Our 1987 FA Cup win was ‘like Leicester last year’, says Houchen in an interview with our Les Reid, who saw his glorious diving header from behind the goal at Wembley.
COVENTRY City’s 1987 FA Cup goalscoring legend Keith Houchen has a simple message for the young Sky Blues team for Sunday’s Wembley final – as he awaits an operation to have a second knee replaced but glows with pride over his and his old team-mates’ unique achievement.
The man whose diving header on May 16, 1987, beneath the twin towers of the old national stadium, remains among the most replayed and celebrated goals in football history, told us in an exclusive interview: “I was determined in the 1987 cup final not to leave anything out there.
“My advice would be just to put everything into it. I was totally spent at the end of that game. If the scores were reversed I could have lived with it.
“I was invited to the new Wembley as the legends had something in the new Wembley stadium named after them and there was a ‘Keith Houchen Sky Blues’ bar. I went to the final, Chelsea against Manchester United.
“The whole match was played in the last five minutes. It was like we did in training when you didn’t want to get injured. I thought, if I’d played in that match I would have had to go for a run afterwards.
“If it means going that extra yard, do it. Because it might make the difference between you winning that tackle, making that pass, scoring a goal, and Coventry winning the match.”
The 56-year-old – once christened ‘Roy of The Rovers’ for his goalscoring exploits throughout the 1987 cup run, a reward for years of hard labour in the lower divisions for the likes of York City and his hometown club Hartlepool United – now describes himself as “a middle-aged man in lycra!”
He revealed his main exercise is on his bike around Yorkshire. He had his right knee replaced last year and will get a new knee for his left peg in June – 30 years and a month after his most famed achievements.
“All the football I played caught up with me. – just close to 700 games. It was crash, bang, wallop then – even in training.”
The knee operation was among reasons he cited for missing recent get-togethers with his 1987 team-mates.
“The lads get together casually – it’s low key. We have a round of golf or a meal. The wives come too. Even though it’s 30 years ago it’ll be exactly the same banter in the dressing room as 30 years ago. The lads try to do it every year. I’ve missed the last couple – I had my knee operation.
“It’s 30 years and it’s just got further and further away. But I still speak with Nick Pickering (1987 team-mate) and he just talks about the final.
“He asks me, ‘Are you still proud?’
“I never forget and it’s something I will always be proud of.
“It was like Leicester City did last year. They won the Premier league trophy but in those days everybody wanted to win the FA Cup. Europe wasn’t as big either – in fact, we weren’t even in Europe (English clubs were banned for ‘hooliganism’). That’s why I went to Hibs.
“We’ll never forget it. We knew how big it was and that the club might not get there again, although there’s always a chance with knock-out competitions. It was a once-in-a-generation thing.
“We’re incredibly proud of what we achieved. We realise it was a team thing. It wasn’t about individuals. We had done our time – I knew a lot of lads from playing in the lower leagues. We did the graft to get there.
“We did it with camaradie. It was John Sillett and George Curtis’s camaraderie. It was basic 4-4-2 but everybody was prepared to lie down for each other.”
Pickering, who came from Sunderland, has in recent years repeated how, positioned inside the penalty box at Wembley with their team trailing 1-2 to the freescoring glamour-boys of Tottenham, he screamed ‘dive Houchey dive’ as Houchen ran into the box with determination to get onto the end of Dave Bennett’s perfect cross.
Asked about that claim, Houchen told us: “Nick says to this day he was screaming, ‘dive Houchey dive’. I had no idea at the time. I didn’t hear anything.
“It was perfect timing – like in a dance that comes together perfectly. Although if the timing had been better I may have got there with a side-foot!
“It was a split-second. It was instinct. I’ve got a picture of it from every angle and in one, you can see Cyrille Regis behind me almost heading it with me (doing the motion in thin air).
“I will never forget that moment, seeing that ball from Dave Bennett and knowing that all I needed to do was to get that ball on target.”
Asked to recall his other most vivid memories, he said: “I’ve got two. The first was.. I was ill in the Wembley build-up so I didn’t get to train on the pitch with the lads.
“We went out in our suits and I’ll never forget getting in the tunnel. There was a little square of light and I will never forget us breaking out into the sunshine. All the noise and colour carried you down to the halfway line.
“If we did it again, we could never replicate it, even if we had won the FA Cup ten times.
“My second memory was from right at the end of the match. We should have won by a bit more in the end, they had like a boxer thrown their last punches at us.
“The whistle went. You’re spent and there’s nothing left in you. I looked up at the blue sky at Wembley. I just thought, ‘I’ve won the FA Cup.’
Although there is no pretence that Sunday’s Checkatrade Trophy final against Oxford United is on the same level, Houchen instinctively understands why it will still resonate with the club, the fans and the city – as another historic moment for the now 134-year-old club whose FA Cup win was famously the first in 104 years.
Houchen told us: “I did it at Port Vale in the Autoglass Trophy, as it was called then. It’s a lower league cup so they’ve got a chance to win.
“When you get to the final of anything, it’s really exciting.
“It’s not a major trophy but if you’re in a young side that doesn’t get to play that kind of thing, it’s an exciting time and it can be a catalyst.
“I’ll be looking out for the game and the result if nothing else. I hope it will be a catalyst, and I’m sure they will do well next season if they do get relegated.
“I watch out for all my old clubs. If you said in my time Coventry City would be in the old division 4, I would never have believed you. But if you start winning in any league, it generates excitement.
“Sometimes things behind the scenes can drag you down. Having something like this can be the catalyst.”
Asked what Coventry City means to him after all the years, he said: “I was 25/26 when Coventry bought me. It was my taste of the big time. We went on to do what we did in my first season which was mind-blowing.
“Even though I live away and don’t go to games, Coventry City is a massive part of my life.
“When I die, I will be connected with Coventry City.”
And of when he came to Coventry ten years ago for a book signing of his biography – ‘A Tenner and a Box of Kippers’ by Jonathan Strange, he said: “Several people came up to me and thanked me for them being born, because of the way their parents must have celebrated!”