By David Witchard
Although Luton Town have spent this decade scrapping in the outer limits of the fourth and fifth tiers of English football, prior to that it was a very different story for the small Bedfordshire club.
Throughout the 1980s and early 90s under the leadership of managers David Pleat, John Moore and then Ray Harford, Luton were one of the best and most respected teams in the country. They won promotion to the first division (now Premier League) as champions in 1982 and spent ten seasons in the top flight, winning the 1988 League Cup final against Arsenal and finishing runners-up the following year to Nottingham Forest. They also reached three FA Cup semi finals in that era.
Mick Harford was Luton’s top scorer for four of those ten seasons in the top division. An intimidating, no-nonsense front man with deadly finishing skills, Big Mick struck fear into the hearts of opposing defenders whenever he pulled on the number 9 shirt for the Hatters.
Mick is now the Chief Recruitment Officer at Luton as the club are enjoying a resurgence under young manager Nathan Jones. They have a comfortable lead at the top of League Two going into the business end of the season, along with a phenomenal goal difference.
This week however, Mick is enjoying a break in New York City with friends to celebrate his 59th birthday. First Touch tracked him down at the Red Lion on Bleecker Street where he was happy to share memories of his playing days and talk about the future of the club he loves, over a pint..or two.
FT: So Mick, what was it that made the Luton Town team of the eighties so special, and how important was David Pleat’s role in that?
MH: When I signed for Luton, I went to a team that was very exciting, with fantastic players. The team was littered with internationals – Mal Donaghy, Ashley Grimes, Brian Stein, Ricky Hill, to name but a few. They played a certain style of football which is the Luton way so to speak, but what they didn’t have was a bit of steel and determination and a bit of grit.
Myself, Fozzie (Steve Foster), Peter Nicholas and David Preece came in at the same time and I think we added that bit of know-how in terms of winning games. Luton when they got it right in terms of the football were exciting, but their scores and results were very up and down. They’d either win 5-0 or they’d get beat 4-3. We then started to keep more clean sheets, and if you do that then you win more games. But to answer your question, in terms of David Pleat’s success, he realized that when Luton got promoted to the top division they would need a bit more than just flair and skill. They needed a bit of strength and a bit of gumption basically, and I think the players that he signed at the time were excellent. So I would say one of the reasons he was a successful manager and went on to manage Tottenham was because of his eye for a player of a certain type.
MH: For me, the biggest thing about a successful team is the camaraderie, the team spirit and the togetherness, and Steve Foster did that for us.
He was a great captain, in my opinion not the greatest footballer to ever play for Luton, but the greatest player in terms of getting us together, being a leader, having a bit of know-how. You go 1-0 down and how do you get back into the game? He was magnificent for that and he was the catalyst, in my opinion, for a great period for Luton Town.
FT: Earlier in your career you had a brief spell with Newcastle United. Why was it so brief?
MH: I started at Lincoln City and had three and a half years there, and it moulded my career. I went to Newcastle United and I just couldn’t handle it to be honest with you. I was still only young, there was a lot of expectation on my shoulders. I went for a decent fee and wearing the number nine shirt was a bit of a burden to me. The fans were great, I mean the Newcastle fans are fantastic but it just never happened for me there and I think being from nearby Sunderland didn’t really help. If I ever made a mistake, and I did make mistakes, I was more or less told so by the fans. But what it did for me, it taught me a hell of a lesson never, ever to doubt myself again, never to question my ability. You get to a certain point in your career where you have to grow up, and after that Newcastle scenario it did make me a better player.
FT: You played for nine other clubs before and after your hey-day at Luton Town including Chelsea, Sunderland and Derby County. One thing that followed you throughout your career was your reputation as a hard man. Can you tell us about that?
