“To be honest, even though I’m in the women’s game, I don’t really watch a lot of women’s football.”
The England captain Steph Houghton’s reply on The Greatest Game podcast to Jamie Carragher’s somewhat loaded question was not ideal. However the vitriol aimed at the defender on social media feels massively exaggerated.
Defining “a lot” is extremely problematic for starters. It is incredibly difficult to believe Houghton does not watch a huge amount of women’s football. Manchester City and their manager, Nick Cushing, are known for a thorough tactical analysis of opponents. Walk through their training ground and you will often see a player sitting with a coach talking through tape. Houghton studies footage.
She continued: “If it’s on the telly, I mean … I won’t break my neck to go and watch it, whereas, if there’s a good game on in men’s football, our whole nights revolve around watching that.”
One person online said the impact of Houghton’s comments could be seen in this reply to a TalkSport article on Liverpool’s draw with Chelsea: “The women’s England captain doesn’t even watch women’s football.” Except many people do not need an excuse to mock the women’s game. It is extremely likely that regardless of Houghton’s slip, they would comment.
Watching women’s football is extremely difficult and, to a certain extent, you do have to break your neck to watch it. The introduction of the FA Player, which streams every game not picked up by broadcasters, is a game-changer but the overwhelming majority of matches are played at the same time on Sundays – when Houghton is on the field.
Uefa is centralising broadcasting rights of the early women’s Champions League rounds from 2021 because, at present, until the semi-finals, streams and rights are left to clubs, which results in patchy and inaccessible coverage.
By contrast, Friday night football, weekend football, Monday night football, men’s Champions League and Europa League football mean you can switch on your TV and watch a top-level men’s game with ease.
Rarely is there a choice between watching a men’s or women’s game, which makes the question slightly unfair.
And when there is a clash, who can begrudge a player wanting to watch a match that will dominate the national conversation in the way a big Premier League or men’s Champions League game will do?
Houghton is 31. The FA WSL has existed only since 2011. The opportunity to watch any women’s football on TV or online is very much a new phenomenon.
For the overwhelming majority of Houghton’s career, and life, women’s football has been amateur and lacked visibility. Watching men’s football is what inspired the careers of the majority of female players, particularly those of Houghton’s generation.
That generation has sacrificed a lot just for the right to play football. To question Houghton’s commitment to growing the game, as some on social media have, is in poor taste.
Plenty of male footballers don’t watch football at all. Carlos Tevez and Gareth Bale have said they would rather watch golf. Ronaldinho famously said: “I don’t like to watch football, I like to play it.” Neymar said he would not watch Barcelona’s rivals when he was playing in Spain.
Female footballers have a rawer deal than their male counterparts. Because the game is still fledging, they take on the responsibility of growing it and we expect them to do so. Perhaps we should give them a little more leeway, accept they are human beings and, as in the case of Houghton, that they will sometimes let the agenda dip, meaning that a touch of honest insight that may not be totally helpful to the cause will slip out.
“I love watching any form of football but if it comes to Premier League, Champions League, I actually just love watching the pace of the game, the intensity, watching the formations, watching the best teams play,” said Houghton.
It reads badly, as if belittling the pace and intensity of the women’s game, but it can also be read more simply. Not everyone wants to take their work home with them. Men’s football is different. There is no subconscious analysis of a team that Houghton might face, which could be the case should she watch women’s football recreationally. Instead, she can enjoy the things she loves about football unhindered.
With her husband, Stephen Darby, a former Bolton, Bradford and Liverpool defender, having announced his retirement in September 2018 after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease, three months after they married, Houghton has played on. She led England at the World Cup in France after helping Manchester City to a domestic cup double while her husband battles an illness with devastatingly short life expectancy.
Sometimes it is important to look at the context of what a player has delivered and is delivering, both on the pitch but more widely to the development of the game, when they speak a little out of turn.
Perhaps sometimes we should just give them a bit of a break.
The Guardian Sport