HAVE you heard the one about the Manchester City captain who’s supporting Sunderland in this weekend’s Capital One Cup final?
Well, you should have. Because as Sunday’s game approaches, they’re not exactly shy about expressing their red-and-white affinity.
“People have been asking me, ‘Do you have split loyalties?’,” said Steph Houghton, born and raised in South Hetton but now a key member of the newly-assembled Manchester City Women’s side that is expected to take this season’s rebranded Super League by storm. “I tell them there’ll be nothing split about my loyalties on Sunday afternoon.
“We’re part of the same club as the Manchester City men and we train alongside some of the junior players down at the academy, but that all goes out of the window once Sunday’s final begins. I haven’t supported Sunderland all my life to give up now we have the first real chance of actually winning something!”
NEW CLUB: Steph Houghton speaks to the media on her first day as a Manchester City player recently
Houghton’s loyalty is matched by that of her team-mate, Jill Scott, another Sunderland Ladies product who has been attracted to the bright lights of the blue side of Manchester.
Together, the pair have launched a staunch defence of the Black Cats ever since the identity of the two Capital One Cup finalists became clear.
“There’s been quite a lot of ribbing around the club,” said Houghton. “At the City end, everyone’s really excited. I wouldn’t say they’re taking it for granted, but there’s a pretty strong belief that they’re going to win.
“Me and Jill have been defending Sunderland against that. We’ve been trying to talk up our chances, although it hasn’t always been easy.
“A few of us have been lucky enough to get tickets for a few of the Man City games recently, and there have been times when I’ve been sat there thinking, ‘Oh my God, how are we going to stop that?’ You watch Yaya Toure rampaging through the middle and think, ‘What are we going to do against him?’
“But it’s a one-off game and you just never know what’s going to happen. As a Sunderland supporter, you just hope a few strange things happen and you come out on top.”
Houghton’s biggest disappointment is that she won’t be at Wembley in person on Sunday because she flies to Cyprus with the England squad tomorrow ahead of the prestigious Cyprus Cup tournament.
The exact timing of the weekend training sessions is still to be confirmed, but Houghton will be doing all she can to ensure she has a front-row seat when Sunday’s action gets under way at 2pm.
“We’ve been badgering the coaching staff to try to make sure we can see the game,” she said. “They haven’t given us a definitive answer yet, but hopefully we’ll train in the morning and be free in the afternoon.
“It’s a shame I can’t be there, although that hasn’t stopped my phone ringing with people wanting tickets. I thought it might go a bit crazy, but I didn’t really expect anything like this.
“Thankfully, I’ve been able to sort things out for most of my family, but I think I probably need to leave the country just to get a bit of peace from all the calls and texts.”
The Cyprus Cup, which is the highest-profile women’s international tournament behind the World Cup and European Championships, pits England against Italy, Finland and Canada, and offers Houghton an opportunity to reprise the proudest moment of her career, which came last month.
Having started out in the Northern Division with Sunderland in 2002, the 25-year-old achieved the highest accolade in the women’s game when she was awarded the England captain’s armband for the recent friendly with Norway.
New England boss Mark Sampson is yet to decide on his permanent skipper, but given her vast experience and standing in the game, Houghton would appear a logical choice.
That would be quite an achievement for the personable full-back, who did much to raise the status and profile of women’s football in this country thanks to her goalscoring heroics for Team GB in the 2012 Olympics.
“It was a massive honour to be captain, and something I’ll never forget,” she said. “It’s a bit of a new era, with a new-look team, but we’re all really excited about what the future might hold.
“The new manager wants us to be positive with the ball and play a high-pressure game, and that’s something we’re all really keen to buy in to. We played Canada in the final of last year’s Cyprus Cup, and beat them 1-0, so this year’s competition will tell us a lot about where we are.”
Once the tournament is over, thoughts will turn to the new-look Super League, which will feature Manchester City in the top-flight, and both Sunderland Ladies and Durham Women in the second division, for the first time.
Like the men’s side, Manchester City have plundered some of the best talent in the country to assemble a team that should sweep all before them. A nice position to be in then, but also one that brings its pressures.
“We’ve got a really exciting side,” said Houghton, who skippered City in the first half of their opening pre-season friendly this month. “We’ve got Karen Bardsley, who’s England’s number one keeper, Jill Scott, who’s probably the best box-to-box midfielder in the country, and Toni Duggan, who’s the brightest young player in the game.
“But some of the other teams have really strengthened too, so we won’t be taking anything for granted. We want to win trophies, and I’m sure the men’s team would say exactly the same. I’ll be cheering them on in every competition they play in this season – except one. This Sunday, I’m Sunderland through and through.”