Mick Harford steps inside Harry’s Bar and lets the memories take him back.
‘It used to be called Scott’s,’ he said. ‘When I signed for Luton, this was the first bar I came in. Steve Foster would bring new players here for their initiation on a Tuesday afternoon.
‘A few beers, a few shorts, drinking and a bit of fun. When we won League One under Mike Newell we came here for a celebration. We had some good nights in here.’
By the time he steps back out on to Harpenden High Street, an hour later, Harford has relived various rumbles, the thrill of his England call-ups, trips to Wembley and the unique madness of Mark Dennis.
But there are, he admits, holes in his memory and he is acutely aware heading the ball is being increasingly linked to early-onset dementia, and read about the BBC documentary with Alan Shearer, broadcast recently.
As a centre forward who started a long professional career in the 1970s and was famed for his courage and aerial power, he is firmly in the high-risk category.
‘I’ve got some kind of memory loss,’ said Harford. ‘I know that 100 per cent. I was out with Steve Thompson who I played with at Lincoln and he was telling me stories I could not remember.
‘I don’t know if that’s from heading the ball or not. But I was renowned for heading the ball and if someone thinks there’s an illness connected to that, then I ought to be tested.
‘I used to head hundreds of balls a day in training. I used to love it, working on my timing, getting my feet right, learning to get up, using your arms for leverage and across the centre half. You don’t really see it now apart from Andy Carroll. Like Alan Shearer said, it wasn’t just what you saw on a Saturday afternoon.
‘If anyone wants to test me or use me as a guinea pig, I’m more than happy. If I can help in any way, I will. And if I’ve got a problem, I want to know.’
Harford coats his concerns with humour and a what-will-be-will-be disposition, the default mode for footballers from an era when the ball wasn’t the most obvious hazard flying around.
He points to his lip and the largest scar from his collection as he tells of a clash with Sam Allardyce in a Midlands derby between Coventry and Birmingham.
‘I turned to run and he’s elbowed me, totally off the ball,’ said Harford. ‘I can remember looking up and seeing Trevor Peake. Then I spat something out and I thought I’d spat my tongue out. Then I just blacked out.
‘I woke up in hospital with my kit and my boots on and I was clear as a bell. No headache, nothing. I said, “What’s going on here then?” They said, “You’ve got a nasty cut. You’re going for an operation”.
‘A hundred and odd stitches, plastic surgery. People think I’ve got a hair lip.’
Harford was at Luton and Allardyce at Huddersfield when their paths crossed again, in an FA Cup tie at Kenilworth Road.
‘I just tried to hurt him, to be honest,’ said Harford. ‘I went in two-footed and threw elbows until I caught him once on the forehead and there was a little trickle of blood. That was probably when I was at my most vindictive on the football pitch.
‘I don’t hold any grudges. I speak to Sam. There’s absolutely not a problem. That’s just the way it was. I don’t like being tagged the hardman. I wouldn’t say I was hard. Just brave, really. I put my head in where it hurt and never shirked a challenge. All I wanted was for my team-mates to think I was a good player.’
Sir Alex Ferguson revealed in an autobiography how he asked David Pleat in 1992 about signing Harford from Luton because he thought his ‘aerial deadliness’ would boost Manchester United’s title bid.
Pleat, locked in a relegation fight, refused to sell. ‘Sadly, I did not show enough resolve to push the deal through,’ wrote Ferguson. ‘If I’d acted as purposefully as I should have done, we would have won the league.’
Leeds won it and for years Harford was blissfully unaware. ‘Man United come calling and you sign, don’t you?’ he said. ‘You do if you’re given the opportunity. Only I wasn’t given the opportunity. I blame Pleaty. Now I see Fergie on his golf days and he mentions it.’
Bobby Robson called him into the England squad. He was on standby for the World Cup in 1986 and Euro 88, and won two caps.
His only start came in a friendly against Denmark in 1988, on the night when Paul Gascoigne made his debut, before a Wembley crowd of less than 26,000. ‘No-one turned up but that didn’t bother me,’ said Harford. ‘I was playing for England. And we won.’
