Interview: Ray Houghton a Scot despite everything

Ray Houghton scored the winner against Italy in the 1994 World Cup Finals. Picture: Getty
Ray Houghton scored the winner against Italy in the 1994 World Cup Finals. Picture: Getty
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Houghton knows how McGeady and McCarthy feel to be ‘Plastic Paddys’

It’s a shame about Ray, as the Lemonheads once sang. A shame about Ray Houghton never wearing the dark blue of Scotland. The pint-sized perpetual-motion midfielder was born less than three miles from Hampden Park and yet in 1987 he popped up in the green of Ireland to play a key role in a 
Republic victory which went a long way to ruining our Euro dream.

“People ask me how I made the choice between Ireland and Scotland when I was born in a tenement in Castlemilk and played football out the back with little Arthur Graham who was a neighbour and is still a friend,” says Houghton. “Well, the truth is there was no choice for me back then. Jack Charlton wanted me and Scotland didn’t.”

It’s funny to hear Houghton, all of 5ft 6ins in his extra-long studs, describe Graham, who did go on to play for Scotland, as “little”. But there was nothing diminutive about Houghton’s performance that night as the Republic won 1-0 en route to qualifying for their first-ever finals. That was the beginning of a golden era for Irish football and their buzzy, adopted leprechaun was right at its heart, snaffling the two most famous goals in the Republic’s history.

Now Ireland come to Glasgow again for another Euro qualifier just as crucial as the last one. Houghton, 52, can’t wait for what he is sure will be a thunderous night at Celtic Park. “It’s going to be one heck of a game,” he says. “I don’t think it’ll be ‘We’ll play, you’ll play’ – not at all. It might not be easy to watch but it should be absolutely fascinating.”

There’s been much debate about the likelihood of Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy being booed by the partisan home crowd. Both were born and brought up in Scotland yet have elected to play for Ireland. “If it happens they’ll just have to get on with it,” adds Houghton. “If you can’t take a bit of booing then you shouldn’t be playing the game. I certainly got some.”

The ’87 match report in The Scotsman records considerable dissent after a feckless Scottish performance but Houghton knows some of it was for his perceived act of treachery because his two older brothers told him. “John and Ken were both in the stand that night. When they heard me being booed by people close by they went over to them and had what I’m sure was an interesting discussion. They’ll have told these fellows how Scotland weren’t interested in me as a footballer.”

Houghton was a kid at West Ham United when he was invited to a Scotland Under-18s training camp at Largs by Andy Roxburgh, at that time youth supremo. “That was a big disappointment. Obviously Andy knew all the Scottish-based lads well but there was no attempt to integrate the half dozen of us who’d come up from England. It was a case of: ‘Just you Anglos go and and play over there and make up your own five-a-side team or something.’ It was only at the end of the week that someone asked me: ‘And what position do you play?’ I felt I was just an inconvenience.”

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Later, at Fulham and Oxford Utd, he still hoped for the call-up. “I wasn’t expecting to walk straight into the Scotland team; they’d qualified for the World Cup in Mexico. Just an acknowledgement that they knew about me would have been nice because I was starting to shine. But no one ever came to see me play.”

We’re talking in between media engagements for Houghton, now a busy pundit. The previous day it was radio in Liverpool for an ex-Red voted 52nd out of “100 Players Who Shook the Kop”. Today it’s telly in Dublin, where older fans will still refuse to let him buy his own Guinness. But his accent is still pure Castlemilk as he tells me: “I was Scottish before and despite everything I’m Scottish now.”

Irony of ironies, then: when Houghton was starring for Big Jack at Hampden, the exasperated Scotland boss was the selfsame Andy Roxburgh. “Oh aye, I’ve pulled Andy’s leg about that a few times since. He asked me: ‘Why did you never come and play for us?’ I told him: ‘Because of you when I was 18!’

In Castlemilk’s Arnprior Road, the Grahams lived on the top floor with the Houghtons on the bottom. “Myself, Arthur and Arthur’s brother, Tom, who went to Barnsley and Scunthorpe United, played football every day, 40-a-side, first behind the houses and then on the ash pitch at St Julies when the new primary school opened.

“I’d describe my Scottish childhood as tough but happy. We left Castlemilk when I was ten and moved to London. It’s funny we’re talking today because it’s exactly 42 years since the family came south. I was sad, of course, to be leaving my friends, especially since St Julies had won through to the quarter-finals of a schools cup. The headmaster asked my parents if I could come back up for the game but that wasn’t going to happen.”

Mum Rita was a Glasgow girl while dad Seamus hailed from Buncrana in Donegal. The old man was an engineer to trade but couldn’t find work and neither could Houghton’s brothers. The family couldn’t afford to make the regular trips back to Ireland enjoyed by others in the extended clan but Houghton would connect with the land of his father through 73 international caps and a riot of great memories.

Charlton seemed to manage the Republic team like he was presenting an early Irish football version of the TV genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are? Fond of rod and line, he cast far and deep for recruits. Perfectly permissible under the rules, of course, as long as you could produce an Irish granny. Houghton was one of Charlton’s first “signings” along with John Aldridge when he saw the pair star for Oxford at Wembley in the 1986 League Cup victory over Queen’s Park Rangers.

“He gave me some time to think about Ireland. Well, actually, he phoned me up the next morning to find out if I’d decided. By then I’d spoken to my dad and my brothers, both passionate Scots, and they thought I should go for it.”

