ENGLAND Women take on Sweden at Hartlepool’s Victoria Park this Sunday in a warm-up game ahead of their final 2015 World Cup qualifiers. Sports writer Steph Clark spoke to South Hetton’s Steph Houghton about life under new boss Mark Sampson
ENGLAND captain Steph Houghton believes the future is bright under Mark Sampson after admitting it was time for a change at the top.
Head coach Hope Powell was sacked following the Three Lionesses’ disastrous European Championships campaign last summer, after 15 years in charge, and replaced by Sampson in the early stages of their 2015 World Cup qualifying campaign in December.
Since then, the Welshman has guided England to seven wins in his first nine games, including four out of four in the World Cup qualifying group.
Houghton's team-mates need just one point from their remaining two games to secure a place at next summer’s tournament in Canada and they warm up for the first of those games against Wales with a friendly against Sweden at Hartlepool United’s Victoria Park on Sunday.
Houghton, likely to lead England out at Victoria Park despite suffering a head injury in Manchester City’s defeat to Chelsea last weekend, was handed her senior international debut by Powell, but the 26-year-old admits Sampson’s fresh approach has galvanised the squad after their woeful summer 12 months ago.
“Mark has come in and I think all the girls were really excited by the change of manager,” the former Sunderland player revealed. “That’s nothing negative against Hope, I just think it was time for a change and everyone’s been really positive.
“Mark’s envisages a certain way of playing and his man management style is a lot different to what’s Hope’s was, but overall I think it’s exciting times for England, and we’re obviously learning every trip that we go on and how he does want us to play and be as individuals.
“I think if you spoke to every single player in the squad they would have good things to say about him and the way he wants us to play.”
England could seal their World Cup place against Sampson’s homeland on August 21 after an impressive campaign that has yielded 38 goals for and just one against in eight games.
Sunday’s friendly offers England a step-up in opposition in Pia Sundhage side and Houghton revealed the six-strong contingent from the North-East have been badgering the Football Association to bring the international team to the region.
She said: “Me and a few of the other girls have been pushing to get a fixture in the North-East for a long time and having it at Hartlepool is exciting for me personally, but also the rest of the girls.
“The most important thing is that we’ve got a really good fixture against Sweden, who are one of the best in the world, and it’s something that we need going into the next qualifier against Wales, and also for the World Cup - fingers crossed we qualify for next year in Canada.
“The fact it’s in the North-East just makes it better for my friends and family to get there!
“It was one of our aims to finish the campaign unbeaten and we’re still on course to do that. Obviously qualifying was first on the list, but the run we’ve been on and the fact we’ve only conceded one goal shows how well we have been playing.
“We’ve just got to make sure we continue that run and take it into the next 12 months. We had a tough game against Ukraine (England won 2-1), but we managed to get the points and that was the most important thing.”
After three years at Arsenal, Houghton signed for Manchester City during the close season along with fellow England internationals Jill Scott, Toni Duggan and Karen Bardsley.
Many expected the big-spending club to run away with the WSL 1 title given the arrival of several internationals, but Nick Cushing’s side struggled to find their feet early on and sit mid-table as a result, although they are through to the semi-finals of the Continental Cup.
“It has taken us time as a team to get to know each other and the way that the club wants to play and I think people are starting to see that philosophy of keeping the ball on the floor and moving it around from the back,” Houghton said. “It’s something we’re trying to embed in the team and I think you can see that in our last few games.
“The club bought quality players in but it’s about the whole squad. I look at our players now compared to in January and how much they have improved. Training every day has improved us and the manager and coaches have done a fantastic job. It’s about the team, it’s not about names coming to the club.
“If you look at our first four games, we got our first win against Everton in the Continental Cup and I think it just breeds confidence around the team. It’s important that the team gets used to winning and there’s no better way to do that by going out every week and getting three points.”
Houghton was back in the North-East two weeks ago when newly-formed Durham hosted Man City in the Continental Cup and, just like her side have done, the defender believes the Wildcats will grow into the league.
She said: “It’s brilliant to have both teams involved in the WSL and being from the North-East I know how much it loves its football.
“I grew up in Sunderland and my career started there and they deserve to be in top football as well as Durham. I’ve heard great things about the club. They’ve got a structure and a plan to keep them in WSL 2 and it’s great for women’s football.
“Durham have got to try and trust in the youth set-up and the players they’ve got and work as hard as they can. It does take time to build such a big project and it’s pretty much the same as us. You’re not going to get instant success in your first season. It’s all about the long term.”
Tickets for the match are on sale now priced £5 for adults and £2.50 for children. A family ticket (two adults and two children) is available at £10 and group booking discounts apply.
Tickets can be purchased by calling 01429 272 584 (option 2), via http://ticketing.thefa.com/ or at the Hartlepool United ticket office.