Houghton is ready to graduate at last with honours

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FULLY 15 years after savouring victory at Wembley as a wide-eyed schoolboy, hooker Danny Houghton today seeks to at last graduate with honours with his beloved Hull FC.

As one of many Black and Whites fans in Peter Gentle’s side, success over Wigan Warriors in the Tetley’s Challenge Cup final would be especially meaningful for a player increasingly tipped by many to be included in England’s World Cup squad.

Houghton concedes he has been dreaming of the moment ever since stepping out on to the famous turf as a nine-year-old.

“I was lucky to play in the 1998 pre-game entertainment when Sheffield Eagles beat Wigan,” he recalled to the Yorkshire Post.

“It was with Hull Schools and we won 18-0 against Salford, I think.

“Tommy Lee, who also went on to play with me at FC, played too that day.

“After the game, we watched Sheffield do what they did to Wigan and all we thought about was hopefully being part of that occasion ourselves one day.

“On Saturday, I’ll get that chance.”

While Hull defeating Wigan will perhaps be a shock of sorts, it pales into insignificance compared to what the South Yorkshire club – massive 10-1 outsiders – did on that glorious afternoon.

But for Hull-born Houghton it would be a career-high moment and one the club’s vice-captain is confident of being able to achieve.

“It’s going to be a special day,” explained the 24-year-old, who has taken his game to new levels this season.

“Obviously growing up as kid and going to watch Hull on the terraces at the Boulevard, seeing the club win it at Cardiff in 2005 and now to get the chance on Saturday to run out with your home-town club is everything, not just for me but for the other boys as well and everyone’s family. Hopefully, we’ll get the job done.”

Houghton was a 15 year-old Academy player when Hull lifted the trophy against the odds in Cardiff – the third and last time they have prospered in the historic competition – but his last experience of Wembley was not as memorable.

He was widely expected to play in the 2008 final against St Helens, having appeared in each of the previous 14 matches, including the quarter-finals and semi-finals against Bradford Bulls and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats.

But he was left out by then coach Richard Agar, who opted to start with the vastly-experienced Shaun Berrigan and put the versatile Richard Horne on the bench despite him having been out for more than four months through injury and illness.

“At the time, it was devastating,” said Houghton, who was 18th man for Hull’s 28-16 defeat, something Horne, ironically, seems set to suffer today.

“You think you’re never going to get the opportunity again.

“As much as it hurt, it was a case of being as positive as I could be. I warmed up with the lads and went and got changed and sat just behind the dug-out. It wasn’t the greatest memory watching.

“I had to get over it pretty quickly because we had a game the following week and I was selected to play.

“I don’t know if I’d have made a difference or not – you can’t say that because it didn’t happen.

“To sit watching it after being so close to playing was terrible. At the time, that was the choice the coach made. I stuck by him and I’m sure it’s made me a better player than if I had played.

“Five years on, I get the opportunity and I can’t wait now.”

Rightly so. Currently, England Knights international Houghton is arguably the most influential player in this Hull side.

He is already renowned for his industry. The East Hull product is on course to be Super League’s top tackler for a second successive season, leading the way with an astonishing 1,025 so far, over 150 more than nearest challenger Paul Aiton, of Wakefield.

But, despite a workload that sometimes sees him near 70 tackles in a game, Houghton has also evolved his creativity at dummy-half as this campaign has moved on.

His smart distribution, timely bursts from dummy-half and also his telling kicking out of that position have been crucial in getting Hull – currently on a four-game winning run – much-needed momentum. Along with marquee captures Gareth Ellis and Daniel Holdsworth, Houghton is invaluable.

He has been ever-present for Hull this term, starting all 29 games and surpassing 150 club matches along the way.

It will be fascinating to see him go up today against Wigan’s Michael McIlorum, who is currently one of those standing in his way for an England jersey.

An impressive display could certainly nudge Houghton deeper into the thoughts of national coach Steve McNamara with the World Cup just two months away.

“Maybe so,” he said. “But all I can do is perform my best individually and the rest is down to Steve.

“I’ve focused this week entirely on the (Hull) team and myself, getting that right.

“It’s a big battle with Mickey. You know what you’re going to get from him.

“He turns up every week and gives his all for Wigan. He’s aggressive and leads from the off for them.

“I’m going to have to match that or if not better it for us to hopefully go a way to being successful but I like to play against the best in the comp’ and he’s one of them.”

With plenty of smiles and laughter on offer at various appearances this week, whether Monday’s press day, a rousing send-off from supporters at the KC on Thursday or yesterday’s traditional Wembley walkabout, Hull seem genuinely relaxed heading into such an epic and consequential appointment.

But there is nothing false about it as Houghton explained: “It’s more excitement rather than nerves, that Wembley feel.

“It’s rubbed off recently and we want to take that into Saturday and let the occasion get even more out of us.

“We just go about business as normal.

“People say it’s just another game but, obviously, it’s not.

“It’s the Challenge Cup final and we want to enjoy the occasion and the day as well as putting that to the back of our minds a little and getting the job done.

“It’s a one-off game. People have said about Wigan’s form dipping going into it but form’s totally out of the window here.

“We came into the quarter-final off the back of four (poor) results earlier in the year but plucked a result out against Catalan.

“We did the same against Warrington in the semi so on the day Wigan have the class and the capability of doing anything but we’ve shown we have that, too.

“We’re going in full of confidence ourselves. I’m sure it will be a blinder.”

And one which, no doubt, the children from today’s curtain-raiser will watch on with all the same sense of wonder as Houghton did all those years ago.

dave.craven@ypn.co.uk