But, for a long time in the native of Middlesbrough’s early career, nothing seemed to click.
Released by Chesterfield without making an appearance, the budding striker went on to join Hartlepool United and then Orient. It was not, however, until Houchen signed for York City a little over three decades ago that things started to fall into place and a path towards ‘that’ diving header became clear.
“I was one of those lads who had dreamed of being a footballer but was never sure if it would happen,” recalls the 54-year-old when speaking to The Yorkshire Post ahead of FA Cup third-round weekend.
“I was 13 and going to places like Crystal Palace, hoping for a chance. But I just couldn’t get my break.
“Then along came Chesterfield, where I got a start (as an apprentice). I went to Hartlepool after that but my career was one step forward, two steps back. My move to Orient summed that up, as I arrived when all the talk was about winning promotion from Division Two but we ended up leaving by the other end.
“Nothing seemed to click but then York came along and I got the winner in the FA Cup against Arsenal. Then, 18 months after that, I was walking out at Wembley before an FA Cup final.”
That 1987 final between Coventry City and Tottenham Hotspur is why it is not just in York where Houchen’s career and the FA Cup are so inextricably linked.
His diving header to meet a right-wing cross from Dave Bennett has become one of the Cup’s iconic images, right up there with Ronnie Radford’s wonder goal and the pitch invasion by hundreds of young lads in parkas, or Bob Stokoe running over to embrace Jim Montgomery after the 1973 final.
“It was a very well-worked goal,” says Houchen of a goal that sent the final into extra-time at 2-2. “The cross was perfect and I just flung myself at the ball.
“I’d love to say I thought about it but everything happened in a split-second. When the ball flew in, I just set off running towards the fans. Over the advertising hoardings and off I went.
“No-one followed me, though. All my team-mates said later, ‘There was too much time left, we’d have been too knackered to play on if we’d followed you’.”
This desire to conserve energy proved wise, the Sky Blues going on to lift the famous trophy for the first time in the club’s history after Gary Mabbutt put through his own net in extra-time.
“I was 25-26 by the time I got to Coventry,” says Houchen. “That, to me, was the perfect age. It meant I could take it all in. We had a great bunch of lads, who prepared for each round in exactly the same way – by going to Fuengirola for a few drinks.
“Mind, saying I was the right age to be able to take it all in might not be true. For years afterwards, I was sure I’d never got my hands on the Cup in the celebrations on the pitch.
“It was a bit of a regret of mine. I just wanted a photo of me with the Cup. There was one of me and Dave Bennett and that was it. And I thought that was because I’d never held the Cup myself.
“But then, a few years ago, someone found a photo with just me holding the Cup. I don’t remember it at all. I suppose it shows just how overwhelmed I was by what happened.
“I do, though, remember everything about the build-up, and particularly the day itself. I woke at 5am and decided to go for a run in the grounds of our hotel, which was on the Thames.
“I was just glad to be fit. I’d not been able to take part in our pre-match training session at Wembley because I was ill. Jake Findlay, who was our reserve goalkeeper, had brought some fish in for me and I am sure that was what made me ill. Thankfully, I recovered.
“As I ran round the grounds on Cup final day, the mist was coming up off the river, everywhere was deadly silent and I was thinking, ‘This is either going to be a nightmare or we are going to win the Cup and everyone is going to remember it’. Thankfully, it was the latter.”
Houchen’s winner meant his place in FA Cup folklore was secure. For someone who loved the competition so much that he spent the night before the 1978 final sleeping in his battered old Ford Escort on the hard shoulder of the motorway to make sure he got to London on time, there could not have been a more fitting scorer of that diving header against Spurs.
Certainly, back in York there were thousands of City fans toasting Houchen’s Wembley success. With good reason, too, as it was Houchen who sealed one of the Minstermen’s most famous Cup victories when netting a last-minute penalty against First Division Arsenal almost exactly 30 years ago.
The Gunners, featuring eight full internationals, were humbled at Bootham Crescent in a fourth-round tie that is still talked about excitedly in the city.
Houchen recalls: “Today, the game wouldn’t have gone ahead. Snow had fallen and part of the pitch was frozen. It proved to be a real leveller.
“There was no score as we got into the last minute and the ball came to me in midfield. A lot of people forget that I didn’t play up front at York. I arrived as a forward but York had John Byrne and Keith Walwyn, who banged in about 50 goals a season between them. So, I wasn’t going to play ahead of them.
“Denis Smith (York’s manager) came up with an idea that I should play in the hole. It was midfield but not really midfield, with Denis telling me that every time we got the ball I had to bomb forward and play like John Wark did (for Ipswich). Nowadays, it would be called a ‘No 10’, I suppose.
“Anyway, that position helped us get the penalty, as I bombed forward and (Arsenal defender) Steve Williams decided to try and foul me.
“He started fouling me the moment I set off but couldn’t get me down. We went a full 10 yards until we reached the penalty area, by which time I was almost carrying him. And then I went down.
“Arsenal protested but I just tried to stay focused. My wife Yvonne rarely came to a game but she was there that day. She said afterwards that while the protests went on, she just watched me. And that I looked like a little boy, all nervous and lost.
“I don’t remember feeling like that, instead I just felt like I was focused. Eventually, the protests stopped and I put the ball in the corner of the net. What a great feeling. I ran towards the crowd. Or that was the plan, at least, as, instead, Keith Walwyn jumped on my back.
“He was about 16 stone so I went straight down. If he’d have been fouling me and not Williams, I’d never have made the penalty area!”
The Keith Houchen story...
Born: July 25, 1960, in Middlesbrough.
Early career: After starting as an apprentice with Chesterfield, a teenage Houchen joined Hartlepool United and spent four years with the club before financial problems forced his departure for Orient in March, 1982, for £25,000.
At York: Two years later, he was back in Yorkshire with York City. He played in seven of the final eight games in the club’s magnificent Fourth Division title-winning campaign and starred in the following season’s Cup adventures. Goals against Blue Star and Hartlepool in the first two rounds of the FA Cup were followed by him netting a dramatic last-minute penalty to beat Arsenal in the fourth round. Houchen was the club’s top scorer with 18 goals.
On the move: A switch to Scunthorpe United followed before he joined Coventry City, where he went on to make his name as a key member of the Sky Blues’ FA Cup-winning team. Hibernian came calling in March, 1989, and a £325,000 fee was enough to take Houchen north of the border and give him a first taste of European competition in the UEFA Cup (Coventry were not allowed to compete in 1987-88 due to ban on English clubs).
Today: Houchen reports on matches for the Press Association and is a regular visitor to both Bootham Crescent and Valley Parade.