“Pep Guardiola wants to see you in his office in 20 minutes,” the receptionist announced calmly.
At first Steph Houghton thought it was a liquidation. Guardiola’s team were in the midst of a Premier League season and four days after Tottenham’s 3-0 defeat at the Etihad Stadium, they found themselves at Goodison Park for a tough-looking game with Everton.
The Manchester City and England captain had only called the training center to pick up a device to help her recover from an Achilles tendon injury.
England captain Steph Houghton will represent Team GB at the Olympics this summer and will write exclusively for Sportsmail during the European Championship
She hadn’t expected, it’s safe to say, to be called up.
“I told the receptionist to come with me because I was nervous!” Houghton jokes. “But it was the most amazing 40 minutes with him. We talked about my career, the women’s team, the men’s team, life in general. It was incredible that he made time for me. It was pretty cool.’
Guardiola was adamant about two things. “He told me to play as long as possible,” explains Houghton, 33. “He also told me that I should be a manager because he saw that I was leading a team.
“I’m currently doing my B license but wasn’t too busy going into management. I have a degree in sports science and often thought about becoming a strength and conditioning coach, but then I thought: if Pep sees it, maybe I should do that too!’
Guardiola also inquired about the wellbeing of Steph’s husband, former Liverpool and Bradford City defender Stephen Darby, who had to retire at 29 after a devastating diagnosis of motor neuron disease, which came just four months after the couple married in 2018.
“Pep checks in and a lot of the men’s players do, which means a lot,” said Houghton, who will write exclusively for Sportsmail during the European Championship. The answer to his question about Darby is, as always, positive. The family view is that there is no time to question the fairness of it all.
Pep Guardiola thinks the defender of Manchester City should be manager
“He’s doing a great job – and what’s the point of thinking negatively?” says Houghton. “You’re just wasting the time you have trying to find answers that aren’t there, so it’s never, ‘Why us?'”
Instead, the couple focuses on keeping life as pleasant — and normal — as possible.
“He’s so positive, so proactive,” she explains. “It’s not about going out and doing things, it’s about our normal lives. See our families, see our cousins, enjoy it while we can and don’t let it affect us as much as possible.’ There are, of course, difficult moments. Darby teams up with Doddie Weir and Rob Burrow, rugby union and rugby league buddies – and their bravery and fame have helped the trio raise awareness of MND at an unprecedented level.
“As a wife, you look at the interviews they do and it’s awkward, but you’re proud because Stephen is,” Houghton says. “He always wants to give back to people. Part of how great he is is that he puts others first.”
Houghton, who will leave for Tokyo with Team GB later this summer, will donate her Sportsmail columnist fee to the Darby Rimmer MND Foundation, which her husband co-founded with friend and fellow sufferer Chris Rimmer. In 18 months it has raised over £800,000.
“Because I’ve been injured for the past few months, sometimes I had to get up at 6am to get on the bike and sometimes I didn’t care,” she says. “But if I’m going to sacrifice time with Stephen to get to the Olympics, I have to do it right. I see how hard he works every day and how he puts me first. The only way I can repay him is to play the best 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 neuron disease in 2018
So there was no discussion about missing the flight to Tokyo. “The only doubt was the injury,” Houghton says, then laughs.
‘If I had ever brought up the subject (of not going), he would have told me to fuck off! He’d love to get me out of the house and throw Euro parties while I’m gone.” Houghton and her teammates are already preparing for the Japanese heat.
“We’ve been wearing raincoats during training and we’re going into the Bisham Abbey tent before heading to Loughborough for the pre-Olympic training camp,” she says. “We don’t think it will be cancelled. We are concentrating on training and are doing better than in 2012 (GB were eliminated in the quarter-finals).’
After the Olympics, Houghton may make more TV appearances, following her debut on Sky’s Monday Night Football last season.
“Jamie Carragher and (presenter) David Jones were incredible with us,” Houghton recalls. “As a woman, there’s probably a bit more pressure, but you just have to be honest.”
Was she the target of social media troll abuse? “Not really, but I know I shouldn’t take what people are saying too seriously. It’s about changing perceptions and female players have to keep developing themselves and putting in good performances on television.’
It’s a long way from Houghton’s early years in Sunderland, where her father would pay her £250 a year subscriptions, wear ill-fitting, worn-out clothes and where her grandmother would bake cakes and pies for her and her voracious teammates after the game.
The defender has seen the growth of the women’s game after his start at Sunderland
The 33-year-old still has a one-year contract with City, but hopes to continue playing for another year
“If you’d told me when I started out where I would be now, taking care of food, staying in the best hotels and the best flights, I wouldn’t have believed you,” she says. “We are lucky with the facilities we have at City and the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea, but there are other clubs where that is not the case and we should try to find a place where there are comparable facilities throughout the competition.
“We want the English league to be the best in the world, but it’s also our responsibility to make sure the games are watchable and we raise the bar.”
Houghton still has a one-year contract with City and then she has to make a decision. “It depends on Stephen, but if he’s happy I want to play for another year,” she says.
Pep will be pleased.
To donate to the Darby Rimmer MND Foundation, visit: www.justgiving.com/darbyrimmer-month