Steph Houghton has opened up on the injury that perhaps dealt her the biggest heartache of her career so far.
In September 2021, she tore her Achilles and had to undergo surgery, which sidelined her from both domestic and international football for several months.
Eager to captain England at a home Euros this summer, the defender pushed to return to fitness in time, but did not make the final cut.
Euro 2022 dream dashed
Any injury is a huge blow but one that denies you the chance of representing your country at a major tournament will always feel that little bit more painful.
Despite being back at St George’s Park for training with the Lionesses, Houghton was told she would not be part of Sarina Wiegman’s Euro 2022 squad.
Writing for the Players’ Tribune, the 34-year-old relived the moment she received the crushing news.
“Honestly, I’ve never packed a suitcase so fast in my life. In my head I was just thinking, ‘I just need to get out of here as soon as possible.’
“I was devastated. After everything I’d been through, I just wanted to go home, to be with Stephen [her husband].”
In the absence of the long-serving England captain, Arsenal’s Leah Williamson was given the armband.
She led the team to their first major title and ended the country’s 56-year wait for silverware.
Houghton was among the millions to celebrate England’s historic win, and she backed her teammates from the very start, but it was a seriously difficult situation for her.
“I was so desperate to be there that when I wasn’t selected, I wasn’t sure how good it was for me mentally to watch the tournament,” she admitted. “I was so frustrated because I felt like I had so little closure. The whole thing just felt strange.
“I texted all of the girls before the tournament and before every game. I’d always do that! If I’m not there — whether I’m captain or not — I want them to win so much. I know how hard everyone worked for that moment.
“But, when you’re not there… I can’t lie, it’s always going to be bittersweet.”
Not ready to retire
Houghton explained that at the start of every summer, she analyses her upcoming goals and hones in on what she wants to achieve in the coming months. Last summer, of course, was no different.
With Euro 2022 fast approaching and England impressing by winning the inaugural Arnold Clark Cup, the Manchester City skipper had one major goal in mind.
“Last year, obviously, the big goal was to be playing at the Euros at home, to go out there at Wembley and achieve something special with the girls, and then maybe, just maybe, let that be the mic drop on an amazing international career.
“But in football? You can’t let yourself get carried away with your dreams.”
Had Houghton not been injured and instead played a part in England’s historic Euro 2022 win, would she have followed compatriots Ellen White and Jill Scott into retirement, ending a decorated career on the mother of all highs?
It’s impossible to say. But Houghton has made it clear she is not willing to hang up her boots right now and still has a lot to give to football.
“Things didn’t work out as I planned with the Euros but, honestly, I would do it all over again and I can be proud of what I did,” she admitted.
“I really don’t want to end my England career with an injury. I know Jill and Ellen have gone out on a high and it was the right moment for them, but I’m just not ready to close that chapter yet.”
What’s next for Houghton?
After months of recovery, Houghton finally made her Women’s Super League return.
The centre-back played the full 90 minutes against Aston Villa in their opening match, which unfolded into a thrilling seven-goal affair.
The Villans stunned last season’s runners-up with a 4-3 win, and while it was not the ideal start for City, Houghton will surely be delighted to be back on the pitch.
“Right now, I’m in a good place again. You know when you have that buzz in your step? Honestly, I just feel happy.
“I haven’t missed a training session, I’ve played every pre-season game, and I feel strong again.
“I’m 34, but whenever we do fitness testing, I’m there or thereabouts at the top. It might seem like a small thing but I know how much work I put in, on the training pitch in front of everybody, and away from it, too.”
Houghton is back to full fitness and will be hoping her domestic form will earn her one last shot at winning a major title with England — World Cup 2023 perhaps?