England Women captain Steph Houghton reveals all about the 2015 World Cup in the latest episode of ‘The One That Got Away’ podcast series, including her favourite ever game, the semi-final heartbreak against Japan and beating Germany…
“I look back at that tournament and I just think it was unbelievable, one of the best I’ve been involved with in terms of getting to visit all the different places and have your family follow you around. The fans absolutely loved it but I always say whenever you’re in a tournament, you just tend to be in your own little bubble and you don’t really understand what’s going on back home and especially with the time difference as well, it was quite hard to have that connection.
“The games were on late over here [in England] and we knew there was a lot of excitement back at home but we didn’t realise until we got back that it changed women’s football for the better.
“There wasn’t that much expectation on us to go and do amazingly well. I think people would have been happy with us getting out of the group. We knew we could do something special and I think that’s where the confidence grew but we went over there quite quietly and there wasn’t as much hysteria compared to the last World Cup.”
‘Canada quarter-final my favourite game’
England faced 2015 World Cup hosts Canada in their quarter-final, which they won 2-1…
“Everybody asks what my favourite ever game was and I think that is still up there. For one, we were playing the host nation, there was 50,000 Canadians there who want you to fail and get beaten. There was so much build-up prior to the game and it was another chance to create more history. I think we all focused on that, trying to create memories not just for us, but our families and the fans as well and leaving a little bit of legacy.
“I believed in my team and I think the atmosphere kind of spurred us on even more, being the underdogs. To get that first goal and to hear how silent the stadium was is probably one of my favourite ever moments.”
‘To be in a semi-final for England was an amazing achievement’
“It’s mad when you speak about it because I can remember us saying ‘we’ve got two more games’ and I think that’s how we started to see it in our heads. There were three games in the group then two more to semi-finals and then two to a final essentially.
“We always had a day off after the game for recovery and to do what you want, get out of the hotel, go and see wherever we are and then the next day, it was travel and preparation and then it was game day. We were going to Edmonton and we were going to win. I can remember everyone absolutely buzzing and getting the chance to be in a semi-final for England was an amazing achievement.
“I just tried to be natural [as the team captain], I think it’s important to stick to how you are and for me, it’s important that I was able to prepare properly because the only way I can lead my team is if I’m prepared and playing well. It was about making sure we were honest in meetings and if I needed something or if someone needed something from me, it was about getting it out there. It’s important to be relaxed as well, once it gets to the warm-up, that’s when you zone in and think ‘I need to get the girls going here’ and that’s when it naturally takes over.
“In every pre-match meeting, I’d have to say something, which probably takes me out of my comfort zone, but it built a relationship with the girls and the rest of the staff about how much it means to play for your country. We love a huddle at England so it’s important that I can get my message across but also let other people speak and it’s important that you have different voices.
“But this meant a lot to everybody and I could see how excited the girls were and how much it would mean if we could get to a final given how far we had come. We’d been on an unbelievable journey so far and we didn’t want it to stop.
“[Houghton’s pre-Japan talk] was more along the lines of trying to remind everybody of what our jobs are as a team, sticking together and just going out there and believing we could win. We had the talent in that squad to go and do something special and if I look back at all the games we played in the World Cup, I think the Japan game was the one we played the best in. We gave them respect but at the same time, we had physical players and a lot of players who can go and win football games.”
‘You’re thinking about extra time and then all of a sudden, it’s in the back of the net’
“When that first ball is kicked, you’re just in the zone then. You’re dying to get on the ball and the way I am, I just want to get my first pass right and you either want to win your first header or your first tackle and then you kind of settle a little bit. As soon as you see someone go in for a tackle or it’s Jill (Scott) winning a header or something, it’s kind of like ‘OK we’re in a game here’ and you zone into the fact you’re standing there next to your team-mates and you’re wanting to win.”
In the 32nd minute, Claire Rafferty gave away a penalty after a foul that was deemed to be inside the area, although replays showed it actually happened outside…
“It just wasn’t in the box! We were screaming at the referee going ‘how is that in the box, how can you not see that?’ and you can get so frustrated and you get mad because it is so obvious. You can see Raffs getting so angry, we’ve played so well for 30 minutes and they’ve just got a penalty that should never have been one. It’s hard to switch that mindset because it means so much to you, you get emotionally involved and you think ‘how has that even happened?’.
“But as soon as the penalty went in, it was like ‘we’ve got to get back onto it now and try and get a goal back as quick as we possibly can’.”
Not long after, England then win a penalty themselves with Houghton going down inside the area…
“I don’t even know why I was in the box there but I know she’s caught us because my boot comes off. People are like ‘she’s dived’ and even my Dad says now it’s the worst dive he’s ever seen in his life but I’m like ‘Dad, she caught me!’.
“It won us a penalty and I think if it was soft, the other one was softer so I’m like ‘right OK, let’s just go back to being a draw’ and fortunately, Fara (Williams) puts it away. I’d never won a penalty in my life so I’ll take that.”
