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Keith Houchen: The man born for the FA Cup

Ben Blackmore November 4, 2010
Keith Houchen's header against Tottenham, voted one of the best FA Cup goals of all time © Getty Images

Keith Houchen will provide his expert analysis on ESPN's coverage of the FA Cup first round clash between Rochdale and FC United. Click here to subscribe.

"I would always go out in the first five minutes, hit the defender hard and he'd hit me straight back. That's how it was."

Introducing the mantra of Keith Houchen, a York City and Coventry legend, a man whose name is synonymous with the FA Cup, and a striker who started every football match with the intention of giving his marker an absolute nightmare.

"By the time I retired at 36, I couldn't stay out of the book," the now-retired forward adds. "I'd get booked for looking the wrong way."

Houchen was never the most prolific striker in England, he was not even the biggest, but only a handful of defenders, if any, can justifiably claim they had an enjoyable afternoon against him. The Middlesbrough-born attacker was 6ft 1ins of physical, antagonistic enthusiasm, and as an aerial exponent there are few strikers who have left a legacy to rival his.

The Teessider wrote his name into FA Cup folklore with a spectacular diving header in the 1987 final won by Coventry, voted one of the best FA Cup goals of all time, but that goal only added to Houchen's already impressive history in a competition that just seemed to induce the very best he had to offer. Tottenham were the side on the end of that picture-book goal at Wembley, but Spurs already would have known of Houchen's danger from his exploits two years previous, for York City against the mighty Arsenal.

"I came up against the likes of David O'Leary and Kenny Sansom, and at 23 years of age that was the level I wanted to be playing at," recalls Houchen, still clearly passionate about the FA Cup despite endless years of re-telling his famous moments. "It was fantastic trying to prove yourself against the best players, and you always dreamt of claiming that result that made the country sit up and take notice. It was amazing when we won, it really opened my eyes about the media coverage. I had never had it before, but it seemed to go on forever."

Arsenal were top-flight giants when they visited Third Division York City in the fourth round, but if there was any doubt over the potential pitfall that lay ahead, the Gunners only needed to check out their hosts' pre-game efforts to get the match played. Hit by heavy snow, it required the efforts of the 10,000 supporters in attendance, from both clubs, to clear the pitch in time for kick-off.

It was one of only a couple of games my wife went to, and she said I looked like a nervous little boy. I don't remember feeling that!

"Bootham Crescent has never changed," says Houchen. "It's one of those old football grounds that has stayed the same as it was in 1985. Nothing's changed. I'm not a fan of the new stadiums, I'm from Middlesbrough, and ever since they've moved to the Riverside it's not the same. Old football grounds have the atmosphere.

"We were doing particularly well at the time, we had a two or three-year spell where we were doing quite well. But at that level 5,000 fans was your maximum, so to get 10,000 that day was the magic of the FA Cup. It was bursting at the rafters that day."

If today's media coverage is anything to go by, the only way for an FA Cup minnow like York City to compete with Arsenal must surely have been for the underdogs to outmuscle their foes, to 'stick it up em', and to 'let them know they were in a game'. In a climate when Danny Murphy has attacked Stoke, Blackburn and Wolves for playing in such a fashion, Arsenal surely suffered far worse if they were beaten by lowly York City? Not so. There wasn't a single booking in the match.

"Back in 1985, you had to commit GBH just to concede a foul," comments a surprised Houchen. "Having said that, I had no idea there were no bookings in the match, that's incredible! That game against Arsenal wasn't a brilliant game of football though. They'd cleared snow off the pitch at 8am in the morning, and both sides struggled for chances."

Houchen is right. There were only three shots on target in the entire game, yet when it came to the 89th minute, rather than clinging on for a lucrative and exciting trip back to Highbury for a replay, York decided to go on the attack. Asked why they were so cavalier, Houchen's explanation is brilliantly simple.

"I played centre forward for 20 years, but in that season I was a midfielder given freedom to follow the ball forward whenever we attacked. I think they call it the free role nowadays. So it didn't matter if it was the first minute or the last, if the ball went forward, so did I."

City fans will be extremely thankful Houchen stuck to his role. As the ball progressed down the right, he knew he had to get forward. Arsenal defender Steve Williams had other intentions, and the result was one of the most famous penalties in FA Cup competition.

Keith Houchen looked like a 'nervous little boy' © PA Photos

Houchen recalls: "For some reason Steve Williams climbed on my back, so I struggled forward for 10 yards into the penalty area and the ref put his whistle in his mouth. I thought 'flippin heck, this is an opportunity!' I always took penalties, but whether I was the designated taker that day I can't remember. I just remember grabbing the ball. I was always confident of scoring from the spot, nerves only affected me in the build-up to games or the night before. It's only when you look back that you realise the magnitude of it.

"Arsenal were very professional too. They delayed the game for about three minutes forcing me to wait on the edge of the box. It was one of only a couple of games my wife went to, and she said I looked like a nervous little boy. I don't remember feeling that!"

Faced with Arsenal goalkeeper John Lukic, Houchen had to block out the pressure of 10,000 supporters, plus millions of neutrals watching back home. The entire cup upset later became a Match of the Day classic, so it seems only right to describe the pivotal moments in the words of commentator John Motson...

"We're in the last minute - it's Butler. Houchen and Pearce waiting in the...oh Houchen went down under a challenge - yes, penalty! Houchen went down, Stevie Williams was close to it and the referee's given a penalty to York - in the last minute. You couldn't ask for a more dramatic finale. And Houchen - the man who was fouled, has put the ball on the spot and he could put York City in dreamland here. It's all down to Lukic from the Arsenal point of view. And he's done it!"

York went on to give champions Liverpool an equally big scare in the next round, taking them to a replay before losing 7-0 at Anfield, but Houchen would fittingly get his hands on the trophy two years later. Not that any of that seems to matter nowadays, as he oversees primary school football sessions, full of youngsters dreaming of being the next Wayne Rooney or Fernando Torres... not Keith Houchen.

"I do some after-school clubs with primary school children, which is really good fun. I try not to coach too much because the more you coach youngsters, the less they like it! So I just let them play. None of them recognise me, it's only their parents who know I used to play football!

"I also have a property company; I have a contract with Teesside Universities that provides accommodation for university students. Actually, I drove to Middlesbrough today to get a key cut would you believe! It was a bit of a pain!"

This weekend Houchen will provide his expert analysis on ESPN's coverage of the FA Cup first-round encounter between Rochdale and FC United, teams he knows well from his work for the PFA, which sees him provide stats on some of football's lower league clubs. The players of Rochdale and FC United will no doubt dream of producing a moment similar to those enjoyed by Houchen back in the 80s, but nowadays the hugely amiable 50-year-old insists he has a new specialty.

"If you want Uni accommodation in Middlesbrough, come to Teesside Universities, I'm your man!"

Rochdale v FC United kicks off ESPN's coverage of the FA Cup and the following day the cameras will be at the Abbey Stadium for Cambridge's clash with Huddersfield. Click here to subscribe.

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Ben Blackmore Close
Ben Blackmore is deputy editor of ESPN.co.uk