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Rachid Harkouk on Crystal Palace, Brighton, George Best and more
Crystal Palace take on Brighton live on Sky Sports this Saturday
Last Updated: 05/03/19 7:54am
Rachid Harkouk became a Crystal Palace cult hero as a result of his impressive performances against Brighton in the 1970s. Adam Bate caught up with Harkouk to discuss the M23 derby, throttling George Best, and becoming a World Cup victim of the Butcher of Bilbao.
Every saga has its beginning and for the rivalry between Crystal Palace and Brighton, that came in the winter of 1976. The teams met five times that season as the fixture morphed into something much more, and the first star of the M23 derby was born. Many heroes have been made by this match, but none can have been more colourful than Rachid Harkouk.
Born in London in 1956, Harkouk began his career in Sunday league football and would end it by playing for Algeria at the 1986 World Cup. Along the way, the man who would become known as Rash the Smash earned a reputation for having the hardest shot in the game, his brushes with the law off the field, and once throttling George Best on it.
His wild ride began when he came off the bench to score a brilliant goal that earned third-tier Palace their 2-2 draw at the Goldstone Ground in the first round of the FA Cup in November 1976. "I beat three or four players and smashed the ball into the roof of the net," Harkouk tells Sky Sports. "That was my introduction to professional football."
Palace went on to win the tie at the third attempt, while Harkouk inflicted further damage in the league, scoring two and setting up another in a 3-1 win at Selhurst Park in the spring. His hero status was confirmed when his late goal at Wrexham in their final game of the season helped the Eagles to earn the two-goal victory they needed to win promotion.
Terry Venables, the Palace manager at the time, would later describe that match as the most memorable of his distinguished managerial career, and it was he who had plucked Harkouk from obscurity. Rather than seek to curb the player's unorthodox approach that so endeared him to the fans, Venables sought instead to unleash it upon the opposition.
"He always encouraged me to make the goalkeeper work," says Harkouk. "He used to say to me that if I could hit the target, then he didn't care where I hit it from. So that's what I did.
"It was only because I had been playing park football before that. I had no fear. He knew that he couldn't put me in any one position so he just told me to play up front and go anywhere. It was only through playing for years under coaches who had tactics that I started to think about the game. I think that's when I went downhill. Just go out there and play."
That Palace team is still fondly remembered by supporters for their off-the-cuff approach. "We were riding on the crest of a wave because we had some serious players such as Vince Hilaire and Kenny Sansom," recalls Harkouk. This was the era of the game's mavericks, although neither the pitches nor the refereeing necessarily favoured the flair players.
"When I show my friends the pitches that we played on, they can't believe it," he laughs. "There wasn't a blade of grass by Christmas. As for the tackling, that was just par for the course. Nowadays you can't breathe on another player without something happening, but we were just kicking chunks out of each other because you could do that back then.
"You used to hammer your midfield player for not giving you the ball quickly enough or passing it too slowly because you knew if he did pass it slowly and you had your back to goal, then it was a suicide ball. You just knew the centre-half would come straight through you. That was the game back then. I think that's why a lot of us have so many scars.
"You had to keep your wits about you. As callous as it might sound, you only had a referee and two linesmen watching you. It's not like today with the scrutiny they have got. Back then, as soon as the goalkeeper hit the ball and everyone's eyes were in the air, you knew you could give it back to whoever had been giving it you. It happened a lot."
Tellingly, Harkouk's most vivid memory of his Palace career is not one of the many highs but the low of seeing team-mate Ian Evans suffer a broken leg against Fulham. In part, that's because of the identity of the culprit, the Manchester United legend Best. Palace supporters of a certain vintage still recall Harkouk's extraordinary reaction to the challenge.
"It was a karate kick," says Harkouk. "He came in sideways about a foot off the ground and practically snapped his leg clean off. The reason why it is so vivid in my memory is that when I looked down at Ian Evans' foot, it was in his crotch, that's how bad the tackle was. George just looked down with no emotions whatsoever. When I saw that, I just flew for him."
Harkouk's own career was ended at the age of 30 by a more predictable candidate, the renowned hardman defender Andoni Goikoetxea. The so-called Butcher of Bilbao achieved notoriety for breaking Diego Maradona's ankle in 1983, but the incident that ended Harkouk's career, while playing for Algeria at the 1986 World Cup, was rather less dramatic.
"The grass over there in Mexico was really thick and when you put your foot into it and tried to turn, the studs just didn't move," says Harkouk. "Any other time, when Goikoetxea twisted me, I would have just turned with it but instead my foot stayed where it was because of the grass. I completely wrenched my knee and wrenched everything."
It was the sort of injury from which players routinely recover these days, but back then it was a different story. "They didn't have the technology to help me," he adds. "It wasn't malice on his part. It was just unfortunate. But that was the end of me playing football."
Life since has not been straightforward. As a player, Harkouk was once given a nine-month suspended sentence due to an incident with some counterfeit cash and his troubles with the law continued into retirement. He makes no excuses for the problems he has endured.
"I have done some things that I obviously deeply regret," he admits. "That's part and parcel of growing up and life experience really. It's the way life goes. I got divorced too and have ended up in a one-bed flat, but there are a million other guys in the same situation as me.
"I know some of the older players look at the wages that they got in their day and then look at players now and can't believe it, but what's the point in thinking like that? I try to look at the positives instead. I am happy. I have got lots of good friends. I enjoy life."
Harkouk still retains an interest in the game. He speaks enthusiastically about the more fluent football that he gets to watch these days on his television. As for Palace, though chairman Steve Parish once named Harkouk as the player he'd most like to see interviewed, much of his interaction with the club's supporters comes via social media.
He is more directly involved with the Notts County former players' association, having spent the latter part of his career at the club between 1980 and 1986, even going to watch their most recent win over Mansfield. It was on that trip that he was told Martin O'Neill still rates him as the hardest striker of a ball he has ever seen. "Quite the compliment," he says.
Not that the great entertainer was impressed with the fare on offer at Meadow Lane that afternoon. "There was one shot in the first half," he adds with incredulity. "I'd be pretty peed off if I didn't have at least half a dozen myself." That's the Rash the Smash who Palace fans will remember. The one who helped to write the story of one of English football's great rivalries.