Obituary: Eric Houghton

When Eric Houghton kicked a football, it was sensible not to stand in its path. Between the wars, as an Aston Villa and England left-winger, he established a reputation as one of the most destructively powerful marksmen the game had seen. Off the pitch, though, the author of those famously violent strikes was a mild and courteous fellow, and throughout his subsequent career as a manager, the highlight of which was leading his beloved Villa to FA Cup glory in 1957, he ruled by a quiet strength of character which earned him widespread respect.

Houghton had seemed destined for a life in soccer since his teenage days as a prodigiously prolific centre-forward who revelled in turning out for his school on a Saturday morning, then playing for his village side in the afternoon. After excelling in local non-League circles, notably with Boston Town, he was recommended to Aston Villa by an uncle who had once played for the club, signing amateur forms in 1927 and giving up a bakery job to turn professional a year later.

Having been converted into a flankman - Villa were magnificently served in the centre by the revered "Pongo" Waring - Houghton gained rapid promotion to the senior side, uncharacteristically missing a penalty on his debut in January 1930 but impressing generally with his dashing style, his slick manipulation of the ball and, above all, his shooting prowess.

Clearly the eager rookie offered immense promise, but no one expected the Houghton star to ascend quite so instantly as it did during the season of 1930-31, in which he scored 30 times as Villa finished as First Division runners-up, and he was rewarded by an England call-up. He netted in that game, too, a 5-1 victory over All Ireland, and could count himself unlucky that his prime coincided with that of Arsenal's Cliff Bastin, whose brilliance ended Houghton's international involvement only two years later.

At club level, however, the Villa man continued to flourish, and he played a major part in the club's Second Division championship triumph of 1938. All the while the Houghton "howitzer" grew in renown and he became a dead- ball specialist, many of the 170 senior goals he netted before leaving Villa Park in 1946 having come from penalties and free-kicks.

Houghton's new club was lowly Notts County, for whom he played until 1949 when he took over as manager and, with England centre-forward Tommy Lawton at his disposal, led them to the Third Division (South) title in his first campaign at the helm. Three terms of unspectacular consolidation followed before he took the job closest to his heart, that of bossing Aston Villa. Quietly but firmly, he set about revitalising a once-great club now fallen on mediocre times. He gave youngsters a chance and he spent heavily on well-known recruits, but could not achieve his ambition of mounting a realistic championship challenge.

There was uplifting consolation in 1957, though, when the Villans upset the odds to beat newly-crowned League champions Manchester United in the FA Cup Final, albeit in controversial circumstances after United's goalkeeper was seriously injured. However, hopes that the Wembley victory would inspire a general recovery were dashed and, with his side struggling near the foot of the table, a sad Houghton was sacked in November 1958.

Thereafter the popular Eastcountryman joined Nottingham Forest as chief scout and bossed non-League Rugby Town in the early 1960s, before serving Walsall in various capacities, including director. Next he enjoyed a second return to Villa Park, pioneering the club lottery before taking a seat on the board for seven years from 1972, and in 1983 was elevated to senior vice-president.

Houghton - who in his youth had been a sporting all-rounder proficient enough at cricket to play for Lincolnshire at Minor Counties level and Warwickshire Seconds - retained his fervour for football to the end, watching Villa regularly at senior, reserve and youth level until ill health curtailed his activity during the current season. He never tired of reminiscing with supporters, never refused to sign an autograph, was never less than a perfect gentlemen. When Eric Houghton died, Aston Villa lost one of their most loyal servants and an ambassador of immeasurable worth.

William Eric Houghton, football player, manager and administrator: born Billingborough, Lincolnshire 29 June 1910; died Birmingham 1 May 1996.

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