The Arsenal Foundation Collection is a regular feature in the Official Matchday Programme. In our latest article, Arsenal Ladies star Steph Houghton talks about her sporting childhood.
I probably got into football from watching the men’s game. Dad played semi-pro and my mum still remembers, when I was very young, having to take me to his games in the pram. She’d be stood there, freezing on the touchline.
I watched football on TV at home, of course, but that would never have been women’s football. And then, when I was a little bit older, Dad used to take me to watch Sunderland at the Stadium of Light: we were able to get tickets from one of the coaches in the Community Department.
Four of us went together: me and dad, and my mate and her dad. It wasn’t really until I was a teenager and playing for Sunderland, against semi-pro players and internationals, that I started to think about where football could take me.
South Hetton is about 15 minutes from Durham city centre, up in the North East. It’s a pit village. For years and years it was all about the mine. My Granddad and lots of my uncles had worked down the pit but it closed just around the time I was born, after the Miners’ Strike in the mid-1980s. We were proud of being a pit village, though, and it was part of the tradition of the place while I was growing up. Still is, I think.
It was a very close-knit village and losing the pit maybe brought everybody even closer together. It was hard with so many people having to look for new jobs. That’s what I remember from my childhood there, anyway.
My Dad hadn’t gone into the mines. He was an apprentice electrician when I was born and he’s done well. He still works for Northern Electric now. Mum was at college but she stopped when I was born and stayed at home to bring up me and my younger brother, Stuart. She’s gone back to work now as a civil servant at the Pension Centre.
They bought our first little house when they got married and that’s where I grew up. It was in one of four parallel streets of terraced houses and everybody knew each other: friendly, and everyone knowing all the gossip. At the back of the house there was a tiny little yard with a shed full of sports gear. That yard was where playing football started for me.
Dad was a bit of a perfectionist. Whatever we did – football, cricket, board games, whatever it was – he’d want to make sure we did our best. So my first memories of playing football are out in the yard with Dad and him teaching me how to kick the ball properly when I was four or five years old.
He worked long hours but when he was at home he wanted to spend as much time as he could with his children. Sunny evenings and at weekends would mean us being out in the yard for ages, kicking a ball. There was a pole for the washing line and we’d see how often we could hit the pole with the ball. Or it would be a goalpost and you’d have to score between the washing pole and the wall: headers and volleys, score in 60 seconds or you had to go in goal.
The family next door were good friends of ours and their son, Karl, who was two years older than me, used to come round and join in. My brother, Stuart, was four years younger than me and he’d play too, but by then I was old enough that I’d moved on from the yard.
First, we’d play out in the street and then, later, we moved on to the field next to the ‘Welfare’, the miners’ social club. Stuart played a lot of tag rugby at school and now he plays Rugby League. I always played football at primary school, though. There was a little five-a-side court up in the top yard there and we’d rush out every break-time to pick up teams. You had to get there first because the rule was that the winners stayed on so, if your team was on first, you could be playing all the way through break.
South Hetton was a football-mad village and a fantastic place to grow up. Especially if you liked playing and going to watch Sunderland at the Stadium of Light! It still feels like home to me. In many ways, I think you don’t realise how special the place you grew up is until you leave it.
I’ve come south to follow my career in football and that’s been a great opportunity but I still go back now every chance I get, when there’s a break from games with Arsenal and England. It’s where so many of my friends are and the lovely thing is that no-one seems to change: it’s the place I can go to keep my feet on the ground.
Steph Houghton grew up in the North East and began her playing career with Sunderland. She joined Arsenal in 2010 and also represents England Ladies and was selected for Team GB at the 2012 Olympics.