Keith Houchen appreciates the culture shock Jackie McNamara must overcome at York City as he attempts to get to grips with an alien environment at the bottom of the Football League.
Houchen watched as McNamara lost his third game in a row on Saturday since being appointed manager. He has expressed surprise that the former Dundee United manager pitched up in York, where Houchen was a player in the mid-1980s.
Houchen himself has returned to live in the area after a much-travelled career that included an 18-month spell at Hibernian.
Indeed, seeing McNamara’s struggles – the former Dundee United manager lost his third successive game against Plymouth Argyle on Saturday – reminds him how it felt going the opposite way, from England to Scotland, in 1989.
But even for an FA Cup winner and scorer of one of the competition’s most memorable goals, clinching victory for Coventry City in the final against Spurs in 1987, moving to Hibs didn’t feel like such a step down. After all, Houchen, now 55, was able to sample European football for the first time. But he knew nothing about the Scottish game, nor the passion which almost chased him down the road again. He can laugh about it now, of course. But he has not been back to a Hibs game since he left, under a cloud, in 1991.
News of their recent exploits, however, has reached Houchen in York. He is “thrilled” his old side are putting pressure on Rangers after a 13-match unbeaten run, and could move to within two points of the Championship leaders with a victory over Livingston tonight.
Head coach Alan Stubbs is imposing his vision on the side in the way McNamara hopes to do at York, in time. Houchen watched McNamara’s home debut on Saturday – watched it very carefully indeed for Opta, the statistics company, totting up shots, corners and other such details. He doesn’t envy McNamara’s task at the lowly League Two side.
“I was a little bit surprised [he came to York],” he said. “York is a difficult place, they have been struggling for a few years now. But Jackie obviously fancies his chances.
“What he knows about this level of football I don’t know. When you are a manager and you are out of it, you want to be back in. You go for whatever job comes up. I suppose York is a nice one in that it is a beautiful city. I have lived all over Britain and this is the nicest place – Edinburgh is a very close second.”
Houchen will return to the capital next weekend, but not to see Hibs. He is a regular visitor with his wife, Yvonne. Remarkably, he hasn’t been back to watch Hibs play since he left, in 1991.
“It all turned a bit sour in the end,” he explained. “I fell out with the Hibbies – and you don’t fall out with the Hibbies!
“I never really got on with [manager] Alex Miller, either. He was a serious, dour man. He didn’t really have a sense of humour did he? I liked to have a bit of a laugh. We were never bouncing off each other.”
Hibs supporters used to do the “Houchie Houchie”, something akin to the Hokey Cokey, in tribute to the striker. “But they could turn nasty really quickly,” he recalled. “We had a lad called Joe Tortolano at left-back, who was a real trier. But the crowd used to get on his back. I just flipped one time.
“We used to come off and they would throw things at us and I gave them the V-sign, which was daft. It happened at Raith Rovers – we played Meadowbank in the cup and, because we couldn’t play at Meadowbank, we went over and played it at Raith Rovers.
“We beat them and I scored a header in the last minute of the game to put us through. I remember sitting in the dressing room thinking, ‘if I ever play here again’. Of course, we drew them [Raith] in the next round…”
“I go up regularly,” he added. “[Once] a mate of mine was doing some agency work. He took the big centre-half to Hibs from Grimsby, Rob Jones. Johnny Collins was in charge and I wanted to see Johnny, my old team-mate. So I went with my mate to the ground. We sat and had lunch. I hadn’t seen Johnny in all those years.
“There was a picture of us together on one of the walls with our shiny tracksuits on, back when we were young!”
It is nearly quarter of a century since Houchen left Edinburgh, bound for Port Vale. Big centre-forwards are not quite so in vogue these days, certainly not at Easter Road.
But he did strike on his debut against Hearts and scored a winner for Hibs at Ibrox. Such feats can help absolve a multitude of sins. He would surely be welcome back now.