Keith Houchen’s Other Goal: When York City Beat Arsenal
Keith Houchen occupies a very special place in the history of the FA Cup for his diving header for Coventry City in the 1987 final against Tottenham Hotspur. It’s a much-repeated goal, of course, very much part of the Match of the Day canon, that BBC-sanctioned collection of “great goals” scored in front of the television cameras between the mid-1960s and the early 1990s, and it’s fully deserving of its place, as well, a diving header in the the biggest domestic match of the season. Even had Houchen fluffed his lines on the biggest stage of all, though, his name would have held a special place in the history of the competition for a goal which has become half-forgotten in the shadow of his Cup Final gymnastics.
The middle of the 1980s were a dismal time for English football, on the whole, but they weren’t a bad time to be a supporter of York City. In the middle of the previous decade the club had scrambled as high as the Second Division, which led to the likely never to be repeated scenario of the Minstermen playing league matches against Manchester United during the 1974/75 season, but two successive relegations from 1976 on soon put the club back into the Fourth Division, and at the end of the 1977/78 season they finished in the re-election places, just one place above Southport, who were voted out at the end of the season to be replaced by Wigan Athletic, and three years after this they finished at the very bottom of the Football League.
The club’s revival began in May 1982, with the appointment of Denis Smith as manager. Smith, who’d played more than four hundred games for Stoke City between 1968 and 1982 and had, after breaking his leg for the fifth time in his career in 1975, been entered into the Guinness Book of Records as “football’s most injured player”, had arrived at Bootham Crescent on loan from Stoke earlier during that season and assumed a player-manager’s position for the 1982/83 season, overseeing the team rising to finish in 7th place in the table, the club’s league position since getting promoted to Division Two in 1974.
Despite this improvement, though, few were prepared for what followed the following season, as York raced to the Fourth Division, becoming the first club since the introduction of three points for a win in 1981 to run up a hundred points in a season. Led by the twenty-seven goals scored by John Byrne and the twenty-five scored by his strike partner Keith Walwyn, Smith’s team finished sixteen points clear of second placed Doncaster Rovers and twenty-sixth points clear of fifth placed Aldershot after having led the table since the twenty-second of October 1983. The Yorkshire Evening Press subsequently labelled Smith’s team as “The Team of the Century.”
Keith Houchen was at Bootham Crescent for this record-breaking season, but had been an onlooker for much of it. He’d started his career in 1978 at Hartlepool United, where he scored sixty-five goals in one hundred and seventy appearances over the next four seasons before financial difficulties forced Hartlepool to sell him to Orient for £25,000 in 1982. Houchen failed to sparkle in his two years at Brisbane Road, however, scored twenty goals over the course of two seasons before being sold on to York City at a £10,000 loss shortly before the transfer deadline in March 1984, with Denis Smith stating that “anybody who could score sixty-five goals playing for Hartlepool must have something.” He made six appearances from the substitutes bench and started once over the remainder of York’s title run-in, scoring one goal (on his debut against Aldershot), but it wasn’t until the start of the following season in Division Three that Houchen commanded a more regular first team position, tucked in just behind Byrne and Walwyn.
York started life in the Third Division strongly and went top of the table after a win against Bristol Rovers. Trouble, however, was just around the corner. The team were drawn to play Queens Park Rangers in the League Cup, and not only did Rangers run out eight-three winners over two legs, but John Byrne impressed the QPR manager Alan Mullery sufficiently for the First Division club to pay £100,000 to sign him. The sale knocked York off balance a little, though, and a disappointing run of results throughout much of the rest of the year – a seven-one win against Gillingham with Houchen scoring a hat-trick notwithstanding – saw Smith’s team drop to eleventh place in the Division Three table before recovering their poise in the new year. Throughout this spell, the FA Cup at least provided a little light relief, with wins against Newcastle Blue Star, Hartlepool United and Walsall seeing them through to the Fourth Round of that competition.
The Fourth Round draw pitted York City against Arsenal at Bootham Crescent. The two clubs had met in the Third Round of the competition a decade earlier with Arsenal requiring a replay to edge through, and there were other reasons for York to be optimistic as well. Beaten at home by Tottenham Hotspur on New Year’s Day, the inclement weather conditions put paid to all of Arsenal’s other January league fixtures apart from a draw at Chelsea, while in the previous round they’d been held to a draw by Fourth Division Hereford United, although they did put seven goals past them in the replay. At the same time, York had seen their form revive with two wins and a draw since the start of the new year going into the match.