MH: I have to say, I don’t think I was hard, I was just brave. I put my head in where other people didn’t. I didn’t get a face like this by playing one-twos on the edge of the box, you know? I loved my football, I worked hard, I trained hard. It was an honor to play for the clubs I played for. I was aggressive, I was tough, there was a lot of give and take. I took a few whacks myself and I gave a few out. I was on the end of one or two batterings as well (one from Sam Allardyce that required over 100 stitches and a spell in hospital).
FT: Having said that, just four minutes into the first game of the 1987-88 season playing for Luton at Derby, you were given a straight red card. How do you explain that?
MH: What happened there was Jimmy Ryan (Luton’s assistant manager at the time) said to me before the game, “Just close the full back down.” I’ll never forget, the player was Mel Sage, so I’ve ran across and I’ve nailed him. It was the fourth minute of the season and George Courtney was the referee. I knew George because he was from Bishop Morton, from my way, and he’s come over and said, “Mick?” I said, “Ah sorry George, a bit late and all that,” and he’s put the red card up! I said, “You’re taking the piss!” And he went, “No, off you go.” But what didn’t help was Arthur Cox and Roy McFarland (Derby’s coaching staff) were leaping off the bench and all that, throwing their arms in the air.
The ironic thing was I rang my mum in the evening after the game when I got home and she said, “Oh Michael, I saw your photograph on television, on Grandstand, and I thought you’d scored the first goal of the season, but you hadn’t, you’d been sent off!”
FT: More important than the hard man image was your reputation as an effective target man. In fact, Sir Alex Ferguson said in his autobiography that he tried to sign you for the 1991-92 season and if he had been successful then Man Utd would have won the league that year instead of coming runners-up to Leeds United. Were you aware of that at the time?
MH: I did read what Sir Alex wrote in his book and I was very honoured, but I didn’t know at the time. It was a different game back then, a different world. Nowadays the first person to find out about an interest in you would be your agent because managers ring agents about players. Years ago it was just manager to manager. I never got wind of the fact that Sir Alex put a bid in for me. When I found out I was really disappointed, obviously, as I think it’s every player’s ambition to play for, in my opinion, the top club in the country and I never got the opportunity. It’s something that just came up a few years ago when Sir Alex did his book. So it would have been nice, but there you go. It never happened.
FT: You finished your career at Wimbledon and you were there for four seasons. What was it about them that made you stick around so long?
MH: Well I played until I was nearly 39. It’s a long career, over 20 years playing football. At Wimbledon we played a certain way that was very successful. Our ambition was to stay in the Premiership which we did comfortably most years. Again, there was a hell of a lot of team spirit. I wouldn’t say I was part of the Crazy Gang but there were still some facets of the Crazy Gang at Wimbledon when I was there. We still had Vinnie Jones there who was a top captain and a very underrated footballer. We had good players such as Robbie Earle, Warren Barton, John Scales, Vinnie, myself (chuckles), and one or two other good young lads coming through. I think we added a little bit of fear factor to the opposition.
FT: After your playing days you had a few stints as manager with Rotherham, Nottingham Forest, QPR and Luton. Did you enjoy management?
MH: Not really, I didn’t really enjoy it. I enjoyed the coaching side of it. When I got into management I had a couple of caretaker stints. I was at Nottingham Forest which was an absolute honour to be in charge of a big club like that. Joe Kinnear was the manager. He left and I was caretaker manager for eight or nine games, and it was brilliant. To actually sit in the chair that Brian Clough sat in behind his desk was an honour and I had a little bit of success there, but it wasn’t quite enough. I find it quite strange that the least experienced managers get the hardest jobs, because the top managers don’t take the hard jobs. The top managers take the jobs where they’re going to be successful. So if someone gets sacked, like what happened at Nottingham Forest, then it’s a really tough job. When I was offered the Luton job we were in administration and got deducted 30 points, but it was an opportunity to go to manage Luton that I couldn’t turn down. Management is tough. It’s a different game now, I think it’s a young man’s game now, it’s 24/7 full on, full blast.
