"I'll never forget the day I signed"

KEITH Houchen spent an early part of his career at Hartlepool United.

He ended up as one of the top scorers in the club’s history.

But years later he returned, after enjoying FA Cup winning joy with Coventry, for a disappointing spell as player-manager.

Now a new book entitled A Tenner and a Box of Kippers - The Story of Keith Houchen, tells the player’s story. It includes his ups and downs with Pools.

Author Jonathan Strange, a concert violist, wrote the book in full collaboration with Keith.

It tells how as a youngster, after a brief spell playing at Chesterfield, Keith found himself rejected and seemingly without any future in professional football.

But after an appearance in an FA Youth Cup tie, Keith was invited to train with Hartlepool by the then manager Billy Horner.

Recounting his first encounter with the players in 1978, Keith said: “They were the liveliest, most down-to-earth bunch of characters I had ever met in my life and I learnt very early that one of the most important things I was going to need was a sense of humour.”

Billy Horner eventually signed Houchen - a move that would kick off a memorable football career.

The player recalls: “I desperately, desperately wanted to be a professional football player so it was just amazing for me when they offered me a professional contract, a year’s contract, 30 a week.”

Keith enjoyed four years with Pools during a period in which he commanded great respect for his goalscoring prowess, scoring 65 goals in 170 league appearances.

His career went on to take him to a string of clubs, including Coventry City, with whom he scored five goals on the way to winning the FA Cup in 1987.

Keith’s strikes included a diving header in their 3-2 final victory over Tottenham Hotspur.

At the age of 33 Keith returned to Pools as a player and then manager.

But a run of bad results and controversial refereeing decisions brought his time as manager to an end in November 1996.

In the book, Keith recalls feeling badly let down by Pools fans, who had turned against him.

But despite having mixed feelings over his days at Hartlepool, Keith said: “Wherever I went in my career, everybody was dead derogatory about Hartlepool, and I always stuck up for them.”

He added: “What I really needed was fifty grand, for a new goalie, a new centre half and a centre forward. I couldn’t even replace me.”

Book author Mr Strange told the Mail: “He owes such a lot to Hartlepool United in the formative parts of his career. I think he’s always been enormously grateful for that.’’

Keith ‘‘always felt he was going to go back to Hartlepool at the end of his career,’’ said Jonathan.

Hartlepool ‘‘gave him a chance,’’ he added.

‘‘I think he was very grateful to go back there. There were a lot of fans who he loved in Hartlepool.

“But I think it all went wrong for him when he went back there.

“I think he felt that the fans turned against him. He left in a rather sad and embittered way, particularly when you have given so much. It was a love-hate relationship I suppose.

“Of course his wife is a local girl. He’s still very much a North-East man. It’s sad that things ended in the way they did.”

Keith, who is now in coaching and also works for the Press Association, told the Mail he was by and large happy with the book.

However, he added he was a little concerned that some of his comments about Hartlepool might appear “a bit harsh”.

The 46-year-old, who now lives in Thirsk, said: “A big part of my life has been in Hartlepool. During my second spell in Hartlepool everything was beginning to change. The town was

starting to change. We really started to change the club I felt.”

Keith said when he returned to Pools the players were still queuing after games for their wages and the club struggled to find training facilities.

He said: “There was never any money. There was always a down-trodden feeling. The transition now is incredible. It’s a massive regeneration.

“It seems to me you have got a prosperous little town and a prosperous little football club.

“There’s no reason now why they shouldn’t be doing well, which they are.”

Keith, who is originally from Middlesbrough, added that despite leaving Pools on a sour note, he did his best for the club.

“My heart was totally in it at Hartlepool,” he said. “I always gave everything I had. It took me years to get over it.”

While Keith’s FA Cup final goal was the highlight of his career, he will never forget the moment he signed for Pools.

He said: “I was a professional footballer - that was a massive thing in my life, looking back.”

l A Tenner and a Box of Kippers is published by Tempus and can be found in all good bookshops or ordered directly through website: www.tempus-publishing.com.