There is no one better placed than Mick Harford to put the fall and rise of Luton Town into perspective.
Harford was a fearsome centre forward in a glorious era at Kenilworth Road, winning the League Cup, scoring as they lost in another Wembley final and collecting his England caps while leading the line for the Hatters.
In his second spell, he was unable to stop the club slipping out of the top flight as the Premier League launched and was sold to Chelsea after relegation, before returning four times to occupy various roles since hanging up his boots.
Harford was the manager when they crashed into non-League, holding the pieces together amid financial collapse following a 30-point deduction and lifting the EFL Trophy as they went.
That trophy, won at Wembley in front of 42,000 Luton fans, he regards among his finest achievements. And it was a symbol of defiance. As is the climb up the pyramid to the play-off final, where victory would complete perhaps football’s greatest comeback.
Mick Harford says Saturday’s Championship play-off final is biggest game in Luton’s history
Harford has returned four times to occupy various roles at Luton since hanging up his boots
Harford (above) was a fearsome centre forward in a glorious era at Kenilworth Road
‘We’ve got to talk about it because there’s a massive story unfolding here,’ says Harford, who made his most recent return to Luton in 2016 as chief recruitment officer, and is back in the same role after three spells as caretaker boss and six months off in 2021 as he underwent treatment for prostate cancer.
‘For me, it is Luton’s biggest game in their history, in the context of where we’ve come from and where we are. If we get to the Promised Land, it will be worth a vast amount of money. We can build a new stadium and that stadium will secure the club’s future. They should make a film of it if we do get promoted.’
And, when Hollywood calls, who will play the legendary centre forward turned recruitment chief? ‘Oh dear, who’s got a broken nose and dodgy knee? It’s got to be Brad Pitt, hasn’t it?’
In truth, you can see Pitt in the role, pacing the dressing room at Saltergate in April 2009, to inspire his exhausted and beleaguered players with relegation confirmed by a goalless draw against Chesterfield.
‘I told the players, “Look at the clock, remember the date and the time because the new Luton starts now”,’ recalls Harford. ‘That was a bit of closure for us. We had all the points deductions and all the c*** out of the way and we could make a fresh start.
‘You’ve been in the depths of despair because the club was in turmoil. It took five years to get out of the National League, and John Still deserves legendary status for getting us back into the EFL because that was the start of the rise we’re on, but after that rollercoaster ride you could never have imagined we’d be here, 10 years later.’
Harford looks at the team forged by Nathan Jones and Rob Edwards this season and recognises similar strengths to the Luton team he joined, when David Pleat signed him from Birmingham City for £250,000 in December 1984.
‘We had spirit, togetherness, camaraderie, a desire and passion to win,’ he says. ‘A hard-working team, players who get on, and diligent people who built a culture at the football club.
‘We managed the dressing room ourselves. Fozzy (Steve Foster) was our leader, and it’s similar now. We have good leaders in there and the changing room is self-managed. For me, that’s the basis of a really good team.’
Harford would lead them into battle. ‘I didn’t end up looking like this by playing fancy one-twos on the edge of the box,’ grins the man who even enhanced his Luton cult status while at Derby County, scoring an own goal past Peter Shilton to help the Hatters avoid relegation from the First Division with a 2-0 win on the final day of the 1990-91 season at Kenilworth Road.
He was born in Wearside, a fierce Sunderland fan as a boy. Fifty years ago, he ran through the streets to follow the team bus to Roker Park as his heroes returned from Wembley with the FA Cup after toppling Leeds.
These days, Harford’s loyalties are firmly with Luton. They beat his beloved Sunderland in a play-off semi-final to clinch a place in Saturday’s showdown with Coventry, another of his former clubs, for whom he scored once on his only appearance.
It was the penultimate stop in his 10-club career and he was struggling with back trouble by then, before moving to Wimbledon where he moved into coaching, management and recruitment.
‘I don’t want to tempt fate, there’s still one more hurdle to get over,’ says Harford. ‘We’re proud of what we’ve done, in terms of where we are with our budgets. We believe in our processes.
Harford returned to his role as chief recruitment officer after treatment for prostate cancer
His loyalties are firmly with Luton despite beating his beloved Sunderland in the play-offs
‘We try to sign good people, not just good footballers but good human beings and to create an environment where people can thrive, improve, become better people, and that’s played a massive part in our development.
‘You’ve got to give the manager a lot of credit. He came in with a very positive attitude. He had trust, faith and belief in the players and they have responded to his style.
‘The days have gone quickly and now the final is upon us. The players can’t wait but there’s a calmness in the group and I just tell them to make sure they leave their mark on the game.
‘The more people who make their mark, the better chance we have of winning.’
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