MICK HARFORD hates being caricatured as a hardman. And at Luton Town, they appreciate the gentler side of the man.
Harford – widely recalled as one of the toughest centre-forwards in the English game – may be a Wearsider, who would hitch-hike across the country to watch Sunderland as a teenager.
Mick Harford is now Luton’s assistant manager to Nathan JonesCredit: Alamy Live News
But he is Mr Luton, a man who has experienced the club’s most extreme highs and lows.
A League Cup winner with the Hatters and a mainstay of the club’s top-flight 1980s glory years, he also managed Luton when they were narrowly relegated into the Conference after suffering a 30-point deduction 12 years ago, and again when they were promoted to the Championship in 2019.
Now, Harford is officially titled as Luton’s chief recruitment officer but is also an assistant manager to Nathan Jones… as well as an unofficial community worker, fan liaison man and even a comedy impressionist.
When Luton visit Chelsea in the FA Cup tomorrow, Harford will read out the teamsheet on his usual video message to absent fans – often with a twiddle of his specs and a ‘wahey!’, in tribute to Luton’s most famous fan, Eric Morecambe.
It will be a special day for Harford, who scored Chelsea’s first ever Premier League goal in 1992 during a spell he remembers fondly.
But it is not as special as it should be, not without thousands of Hatters supporters in The Shed.
Harford, who enjoys the strongest of bonds with Luton’s fanbase, feels their absence keenly during the behind-closed-doors era.
When supporters were briefly readmitted to Kenilworth Road last month, Harford recalled: “I had tears in my eyes, seeing them. Those fans have been amazing to me in all my different roles.
Hardman Mick Harford spent seven years at Luton over two spellsCredit: Getty Images – Getty
The striker moved from Luton to Chelsea in 1992Credit: Rex Features
“We haven’t always been successful, there have been relegations, but they’ve always been loyal.
“This season we’ve had Manchester United in the League Cup, two games against our rivals Watford for the first time in years, and now Chelsea – it’s an absolute kick in the teeth that fans can’t get in.
“It’s a disaster for them, a crying shame – whatever allocation we’d got, they’d have filled it and got behind the team.
“Those fans deserve these days because of the loyalty they have shown to the non-league and back.
“With what the club has been through, Luton fans are arguably the best in the country. They have adopted me.
“During Covid we’ve tried to help the fans, including video messages for some who haven’t been well suffering from the virus.”
Harford has also been in touch with care-home residents, including dementia sufferers, robbed of short-term memory but still razor-sharp in reminiscences of Big Mick banging them in for David Pleat’s Hatters.
The counterpoint to those glory years – when Luton reached successive League Cup Finals, beating Arsenal in 1988, then losing to Nottingham Forest, with Harford on the scoresheet – came in 2008-09 after that huge points deduction, for financial irregularities from the club’s previous owners.
Harford described Luton’s points deduction as the ‘darkest days’Credit: PA:Empics Sport
Mick Harford is eyed as a legend in the eyes of Luton fansCredit: Getty Images – Getty
Harford, 61, said: “Those were the darkest days. It was a tough gig as manager.
“What sticks in my mind is how we managed to attract good players even when we started on -30 points. And how 42,000 Luton fans still went to Wembley to see us beat Scunthrope in the Football League Trophy Final.
“Since then the club has been owned by a consortium of fans, some really special people who ensure the club is always well-run and financially secure.”
So what of Harford’s spell at Chelsea – and that historic goal against Oldham on the Premier League’s opening day?
“Well it wasn’t a typical Mick Harford goal – not a far-post header,” he said.
“It was a 25-yard shot into the top corner. It’s something I’m very proud of.
“I loved playing for Chelsea but I still don’t know why I was let go.
“Ian Porterfield got sacked as manager, David Webb took over, pulled me in training and said ‘you won’t play for Chelsea again’.
“I said ‘what are you talking about, I’m the top scorer?’ I never got an explanation and a few weeks later I was sold to Sunderland.
“Porterfield was a hero to me. The first time I ever went to London was to watch the 1973 FA Cup Final and he got the winner.
Mick Harford, right, poses in boxing gloves with fellow hardman Vinnie JonesCredit: News Group Newspapers Ltd
“Between the ages of 15 and 17, I was devoted to Sunderland and packed in playing to follow them all over the county.
“Me and my mates used to hitch-hike on a Friday night to wherever they were playing, we didn’t have any money for the train but we’d skank a lift back home on the supporters’ coach.”
Harford was valued by two of English football’s great knights – capped twice by Bobby Robson and the subject of a transfer bid from Alex Ferguson in 1991.
He said: “It was a conversation between Sir Alex and David Pleat. Ferguson wanted me but Pleat didn’t want to sell. That was the end of it.
“The first I heard about it was when Fergie put it in his autobiography. It was an absolute honour – but I’ve had a word with Pleaty since, trust me!
“Not that I wanted to leave Luton, but, you know, there are certain clubs…”
Ferguson’s interest says much for Harford’s wider qualities, beyond the stereotype.
“I hate being remembered as a hard player,” he says, “I was brave, I’d stick my head in where it hurts but so did a lot of players then.”
Still, I cannot resist recalling two of the hardest teams English football has ever known, both including Harford.
The Birmingham City side of the early 80s – including Mark Dennis, Noel Blake, Pat van Den Hauwe and Robert Hopkins – and Wimbledon’s side of the 90s, skippered by Vinnie Jones.
So Mick, which was the harder team?
“That’s a bloody good question,” he replies. “It would certainly be a good fight…
“I’d want to be on Vinnie’s side but I’d also want to be on (Birmingham keeper) Tony Coton’s side, and I can’t have both.
“It’d probably end in a draw with plenty of bruises.”
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