OK, so to suggest that someone who won 2 League Championships, 2 FA Cups, 2 League Cups, played in 2 World Cups and a Euro Finals ‘didn’t quite make it‘ may be something of a stretch. In the context of this series though Ray Houghton is another West Ham academy graduate who, for some reason, never became an established first-team player at the club.
Houghton was not a young player who had just trained with us for a while before being enticed away by another club (John Terry) or a youngster sold as part of a relegation fire sale (Glen Johnson) but was a 20 year old professional who was considered surplus to requirements and made available on a free transfer. Tony Carr has been reported as saying that allowing Houghton to leave on a free “was the biggest transfer blunder he had seen during his years at Upton Park.”
Houghton was born in Glasgow but moved with his family to London as a 10 year old. He joined West Ham’s youth set up and during that time was called up to attend Under 18 training camps by Scotland youth supremo (and future manager) Andy Roxburgh but without being awarded any caps.
In May 1982 Houghton made his one and only appearance for West Ham when he came on as a substitute for George Cowie in an away fixture with Arsenal that West Ham lost 2-0. Cowie was another young Scot who did not make a mark at West Ham and the lineup that day also included another youngster Everard La Ronde who also had a short lived West Ham career. End of season games were often used back then as an opportunity to blood a few young players.
As an aside, West Ham had won the FA Youth Cup in 1981 beating Tottenham over two legs with a 2-1 aggregate score. The West Ham squad for the games of Vaughan, Keith, La Ronde, Reader, Ampofo, McPherson, (Bobby) Barnes, (Paul) Allen, Milton, Burvill, Schiavi, (Alan) Dickens had no place for Houghton who would have been eligible.
Houghton was allowed to leave in the summer of 1982 and joined Fulham, then in Division 2, on a free transfer. There is not much written about the circumstances of his leaving and so it is difficult to tell if he was simply a late developer, whether his rejection spurred him on to what he subsequently achieved or whether his style just didn’t suit West Ham . Whatever the case manager John Lyall and the coaching staff did not see any potential that merited a further contract.
Houghton was an instant hit at Craven Cottage and his new manager Malcolm MacDonald allegedly asked Lyall “Do you have any other free transfers like that?” His energetic and all-action style of play was soon noticed and earned him a transfer to First Division Oxford United (where he scored in their 1986 League Cup final win) and then to Liverpool where he is spent the most productive years of his career.
As well as rejection at West Ham, Houghton did not receive a call to represent Scotland, the country of his birth, and eventually agreed to play for Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland side.. He earned 73 international caps and is remembered for winning goals against England in the 1988 Euros and against Italy in the 1994 World Cup.
Obviously it is pure conjecture but I wonder what impact Houghton could have made at West Ham from the mid 1980’s onwards as they looked to build on the 1985/86 success?