Snow fell across Yorkshire throughout the last couple of weeks of January 1985, and on the morning of the match two hundred volunteers turned up at Bootham Crescent to clear it from the pitch. It was no great surprise that so many turned out to get the game on. Arsenal had won five successive matches to go top of the First Division table in October of 1984, but a run of two wins in their next seven matches dropped them back down towards mid-table and stirred feelings of disenchantment that supporters may have been feeling towards new-ish manager Don Howe, who’d replaced Terry Neill as manager a year earlier to little immediate positive effect. The efforts of the volunteers ending up paying off even though the visitors hadn’t believed that they would, as Yorkshire Evening Press sports writer Malcolm Huntington later recalled:
“I remember their manager (Howe) wandering about saying ‘give the referee a cigar and let him get his feet up and have a coffee. It’s not fit for play’. The referee decided it was fit for play.”
So it was, then, that in front of a crowd of almost 11,000 people and the television cameras of Match of the Day, the two teams took to a rock hard pitch for the match. Conditions were difficult and it was, on the whole, a poor match, with just three shots on target throughout the first eighty-nine minutes. As the clock ticked down towards a Highbury replay, however, York launched one more attack. The ball was fed inside to Keith Houchen, who carried the ball past the Arsenal defender Steve Williams, who pulled him back for a penalty kick. As Houchen himself would later explain:
It was a crazy foul. A needless foul. I always wondered what happened about that. I always wondered if he got fined for it or what his manager said after the game.
It was probably ten yards outside when he first started to foul me. He had switched off and got a little bit lazy.
We were in a really threatening situation. He realised I had a yard on him and, if the ball comes in, I am going to have a chance of getting on the end of it. He has obviously tried to take me out as quickly as he could.
I think he fouled me again just as I got towards the box. I could actually feel his arms and legs all over me as I was coming into the box.
Houchen grabbed the ball and planted it on the penalty spot. In front of an open terrace of home supporters that was packed to capacity, he watched the movement of the Arsenal’s John Lukic before rolling the ball to the other side of the goalkeeper’s dive and into the bottom corner of the goal with a calmness that belied the obvious tension of the moment. York City had knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup. The story made the headlines on the BBC’s evening news, and the match was the lead match on that evening’s Match of the Day. At the start of the following week, York were drawn at home against Liverpool in the Fifth Round of the competition.
York’s luck ran out against the champions of England, but they put up one hell of a fight, with Ricky Sbragia’s send half goal cancelling out an opener for Liverpool scored by Ian Rush in front of a crowd of thirteen and a half thousand people. The replay, however, proved to be a step too far and Liverpool routed York by seven goals to nil, although the Third Division team did at least come away from it all with a healthy share of the gate receipts from an Anfield crowd of forty three and a half thousand people.
York City finished their Third Division season in eighth place in the table, but they would make their way through to the same round of the competition again, only to draw Liverpool again. This time around, they took the lead thanks to a goal from Gary Ford, but this time York were on the receiving end of a penalty decision when Steve Senior handballed. Jan Molby scored from the spot, and Liverpool won the replay at Anfield by three goals to one.
Keith Houchen left Bootham Crescent the following month. He’d ended the 1984/85 season as York’s top scorer on eighteen goals, but the following season injuries kept him out of the team and he accepted an offer to sign for Scunthorpe United. Just a few months later, however, he impressed while playing for their reserve team in a match against Coventry City and was signed by the First Division club. A year later, he was stepping out at Wembley for Coventry against Tottenham Hotspur, scoring one of the iconic goals of the era and ending that day with an FA Cup winners medal.
This weekend sees the the Fourth Qualifying round of the FA Cup, and this time around York City are, subject to disclaimers about such matters being relative, the “giants”, despite the fact that the club has now slipped out of the Football League and into the National League North. This weekend, they play another club with a reputation. It’s been a little over forty years now, but the name of Blyth Spartans continues to ring a bell in the minds of people of a certain age for their FA Cup run during the 1977/78 season, when they were only beaten in a Fourth Round replay by Wrexham with a trip to Arsenal awaiting the winners. Blyth remain below York in the same division but supporters of both clubs will already be aware that, in the FA Cup, league positions don’t necessarily have to count for very much.