FT: Which brings us to today. Nathan Jones is Luton’s bright young manager and you are his chief scout. Can you tell us about that dynamic?
MH: I work with Nathan Jones now and I see how hard he works and the effort he puts into it and the hours he does. He’s on the training ground every day, he’s watching games at night. It’s a full time job. Nathan has a structure about how he wants to play and how he wants to build the club. We have a profile of what certain players we want, what we believe they should be with regards to age, technique, size, and where we can get them from. We are always looking for value in our signings.
FT: What are the other important qualities you look for in a signing?
MH: First and foremost you have to bring in players who are better quality than the ones you have now. So we look to improve as we go along.
We look for value, we look for people who are going to improve and get better and will hopefully take us to the next level, or they take themselves to the next level before we do through a transfer. That’s the kind of value we look for.
FT: So if Luton were to get promoted this season, do you think you have the resources to compete in League One?
MH: I think we have the resources for League One. We’ve got the nucleus of a very good squad. It will need adding to it but it will only need tweaking here and there. One or two, maybe three players to bring in. Coming to the end of the season we have quite a few players out of contract, so that will give us some leeway to trim down and fine tune the squad. It’s an ongoing job, you’re always thinking ahead and hopefully we will get promoted and be in that position.
FT: As well as ambitions on the field, Luton are looking at a possible new stadium being built. What’s the latest news on that front?
MH: Ever since I was involved with Luton years and years ago they’ve been looking for a new stadium. I believe that 20/20, the consortium who run the club now with Gary Sweet heading it up, are in the best position the club has ever been in terms of getting a new stadium. They’ve bought the land in the town centre, there’s an application gone in for planning permission and we are just waiting for an answer. I think that will come by the end of March. My saying is that if Luton don’t get planning permission now for a new stadium they never, ever will. For me, the application is absolutely top class.
FT: Let’s talk about the Luton fans. For a League Two club they have a phenomenal support that follows them to every game. That surely must help lift the players, right?
MH: I can’t say enough about the Luton Town fans, how much pride and respect I’ve got for them in terms of how they back the club. You know, and we all know that Luton is not an easy ride. Supporting Luton is a roller-coaster ride. It’s up and down, the turmoil we’ve had over the last few years and getting to where they are now. It’s not an easy ride being a Luton Town fan but the fans have been absolutely first class for me ever since I put the shirt on and whenever I’ve been connected with the club. I think they’re up there with the best fans in the country without a doubt.
FT: Looking ahead to the World Cup this summer, how do you rate England’s chances?
MH: Well England are not going to win the World Cup, put it that way. To win the World Cup you have to have three or four world class players in your squad and in my opinion England only have one world class player, and that’s Harry Kane. I’ve got a lot of admiration for Harry Kane. I think he’s a top player, top lad, very humble, works his socks off and he absolutely deserves all the credit he gets. I’m an England fan obviously, but I can’t see them getting anywhere near winning the World Cup with the quality of the squad they’ve got.
FT: So Happy Birthday, by the way. You’re over here enjoying a few days in New York. What have you been up to?
MH: I’ve got to be honest with you, I’m getting an escort off my friend Sean and he’s shown me New York at its best. It’s unbelievable. It’s very friendly and I’ve been made very welcome by the family I’m staying with. Incredible hospitality they’ve shown me.
You come into town like we are now and it’s like home from home. They’ve got football on the TV in the bars! It’s an amazing place and I’d recommend New York to any traveller. If you’re planning to travel the world you should make New York your first stop.
FT: Any particular sights that have impressed you, apart from the football bars?
MH: When I came over here last time, one of the most surreal experiences I had was in the Bronx. You hear about the Bronx and how rough it is, but I played on one of the most beautiful golf courses there. It was Autumn time and the trees were blooming in Van Cortlandt Park and I’m thinking, hold on a minute, I’m in New York and I’m in the Bronx and I’m playing golf on this wonderful course. That was one of my really good experiences in New York.