Harford was working as a plumber when Graham Taylor took him to Lincoln only for the manager to leave for Watford on the day he signed.
Arthur Cox signed him twice, for Newcastle and Derby, and Ron Saunders took him to Birmingham City and schooled him in the art of the centre forward while adding more menace to a team with a fearsome reputation.
‘They were crazy, that lot,’ said Harford, denying any part in the notorious social circle dubbed the Birmingham Six. ‘Every other weekend you’d see a police car roll into the training ground and you’d think, “Here we go, who’s this getting dropped off?” I think Ron quite liked it that the lads went out and partied hard and trained hard. His training was hard.’
Robert Hopkins, Noel Blake, Howard Gayle and Harford’s mate Tony Coton represented the hard-core, he insisted. ‘It was more like the Birmingham Four,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t part of it. I was sensible. I was a sub. I came off the bench occasionally with a couple of others like Pat van den Hauwe.
‘The maddest player I’ve ever, ever played with was Mark Dennis and he never gets mentioned. A crazy man. A great player, too. When I came, he’d done his cruciate ligaments and the lads said if he’d not done that he would have played for England, no problem.
‘He’d go into the groundsman’s hut on the way out the training ground and get a pot of whitewash and paint the tyres on Ron’s car. I lived opposite him in Solihull. One day, I’m driving home in my Ford Cortina and I see this blond lad driving along the road on a sit-on mower.
‘He nicked it from the groundsman and when they got wind of it he dumped it in a lake in Solihull Park. It’s probably still there. And there’s a lot of other stories I couldn’t possibly share!’
Harford’s greatest successes came at Luton, finishing seventh in Division One, the club’s best top-flight finish, winning the League Cup in 1988 and losing the final against Nottingham Forest, a year later.
And there were two FA Cup semi-finals, the first having beaten Millwall on the night when away fans rioted at Kenilworth Road.
‘Even the police dogs were s******* themselves,’ said Harford. ‘We knew as soon as we got out there something was going on.
‘The defining moment for me was when a sock with two snooker balls inside landed between me and Les Sealey. We threw it to the side and looked at each other. It was actually quite scary.’
He returned to Kenilworth Road after a spell at Derby with his legendary status enhanced by an own-goal against Luton, a glancing header past Peter Shilton.
It was the opener in a 2-0 defeat for the Rams, which ensured his former club escaped relegation on the final day of the season.
Unfortunately, it condemned his beloved Sunderland.
‘It wasn’t deliberate,’ said Harford. ‘I said once on a TV show that it was, but it wasn’t. It came off the top of my head and Shilts wasn’t the biggest and it went over him. It was on the plastic, Derby were already down and some of our players didn’t really fancy it.
‘Luton had to win to stay up and I was delighted they stayed up and I was part of it.’
Harford, who finished his career at Wimbledon, is 58 years old now and into his sixth spell at Luton. Two as a player, one as a coach with Joe Kinnear and one as the director of football when Newell was at the helm.
Almost a decade has passed since he accepted the manager’s job. Starting the season with a 30-point deduction, he was unable to keep them up but won the Football League Trophy.
‘It takes a lot to be a Luton Town fan,’ said Harford. ‘The highs and lows, the elation and the sorrow when we went out of the Football League. I was the manager and I felt responsible. There’s been financial discrepancies, fines, takeovers, grand schemes for the stadium, but we’ve come through and we’re in the best place we’ve been for a long time.’
Harford is now chief recruitment officer and he predicts an exciting future at the club with plans before the council to build a new stadium in the town centre and a team now top of League Two after scoring 10 goals in the last two games under highly rated boss Nathan Jones.
‘Nathan is thorough, strong and inventive,’ said Harford. ‘He knows what he wants, he likes to play fast, attacking football and the players are buying into it.
‘Hopefully we’ll get an answer on the stadium before Christmas. If we don’t get it with this application and the support we have from everyone involved, we might as well pack up.
‘It’s a move we need. It’s an old stadium and we love it. It’s a special place to play but the stadium has come to its end. It’s had a good run.’
Time to forget the past and move on, you could say. Create new memories and pray the old ones don’t fade.
Interview appears courtesy of The Mail Online