The last time England met Norway at the women's World Cup, it was captain Steph Houghton who headed in the equalizer to set them on the way to victory four years ago in Canada. That 2-1 win in Ottawa came in the last 16, and now the sides set to clash again in the quarter-finals in Le Havre today with Houghton and her teammates having emerged from a bruising and controversial victory against Cameroon.
It was particularly tough for centerback Houghton, with the 31-year-old needing treatment on an ankle injury after being caught by a nasty challenge late on as their opponents' frustrations spilled over. "We are concerned about her. She is not someone who stays down," said coach Phil Neville. "She is a big player for us, our captain."
Houghton, who has 109 caps, scored England's opening goal to set them on their way to a 3-0 victory over Cameroon.
Her importance to the Lionesses as they chase World Cup glory in France is not lost on Neville. The former Manchester United man has made a habit of chopping and changing his side, and only four of his squad of 23 have participated in all four matches so far at the tournament. Houghton and right-back Lucy Bronze, who scored the winner against Norway in 2015, are the only two to have played every minute and their influence has helped England keep three straight clean sheets. The others to have taken part in every game are Nikita Parris and Jill Scott, the 32-year-old midfielder who is at her fourth World Cup and who surpassed Peter Shilton's England record by making her 18th appearance at the finals in the Cameroon victory. Like Scott and Bronze, Houghton is a native of England's northeast. All three played for Sunderland early in their careers and all three subsequently went to Manchester City, although Bronze is now at Lyon. Houghton made her England debut in 2007 but missed that year's World Cup in China due to injury. In 2011 she made just one appearance as a substitute as the Lionesses exited in the quarter-finals. By 2015 she was the bedrock of the defense and now she truly is one of the old heads in a squad featuring the likes of Keira Walsh (22) and Georgia Stanway (20).
Interest in the women's game is increasing all the time and the BBC reported a record U.K. television audience of 6.9 million for the Cameroon victory. It means there is an awful lot of responsibility on the shoulders of Houghton, whose husband Stephen Darby was himself a professional player but retired last year aged 29 after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease. Darby had started his career at Liverpool and was playing for Bolton Wanderers when he had to call it quits. Houghton has said that looking after him is her "number one priority and always will be," but for now she is able to carry on playing at the highest level. "Steph has had the best 12 months of her career in terms of her form, her performances on the field," Neville, appointed at the start of last year, said at the beginning of the tournament.
"First and foremost I know I need to put in a performance for my team, to play the way I have been playing all season, improving as much as I can," Houghton said. "We want to keep pushing the team as far as we can." For now that means getting the better of Norway and helping England to a second straight World Cup semifinal.