Now Houghton is laughing because he is remembering his first international training session. “There was Aldo and me waiting with baited breath for some words of football wisdom from the World Cup winner. ‘When you get the ball…’ Jack said, and we’re thinking, here we go, ‘…kick it as high as you can. The opposition won’t be able to get it up there. Then run your socks off after it’.”

The philosophy was a bit more sophisticated than that and Houghton summons as evidence that Hampden performance. “We were terrific that night. Although we only won one-nil it could have been more. Yes, the ball went high at times but in the final third we could do what we wanted with it.

“The day before the game Jack decided to make Paul McGrath and Ronnie Whelan the full-backs; they hadn’t played there before. We wanted to nullify Gordon Strachan and Davie Cooper and I think it worked. Maybe that foxed Scotland. Maybe Mark Lawrenson in midfield was a surprise, too, but he scored our goal.” I quote from Mike Aitken’s match report about Ireland’s “intimidation” and “reckless physical approach”. Another chuckle. “I wouldn’t go that far but we had strong men. The back four, with Kevin Moran and Mick McCarthy, were as tough as they come.”

They needed to be the way Ireland’s games panned out, when they would score early and hang on. Lawro’s goal at Hampden and Houghton’s famous ones – to beat England in the ’88 Euros and Italy at the 1994 World Cup – all came in the first 15 minutes. And another pattern was detectable in Houghton’s: both were from long punts which found complacency and led to chaos. “That was a deliberate tactic. Jack stressed to us to keep the opposition under constant pressure. He didn’t want us funneling back to halfway when we lost the ball. He reckoned that too many times defences could walk out at their leisure, do a little song and dance.” Houghton’s strikes, as seen through smiling Irish eyes, were crazy but beautiful. Against England he scored with the first header of his career. Specifically the tactic to combat Peter Beardsley was “run straight at him, startle him”. “A national disaster”, wailed one English report. “Humiliation on a grand scale”, gnashed another. The Daily Mail told of how “England’s would-be champions of Europe had been scuttled by a bunch of football mercenaries from their own first division”.

Houghton got the “plastic Paddy” jibes but insists the distant Irishness of some in the team was never an issue among the rest – “as long as we were there for the right reasons, which we were”. He reminds us that an English opponent that day, John Barnes, was born in Jamaica. Charlton’s appointment had caused some grumbles because he had been a whiteshirted hero. “But it’s funny how perspectives change when a team start to look like they might do something.”

In the ’88 tournament, hosted by the old West Germany, that Irish team followed a first-ever defeat of England with a draw against the Soviet Union. “Then we were eight minutes from knocking out Holland which would have meant you’d never have got to see that incredible Marco van Basten goal in the final.” Talk about party-pooping.

Ireland had tasted major finals and liked them. They moved into the departed Scotland’s Italia ’90 base in Genoa – with the stadium’s tenement window-style corners which must have reminded Houghton of the old country – and beat Gheorghi Hagi’s Romania on penalties to spark another party. “The impression some had about our team was that we were ramshackle. It’s true that the players decided among themselves who’d take the kicks but that was Jack treating us like men. If there wasn’t another game for a few days he’d want us to have a Guinness rather than a coke. He didn’t stifle the team; he wanted us to come and play. He told us before the penalties that he didn’t want to stay in the tournament because he’d already booked a fishing holiday in Iceland. That was a joke, I think!”

By the next World Cup in the United States, Ireland really were stealing Scotland’s clothes, being the lone qualifiers from this corner of the globe. Another big early hoof, another loose clearing header and – pow! – Houghton’s left-foot shot with a fanciful trajectory straight out of an Irish fairytale enabled the Republic to gain revenge over Italy.

Scots have always loomed large in Houghton’s story. Ireland wouldn’t have gone to West Germany if Gary Mackay hadn’t scored that late winner against Bulgaria in Sofia. By then a Liverpool player, our man was living in a hotel: “Scotland’s match wasn’t shown in England and I had no way of knowing the result until an Irish journalist phoned me. I jumped on the bed and rang round the rest of the team.”

He was brought to Anfield – price: £825,000 – by Kenny Dalglish who’d noted his non-stop cleverness in a game against Oxford. “Kenny was a player I revered when he was at Celtic and I loved the Liverpool way: pass and move, try to win everything. At Oxford I was given the ball to create. At Liverpool everyone could do what I did, and do it better.”

This was a Liverpool team to revere featuring the same Barnes and Beardsley. “But the system was surprisingly basic. Other coaches and scouts came to our training armed with big notebooks. They’d conclude: ‘Is that it?’ On the way to winning two titles, Houghton scored the first goal in the 5-0 era-defining win over Nottingham Forest and was due to play against the same opposition in the FA Cup at Hillsborough. “What a terrible day. In the changing-room we were told we’d be going back out in a minute. That became ten, then 20, then 30. Kenny and Brian Clough were asked to try and calm the crowd. My wife and family were in the stadium but there were no mobile phones so no way of checking if they were all right. Then we found out the full enormity: that fans who’d been caged like animals had died. It was so wrong.”

Another Scot, Graeme Souness, took charge of father-of-four Houghton’s career but this was to bring about the end of his time at Anfield and he moved on to Aston Villa. “I got on well enough with Graeme but was disappointed to leave Liverpool. Now we’ll cover the odd match together for RTE. He’s better away from football management – so much more relaxed!”

Houghton bears no grudges – not against managers who sold him or countries which didn’t pick him. “That’s the way football goes sometimes,” he smiles. So next Friday at Celtic Park, how will that one go? “The land of my birth against my adopted one? I’m hoping it’s a draw and that Scotland and Ireland can both qualify.”

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