No Room For Sentiment: Why It’s Time For England to Look Forward

The past is a long time ago, & in another country”

LP HARTLEY: “The Go-Between”.

Squad announcements ahead of international football tournaments always tend to generate discussion. It’s one of the most fun bits of being a football fan – comparing notes, arguing about stats and form, players & media experts advocating passionately for Player X or Player Y…and of course the pomp of the squad announcement. It’s essentially all sound and fury but it makes people feel a part of things.

This Lionesses squad announcement and the runup to it has mostly been dominated by the discussion of one player ahead of the Euros – and it is a name, as they say, to conjure with. 

Steph Houghton is, without question, a Lioness legend. A club career spanning twenty years from starting in her native North East with Sunderland, to seemingly every big club in the women’s game. 121 England caps. One of the first female players to receive a central England contract. A mainstay of every England team she’s played in previously & a key figure in the rise of the Lionesses & the women’s game.

But in 2022, she is also a 34-year-old defender who is coming off a year out with one of the worst injuries a footballer can have, suffered far nearer the end of her career than the beginning. A player who has only played 360 minutes of football since May 2021.

A player who currently rates like this in WSL defenders:

Worse than 98% in tackles/pressures per game

Worse than 52% in interceptions per game

Worse than 44% in clearances per game

Worse than 46% in aerial duels won.

(stats via fbref.com)

This, by any standards, is not a player the football media would normally be touting as an international player even when fully-fit, never mind coming off a year out through injury.

But ahead of Sarina Wiegman announcing the full England squad tomorrow the Steph Houghton PR machine is in full-force. We have Fara Williams in the Telegraph saying she’d take Steph Houghton even with concerns about fitness. Suzy Wrack in the Guardian arguing a half-fit Steph Houghton is worth more to an England squad than many other fully fit players taking her place.

And these are just the public arguments. It’s part of a long-running trend for England where players outside the current clique seem to find it harder to break in not necessarily because of active exclusion but because even considering dropping one of the established Lionesses seems to some in women’s football in England, particularly the media, to be a revolutionary act. The rumblings of a ‘Lioness Mafia” have been going for a while as players have been picked despite underperforming for their clubs ahead of perhaps more deserving candidates, but never has it been more blatant than now. And it needs to stop.

The stark truth is that in their continuing support of and advocation for Steph Houghton to be in this England squad, England’s Lionesses past and the media outlets they work for now aren’t half doing their best to ruin Lionesses’ present this summer cause they can’t let go of their own teams. Even worse, the refusal to accept that this England team are currently in transition between the stalwarts up until now & the first fruits of women’s football’s pro era breaking through (players like Alessia Russo, Ella Toone, & Lauren Hemp to name but three) and the roadblocks being thrown down to their progression will only get worse.

Of course, those advocating for Houghton & to a lesser degree Ellen White & Jill Scott have a point when they talk about how their experience will help the younger Lionesses in a home Euros and let it be clear, I’m not advocating that these players no longer have a place in the Lionesses setup this summer & beyond, because they do.

But the brutal fact is that any other 34 year old coming off a year out with the stats of Steph Houghton being mentioned as an England squad member would raise an outcry. No other player in her position would have a single advocate for a position even from her friends & former team-mates, (ironically most of the people supporting Houghton might be said to have that personal stake in her, too).

There is no place for sentiment in international football at the best of times, but the blatant pulling on heartstrings & thinly-disguised personal biases involved in the media push for Houghton to get a squad place this time round are an example of this at its most destructive.

Steph Houghton, at this point in time, should not be in the Lionesses squad as an active player for the Euros, & any argument otherwise is at best clouded by media bias & sentiment & at worse is actively regressive.

Other major footballing nations, like the current World Champions the USA, are such because in part their squad selections are ruthless-we’ve seen that this week with both Tobin Heath & Christen Press dropped because they can’t perform at the level required & a new generation are coming through.

There is no room for sentimental last dances any more in the Lionesses squad. To win the Euros, Sarina Wiegman needs to pick the best players available right now. Steph Houghton isn’t.

Ruthlessness wins championships. And while cutting Steph from the playing squad in a home Euros might be ruthless, it’s also the only right call in 2022.