At half-time, the game is drawn at 1-1 after two first-half penalties…
“I think the message was to try and keep doing what we were doing. As a team, it was important that we kept on trying to get the press right, kept on being physical and kept on being direct and it caused them a lot of problems so it was quite a relaxed training room at half-time.
“We had to start right in the second half and we had to give more of what we had to Japan and be more of an attacking force over the next 45 minutes.”
In the second half, England have plenty of chances but are unable to convert them…
“I felt like we were going to get one, it wasn’t one of those where we weren’t creating anything. It’s better that we were hitting posts and getting chances from Jill’s headers, Toni’s (Duggan) strike as well and Ellen (White) came on and played well.
“When you stand at the back, you’re a little bit of a fan as well, like ‘come on girls, let’s get this in’ sort of thing, but we just needed one and that little bit of luck for it to go in.
“It was starting to get so hot and the legs were starting to get a little bit tired, the tempo of the game had been ridiculous so you’re peering up [at the clock] and thinking ‘when can I get a drink, when can I get a little bit of a breather’ and then it’s like ‘we’ve got ten minutes to go, let’s get this job done’.
“You kind of play a game of chess – they don’t really want to attack, we’re trying to attack but it’s not really coming off as much as we want it to. But still at 86 minutes, I’m thinking this England team can score whenever we want to and that was apparent with the chances we were creating.”
Then, in the harshest of blows, Japan score in the 92nd minute, which is given as an own goal by Laura Bassett after the ball goes in off of her toe…
“I remember them getting a break but I still don’t remember how it happened. We were maybe a third up the pitch, they break and then the next minute, I’m like ‘how has that just gone in? Where has that come from?’. I was thinking we need to drop, get behind the ball, try and get in line with Bass (Laura Bassett), try and protect KB (goalkeeper Karen Bardsley) as much as we possibly can, look for runners and in that moment, you’re thinking ‘how has that happened?’ – it’s just madness. I think in that moment, you don’t actually know, you’re so delirious. It’s the 92nd minute, you’re thinking about extra time and then all of a sudden, it’s in the back of the net.
“My first reaction was to get the ball back. I actually believed that we had a great chance if we got the ball back to go and get something and it’s not until after the game that it really sinks in, I think. It’s still a bit of blur, you’re devastated and you’re trying to pick people up around you as well, including myself. You’ve worked so hard, you’re tired and you’re wanting to make sure everybody is focused but it’s only natural to be disappointed, especially at that late stage in a game.
“Bass is probably one of the most underrated players in women’s football and I think what she brings to a squad on and off the pitch, this was her chance to shine at a World Cup. She was tremendous and playing alongside her, we built such a good relationship, we complimented each other really well and when the backs are against the wall, you always know Laura Bassett is going to wear her heart on her sleeve and put her body on the line for England – that was apparent throughout the whole World Cup.
“When the final whistle goes, my first reaction is to go over to her. Bass is so strong mentally and to see her upset, it breaks your heart because I know how unbelievable she was that tournament, and if we played again, it would probably never happen. It’s a one per cent chance that the ball goes in the back of the net.
“We played so well that game, that was something where we could have been sitting in a World Cup final, playing against the USA and we would have given them a great game as well. We should have had that game buried by 75 minutes but in World Cup football, it doesn’t happen as easy as that.
“In that moment, you’re absolutely devastated but you knew the focus was going to be on Bass, no matter how well she played in the game or in the five or six games before that. As a captain and also as a friend, it was important that we were there for her and showed her love. We went there to win a medal and it might not have been the one that we wanted but we were going to win a medal for her and she was going to be a part of this team that makes history.”
‘Beating Germany would have been the best end we could have hoped for’
“Everybody had that motivation [to win a medal for Bassett] but for ourselves as well. We’d worked so hard to get ourselves into this position that nobody ever expected us to be able to come back from a World Cup with a medal. To be able to go and beat our arch-rivals to a bronze medal would have been the best end in the best scenario we could have been in.
“Some things are meant to be and the feeling I had against Japan in the semi-final, I knew we had an unbelievable chance but then once that chance had gone and you get to that point, you’re like ‘we can’t let this chance go, we really can’t’ – it was a do-or-die kind of thing.
“You just had this feeling with the girls that with this motivation of trying to come away from a World Cup with a medal, that was enough of a bonus for us to be able to go and perform.”
England go on to win the game 1-0 and take home the bronze medal, which remains the best finish from a senior England team at any major international tournament since 1966…
“Everybody was buzzing and couldn’t believe that firstly, we’d beaten Germany in the way that we did, going to extra time and winning a penalty. We defended really well and we changed the system again, so we learnt a system within a day.
“To then be able to come away with a bronze medal and have so many friends and family there and know how hurt we were two years before [at the 2013 Euros when England finished bottom of their group with just a point], to see everybody with smiles on their faces was a special moment in an England shirt.”