you choose to see one’ poster, that actually features Houghton), but for a club and country captain to so casually say she has no real interest in watching women’s football is a gut punch, for lack of a better word.

All of the work that goes into promoting the game from the BBC’s #ChangeTheGame to Women’s Football Weekend, work that goes on behind the scenes at the grassroots level, the bump in television schedules, the introduction of the FA player and hours put in by the media to make this sport as engaging and accessible as ever – only for one of the leading figureheads of women’s football in the UK to let it be known that she categorically won’t ‘break her neck’ to switch on the TV and engage herself. 

And she’s not the only one, it would be massively naïve to think otherwise. It’s painfully evident from awards seasons that some of those at the heart of the game don’t watch enough of it and in all honesty that is a lot to do with the lack of accessibility, particularly across international leagues, so when it gets to major tournament years the nominations are dominated by international stars. It’s much easier to catch six games broadcast by big networks across the span of a month than it is to search the deep web for streams, many of us left with virus riddled computers as a result.

As aforementioned, with more eyes now than ever on the Lionesses and the Women’s Super League, a little white lie in this situation wouldn’t have gone amiss. But, when you think about this logically, she also could’ve honestly said that she simply does not have the time to catch women’s football on TV. Given that games broadcasted here are Super League or England internationals – both of which she is literally at the heart of, she couldn’t be blamed for not being able to watch live games often. 

Instead, we are left pondering the question that if the captain of our own national team can’t advocate for women’s football, who is willing to break their neck to watch?

To be a captain is to lead by example and, in this case, Houghton has fallen short of such duties.

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