The Ex-Files

Thursday 9 May 2013 11:00

One of the most highly-rated players of his generation, Ray Houghton credits Fulham as the side that began his footballing education.

After starting his career in the youth team at London rivals West Ham United, it was with the Whites where the midfielder forged a reputation as an exciting attacking player, with a workmanlike attitude to boot.

“West Ham gave me the chance to be a professional but my first real bit of football was at Fulham,” Ray told the official website. “It was down to Terry Mancini really. Terry was manager of the Hammers’ reserve team and I played against Fulham a couple of times.

“I did well, which Terry recognised straight away, and so he recommended me to Malcolm [Macdonald]. Terry had done me a great service by doing that as I went on to have three great years at Craven Cottage.

“Fulham allowed me to play the way I wanted to – there were no demands put on you to try and change your style. They saw what I was good at and allowed me to do what was best for me and that ended up being best for the team, so I’ve got great memories at Fulham.”

Houghton was part of a vibrant side in the early to mid-1980s, with his list of teammates reading like a Who’s Who in Fulham folklore.

“We had some very good players,” he admitted. “If you looked around there was Tony Gale – who was an excellent defender – big Roger [Brown], who was an old fashioned centre half who knew how to defend. You had the experience of Kevin Lock and Les Strong, as well as the youngsters coming through - Paul Parker and Jeff Hopkins in particular.

“And then we had a very settled midfield with Ray Lewington sat deep, Sean O’Driscoll and I were on the wings, and Robert Wilson played a little bit higher up. You’d call that a diamond today.

“They were a great bunch, very friendly, and there was always good banter. There were some very good players in the initial squad that we had. Dean Coney was up front and, unfortunately, Dean picked up an injury but he was a very, very talented player.

“We had the likes of Gordon Davies, who we all know is a legend at Fulham, and he was a fantastic goalscorer. So we had a very good bunch and I think Malcolm had a lot to do with that as he married everyone together – he formed a good relationship with the squad that he had.”

The Republic of Ireland international was a virtual ever-present during his time spent in SW6. He missed just two league matches in three years, but departed for Oxford United just five games into the 1985/86 campaign.

Fulham finished bottom of Division Two that season, and Houghton admitted it was a frustrating time for the Club – one that he feels could, and should, have gone in a completely different direction.

“The team was breaking up,” Ray recalled. “Galey had left before me, and that was down to thinking the ambition wasn’t there. Ernie Clay was in charge and Ernie, to me, always seemed more interested in bringing in money than he was trying to cement a team – that’s how it came across.

“We weren’t far away in our first year – we just missed out on promotion – and if he’d just put his hand in his pocket a little bit there’s no doubt we would have got promoted because we were the best footballing team in the division. When we played Liverpool in the League Cup – three games [in November 1983] – the manager of Liverpool came out and said that, outside of the top division, we were the best footballing side he’d seen.”

He continued: “There were a lot of good things being said about us and we liked to play the game in the right way. We tried to get it down and pass it and it was just a shame that the chairman didn’t have the same ambition as the players and the manager.

“We weren’t too far away, we just needed a little bit of help. Goodness, we nearly played the same team every week, but for injuries, so we needed a bit of help but unfortunately Ernie wouldn’t go out and spend the money, else we would have pushed on.”

After a successful two-year stint in Oxford where he helped them avoid relegation – in addition to scoring in their League Cup Final triumph in 1986 – Houghton made a big money move to title-chasing Liverpool.

In his prime at 25-years-old, the popular midfield man was in demand in the summer of 1987, but he admitted that a move to Merseyside was too great an opportunity to turn down.

“I had quite a few clubs that were interested,” he explained. “Arsenal, Nottingham Forest, Leeds United, there was also talk about some teams from Italy. So it was a big call as I virtually could have picked where I wanted to go but I was very fortunate that it was Liverpool because that was a team that I always admired. My Dad used to talk about how they played the game in the right way. They had the right balance between playing football and being competitive.

“I could name 20 world class players who were in the squad at that stage! There was Peter Beardsley, John Aldridge, John Barnes, Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson, Gary Gillespie. Then the likes of Gary Ablett were coming through, Steve Staunton was there, and that’s not even talking about the midfield with Steve McMahon, Ronnie Whelan, Jan Molby, Kevin MacDonald. There was Paul Walsh and John Wark – there were so many good players there.”

Houghton enjoyed remarkable success at Anfield, twice winning the First Division title, the FA Cup and the Charity Shield during his tenure at the club. The Reds have not won the league since Houghton was in the side, but he believes that they are on the up once again after a season of mini-resurgence under new manager Brendan Rodgers.

“I think they’re going in the right direction under Brendan,” Ray said. “The problem is that you’ve got to compete and you’ve got to be in that top four because that’s where the money is and that’s when you can bring in the players that you want.

“I think the top four is attainable because Tottenham are up there competing this season and they’re spending similar amounts to Liverpool and, when it comes to revenue, they’re probably a bit worse off than Liverpool.

“So it is achievable and I think Liverpool – if they have three or four additions in the summer – can certainly get in the top four next season, no doubt.”

Rodgers’ side visit the Cottage on Sunday with a seventh place finish all but guaranteed in the Barclays Premier League, and Houghton sees no reason why Fulham can’t end their poor run of form against a side with little to play for.

“Liverpool are in a position now where they’re not going to catch the teams above them and the ones below aren’t going to catch them, so it’s a bit of a quandary,” he explained.

“It looks like Steven Gerrard will be out, obviously we know Luis Suarez is out, so I think it’s a good time for Fulham to play them. This is a game they should be targeting to get something out of, and even a point would be enough because 41 – with their goal difference being better than the teams below them – would be sufficient.

“If Fulham can come away from this game with a point then they’ll be delighted I’m sure. And it’s a game that I’m sure the players love and they’ve had some joy at home to Liverpool over the years.

“Fulham have only taken one point from the last six games in the league which has not been a good return. I know they were only narrowly beaten 1-0 by Newcastle in the last minute but at this stage you don’t want to be falling over the line.

“Fulham will stay up but it would be nice to see a bit more money coming in so they can push up and get a bit closer to the teams above them, but there are leagues within leagues in the Premier League. There’s the top four, then the two or three who are trying to break into it, and then from eighth down to 20th they’re all vying to finish as highly as possible.

“At the moment, West Brom are winning that, and Swansea are there, but Fulham can easily do what Swansea have done next season, there’s no doubt about that. They’ve just got to keep doing what they’ve been doing well, keep improving on the squad and hopefully improve their away form next season. If they can do that then everything should be fine.”