[dropcap]M[/dropcap]anchester City captain Steph Houghton says she believes the club is as ready as ever to launch an assault on all four trophies available this season. Houghton and her teammates kick off their new FA Women’s Super League campaign on Saturday away at newly-promoted Aston Villa, which will mark Gareth Taylor‘s first league game in charge and the first league game City has played since February.
The club fell just short of being named FA WSL champions despite being top of the league table when the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to the season, with Chelsea’s game in hand putting them above City under the points-per-game ruling.
It’s not the first time Man City has fallen short in recent years but still managed to secure second and Champions League football, and Houghton believes some exciting new additions mean the squad is more prepared than ever to try and secure what would be just their second league title.
“For me, I think, if I look at our last few seasons, I really think that we’ve been consistent,” said the England captain. “I think a lot of people automatically write us off at the beginning of the season and for us, it’s all about what we can do as a club and players and I think, predominantly in those big games, against the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, and Man United, it’s about who comes out on top and, last year, I think we had a week where I think we got beat Arsenal away and we got beat at Man United in the [Continental] cup and it really halted us because we had such a small squad.
“But now I’m really looking forward to this season, I think we’re building a squad that’s going to be able to challenge for every trophy and for us, hopefully, our quality shines through.”
City’s New Signings
City has added United States World Cup winners Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle to their midfield in two of the most eye-catching deals of the summer so far, while young England forward Chloe Kelly has also signed, with fellow Lionesses Lucy Bronze and Alex Greenwood expected to follow.
All in all, it leaves the Man City squad looking as strong as it has in a number of years after an outflux of key players such as Toni Duggan, Nikita Parris, and Bronze herself, plus new contracts for several key members of the squad.
While all the attention has been on Mewis and Lavelle, Houghton also had praise for the way Kelly has settled into life at the club after arriving from Everton, fresh off the back of an impressive performance in City’s Community Shield defeat last weekend.
“She’s settled in really well, she’s a really good girl,” said the defender. “I think obviously she got involved in the last few England camps and she performed really well, made her debut, and like I said, she’s a young player that’s got everything that she wants in her future available at Man City.
“She works hard, she loves to improve, she’s obviously quick, you know all her attributes on and off the pitch, and I’m delighted to have her with us, she’s a great addition to our team. She’s enthusiastic and I really think this could be a really big season in terms of her producing assists and goals for our team, which give us a little bit more of a threat up front as well.”
If Taylor, Houghton, and Co. are going to challenge Chelsea’s supremacy this season, they will likely look toward England forward Ellen White to bear the brunt of the goal-scoring responsibility.
White had an injury-hit start to life at the club coming off the back of an impressive 2019 World Cup where she starred for the Lionesses, and it didn’t take her long to find her shooting boots once back fit for her new club.
With the striker set to lead the line on Saturday, especially with Lauren Hemp now out injured with a hamstring injury picked up at Wembley, Houghton described long-term friend and teammate White as a “vital” player for the team.
“For Ellen, in terms of her start to being a Man City player, it wasn’t ideal because she got injured in preseason [a year ago] and she came off the back of a World Cup where she was our best player and she scored all the goals and she was a bit of a superstar. I think, if she looked back, she probably would assess herself on goals and assists in our team but, playing with her and knowing what she does on and off the pitch, she’s a player that gives 100 percent whether that’s in the warm-up, in possession, in the gym, doing everything properly, professionally.
“I know how hard she works and all the girls know how hard she works, and, I think, even though a lot of people look at stats, and obviously what happens on the pitch, you can’t fault her work rate, her effort and intensity, that when you play with her and she’s your teammate, you really, really appreciate. So, for us, she’s a vital player, a very important player with her experience, and has a knack of being able to get important goals at important times. I know that you’ll see the best of Ellen White this season. When you’re a good player, and you work as hard as she does, you get all the good things that come with it, and hopefully that’s her scoring a lot of goals for Man City.”
Georgia Stanway missed what turned out to be an important penalty in what became City’s last game of the 2019–2020 season in a thrilling 3–3 draw with rivals Chelsea.
The back-and-forth match saw both teams lead at various stages and essentially decided the destiny of the league title given no more games were played and Chelsea took the title by less than half a point once all the averages were worked out.
In the end, it was actually just 0.1 points which separated the two, and Houghton admitted it wasn’t an easy pill to swallow but the team is now ready to try and right the wrongs.
“It’s a bit weird when you see that number. In the last six games, it is what it is. For us as a team it was hard to take, but at the same time, it’s probably given us a bit more motivation for this season coming. The main thing was everyone was fit and healthy through the COVID-19 pandemic.”
New Head Coach
If City does go on to secure a second league title and a first since 2016, it will be under the guidance of new head coach Gareth Taylor, a former City player himself back in the 1990s.
After Nick Cushing’s shock departure for Major League Soccer side New York City FC at the start of 2020, City took their time appointing his replacement since no games were scheduled for most of the year. Former Under-18s head coach Taylor was named head coach, switching from the men’s side of the club to the women’s for the new season.
With plenty of preseason training sessions and friendlies under his belt, Houghton believes it’s good for the squad to finally have some stability and security ahead of the new campaign.
“I think, with Nick leaving, obviously it took us a while to actually get Gareth to be named as our manager,” Houghton said. “Over lockdown we were a little bit uncertain, but at the same time, as soon as he was named it was kind of, ‘Let’s get straight to work,’ and, for me personally, and a few of the girls that have been at City for a long time, we’ve known Gareth, he’s been the coach of the Under-18s for a number of years and I watched his coaching sessions, I’ve seen how his teams have played, and I had the utmost respect for him before he was announced as our managers — so it’s been an exciting few weeks.
“It’s been a challenge. I think obviously he wants to stamp his authority in the way that he likes us to play, but it’s been good. The girls have really enjoyed the challenge and, for us, it’s kind of like a clean slate in terms of we’ve got everything to prove to make sure we’re named on the team sheet over the next few big games that are coming up, but ultimately, it’s about building a squad that can compete at every single level over the next season.”
Houghton also admitted she’s been pleasantly surprised by how much Taylor has pushed the players during preseason, expressing that the more experienced players such as herself need to feel pushed to continue developing as they head into the latter stages of their careers.
“I thought he was nice,” she laughed. “He’s quite quick to have a go at us if it’s not perfect, but look, I think for us as players that’s what we need, we need to be challenged, and I think we’re all about youth development and trying to better players, but for us as older experienced players, we need to be pushed.
“We need to be pushed on a daily basis because you want to be playing at the highest level, not just for your club but for your country as well, and I’ve been really impressed with his standards, in terms of on and off the pitch, and what he really wants out of his training sessions and the details that he gives. For us as players, it was a bit strange at first but at the same time, I think, once we’ve trained and we’ve got to know each other more, I think you understand the reasons and the concepts of what he’s trying to deliver on a daily basis.”
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ith the season set to kick off in less than 24 hours at Villa Park, the FA’s Director of the Women’s Professional game, Kelly Simmons, confirmed earlier this week that all players and teams in the top two divisions had agreed to take the knee ahead of the opening games in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, something that Houghton fully supports.
“Of course, it’s been important we’ve been able to have discussions about this matter. It’s important to show we can always be together and united over equality, not just in football and sport, but life in general.
“Over the period of preseason we’ve been taking a knee as a team, as we’ve seen in the Premier League games, a lot of football games for the last few months. We’ll certainly be doing that at the weekend as well.”