There is no one better able to put Luton Town’s fall and rise into perspective than Mick Harford.
Harford was a fearsome center forward in a glory era at Kenilworth Road. He won the League Cup, scored a goal as they lost in another Wembley final and collected his caps for England while leading the Hatters’ side.
In his second spell he failed to prevent the club’s relegation from the top flight early in the Premier League and was sold to Chelsea after relegation before returning four times since his career and holding various roles.
Harford was the manager as they plummeted to non-league, holding the pieces together despite the financial collapse after a 30-point deduction and clinching the EFL Trophy in the process.
This trophy, which he won in front of 42,000 Luton fans at Wembley Stadium, is one of his greatest achievements. And it was a symbol of defiance. As was climbing the pyramid all the way to the play-off finals, where victory would complete what is perhaps football’s greatest comeback.
Saturday’s championship play-off final is the biggest game in Luton history, according to Mick Harford
Since quitting his career, Harford has returned four times to fill various roles at Luton
Harford (above) was a fearsome centre-forward in a glory era at Kenilworth Road
“We need to talk about this because there’s a tremendous story going on here,” says Harford, who last returned to Luton as chief recruiting officer in 2016 and is back in the same role after three terms as interim and chief recruit in 2021, where he served six months released as he was undergoing treatment for prostate cancer.
“For me, it’s Luton’s biggest game in his history given where we came from and where we are.” When we reach the Promised Land, it’s going to be worth a lot of money. We can build a new stadium and this stadium will ensure the future of the club. They should make a movie of this when we get promoted.’
And when Hollywood calls, who will play the legendary center forward-turned-recruitment chief? ‘Oh dear, who’s got a broken nose and a bad knee?’ It has to be Brad Pitt, right?’
Indeed, in this role, Pitt can be seen pacing the dressing room at Saltergate in April 2009 to inspire his weary and beleaguered players, whose relegation was confirmed by a goalless draw against Chesterfield.
“I told the players, ‘Look at the clock, remember the date and time, because the new Luton is starting now,’” Harford recalled. “That was a small conclusion for us.” We had cleared up all the point deductions and all that crap and were able to dare a new start.
“They were in deep despair because the club was in turmoil. It took us five years to get out of the National League and John Still deserves legend status for bringing us back into the EFL because that was the start of our rise but after that rollercoaster you never would have matched can imagine us saying “I would be here 10 years later.”
Harford looks back on the team formed this season by Nathan Jones and Rob Edwards and sees similar strengths to the Luton team he joined when David Pleat signed him for £250,000 from Birmingham City in December 1984.
“We had spirit, togetherness, camaraderie, a desire and passion to win,” he says. “A hard working team, players who get along well and hardworking people who have 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 managers there and we manage the dressing room ourselves. For me that is the basis of a really good team.”
Harford would lead them into battle. “I didn’t look like that at the end because I played fancy one-twos from the edge of the box,” grins the man, who reinforced his Luton cult status at Derby County by scoring an own goal past Peter Shilton to save the Hatters Avoid relegation from the First Division with a 2-0 win at Kenilworth Road on the final day of the 1990/91 season.
Born in Wearside, he was a huge Sunderland fan as a boy. Fifty years ago he was racing through the streets to follow the team bus to Roker Park when his heroes returned from Wembley after beating Leeds with the FA Cup.
These days Harford is loyal to Luton. They beat his beloved Sunderland in a play-off semi-final to secure a place in Saturday’s showdown against Coventry, another of his former clubs for whom he scored in his only appearance.
It was the penultimate stop in his 10-club career and he was struggling with back problems at that point before moving to Wimbledon where he worked in coaching, management and recruitment.
“I don’t want to tempt fate, there is one more hurdle to overcome,” says Harford. “We’re proud of what we’ve achieved in terms of where we are with our budgets.” We believe in our processes.
Harford returned to his role as chief recruitment officer after being treated for prostate cancer
Despite beating his beloved Sunderland in the play-offs, he remains loyal to Luton
“We’re trying to sign good people, not just good footballers but good people too, and creating an environment where people can thrive, improve and become better people and that’s played a huge part in our development.”
“You have to give the manager a lot of credit.” He walked in with a very positive attitude. He had faith and confidence in the players and they responded to his style.
“The days have passed quickly and now the final is coming up.” The players can’t wait but the group is calm and I just tell them to put their stamp on the game.
“The more people make a name for themselves, the better our chances of winning.”