THIS is going to be a special day for Steph Houghton. She is back in her native North-East, wearing the captain’s armband as England play the first senior women’s international to be staged in the region. Lining up against Brazil, she will perform in front of a sell-out crowd, highlighting the giant strides women’s football has made since she made her international debut more than a decade ago. Most importantly of all, though, she will be spearheading a campaign that means more to her than her sport.

Last September, Houghton’s husband, Stephen Darby, was diagnosed with Motor Neurone disease (MND), a terminal condition that currently has no cure. A former footballer himself with Liverpool, Bradford City and Bolton Wanderers, Darby set up the Darby Rimmer MND Foundation to fund research and support other families affected by the condition. Today’s game will help raise funds for the foundation, with Houghton spearheading attempts to shine a spotlight on a debilitating disease that affects up to 5,000 adults in the UK at any one time.

“As soon as Stephen was diagnosed, his thought process was immediately about how he could help others,” said Houghton, who was born in Sunderland and raised in South Hetton. “That’s why the Darby Rimmer MND Foundation was set up.

“The aims of the foundation were to first and foremost raise awareness, and we’ve been given a great opportunity with the help of the FA to raise awareness at the stadium at this game. There’ll be live text donations, and more awareness in terms of what the foundation does.

“The ultimate aim of the foundation is to support others with MND, those that are probably less fortunate than we are, and also to give money towards research. MND is probably known as a condition that’s quite rare, but actually it’s a lot more common than most of us think. It affects a lot of people. The aims are to help those people, and hopefully ultimately to help find a cure and some more treatment for the disease.”

Houghton’s openness in discussing the issue is inspiring in itself, and rather than hide away, both she and her husband want to use their profile to remove some of the mystery and uncomfortableness surrounding MND.

As a professional footballer, Houghton has had to deal with plenty of difficult moments in her career, not least when her penalty miss contributed to England exiting this summer’s World Cup in France. Rather than viewing her family situation as a negative though, she wants to remain as positive as possible in an attempt to help others.

“It’s been very tough on a personal level, but I think with the foundation, it gives us something else to focus on,” she said. “I’m also trying to focus on my football. I love being here with the Lionesses and my husband has always been really supportive of that, and now I’m supporting his foundation as much as I can, and we’ll be trying to support as many people as we can over the next few years.”

Once the whistle blows this afternoon though, focus will shift to football, and more particularly, to the completion of a journey that first began when a nine-year-old Houghton joined the youth ranks of Sunderland Ladies, training with girls who were as old as 16.

Back then, it seemed inconceivable that not only would she go on to captain her country at one of the North-East’s biggest grounds, but also that she would do so as a full-time professional who had won multiple honours with Manchester City.

“When the likes of me and Jill Scott started at Sunderland, we were 13 or 14 years old, and we were having to pay to play,” said Houghton. “You were paying £250 of subs to go and play for Sunderland and having to get hand-me-down kits from the men’s side. I remember both of us having to play in kits that were extra-large men’s.

“I’ve seen every side of the last ten or 15 years, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I think it’s really made us into the players we are today. We’re in a very privileged position now where I can say I’m a professional footballer. It’s my job, I turn up to Manchester City’s academy every single day, train, get my breakfast, get my lunch, train in unbelievable facilities, and then come away with England.

“We’re very lucky, but at the same time, I never forget what we’ve been through in terms of how we’ve got to this position. The future is really bright for these young girls coming through now at 16 or 17, they’ve got everything at their feet to be able to be the best that they can be.”