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What It Takes
By STEPH HOUGHTON
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Steph Houghton was captain of the England women’s team for eight years, from 2014 to 2022.
On Sept. 16, 2021, she suffered a torn Achilles tendon. She later underwent surgery, putting her in a race against time to be fit enough to make new manager Sarina Wiegman’s Euro 2022 squad.
These photos, annotated with Steph’s own words, show what rehab from a serious injury looks like, as well as the pressure, disappointment and hope that run through the mind of an elite athlete.
What It Takes
PHOTOS BY LYNNE CAMERON FOR THE PLAYERS' TRIBUNE
BY STEPH HOUGHTON
t the beginning of every summer, I always think, “What would I be happy with at the end of the season? What do I want?”
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 mike drop on an amazing international career.
But in football? You can’t let yourself get carried away with your dreams.…
Match day minus one, training session: We were preparing for a World Cup qualifier against North Macedonia.
Literally, I went to step and go and I just felt my foot move in my boot.
I was like, “S*** … that doesn’t feel right.”
I just wanted to get out of there and get a scan done ASAP.
When we got the news that this was serious, that this wasn’t just a knock, in my head, I was like, “I can't believe this has happened. Not now.”
Rehab? It’s tough. I’m not gonna lie.
I rehabbed my other Achilles before the Olympics in 2012, I’ve done my ACL, I’ve broken my leg – so I know for a fact just how much effort and sacrifice it takes.
The surgery, the trips to the specialists, the cast, and then the boot, the calf raises and the iso holds, getting on the bike in my conservatory at 6 a.m., all the planning, the setbacks and the small, small steps.
Mentally, I wasn’t in the best place. The scariest part is the thought, Do I still have it in me to do all that again? At my age? I’m 34.…
The Euros, though, that was the ultimate motivation for me to go through it all again.
I look back at that time, that 12–13 weeks after having surgery in February and I’m like, I must have been the s***test wife ever.
I used to come in from training at five in the evening, and then it'd be the same routine: ice bath, recovery pumps, a bit extra in the gym. And then by the time we make tea, it's eight. And then I’m getting up at six to do it all over again.
My husband, Stephen, was probably like, What the hell, Steph?!
When Sarina announced her pick for the new England captain in April, I was happy for Leah and I fully respected the decision. But that was one of the hardest parts of the injury, if not the hardest. You give everything to something and it’s taken away from you, without you being able to show what you can do.
After that, all I could think about was, Do I still have a chance of making the squad? Once Sarina told me yes, I knew all I could do was to trust in the plan and keep hitting my rehab targets to stay in contention.
Get out of the boot. Get walking properly. Get on the grass. Get sprinting.
That’s all I could control.
Training on grass was a big milestone – it was probably a little bit too early in terms of what the specialists wanted, but we had to push it because there wasn’t much time left.
I had so many different emotions. I was so happy to be out there again actually moving and kicking a football, but I was so nervous in case something went wrong and then that was everything all over.
You just want to feel perfect straight away and it's never going to be like that.
But having Matt Radcliffe and Damien Roden controlling the rehab and giving me realistic milestones helped me manage the expectations.
I normally train at like 100 miles an hour, and they had to tell me, “Let’s just take it easy today, Steph!”
The week Sarina announced the squad, in June, we’d trained at St George’s Park on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday morning. We were going to find out on Wednesday afternoon if we’d made the final 23.
I could see Sarina and Arjan Veurink in this big room. I was grabbing a coffee when I got a text. It just said, “Can you come up to the room?”
I remember thinking, “This isn’t good….”
I already had a feeling, but then Sarina told me I wasn’t going.
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.
Getting out of St George’s Park, it’s impossible not to bump into people everywhere — teammates, staff, the media. In that moment, you just want to be invisible and not have to interact with anybody.
I’m not gonna lie: The next period was really tough.
There are people I'll never be able to thank enough: Stephen — who sacrificed so much — my family, my friends, my agent, my fitness team. Those people mean the world to me. I just felt like I'd let them down.
For them, sitting there watching me go through everything — seeing it unfold — they know how hard it is for you.
After that it was like, O.K., the motivation is them now. If I can make them proud, I will. No matter how much longer I play, whether I play for England or City, that’s what I’ll be doing it for.
Of course I watched the final — I couldn’t miss it. But to be totally honest, throughout the Euros, I found it difficult to watch the games.
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. 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.
But watching the final I realised it hadn’t changed how I felt about any of the girls or how I feel about England. It’s so amazing for them and for the women’s game.
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 preseason 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.
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.
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.
That said, I know I’ve got to be realistic, and there will be conversations with Sarina over the next few months.
We’ll see what happens next, but right now, I’m just determined to enjoy every moment.
PHOTOS BY CLARA MOKRI/The Players' Tribune
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