Ray Harford

Power behind Kenny Dalglish's throne at Blackburn Rovers

Raymond Thomas Harford, footballer and coach; born Halifax, Yorkshire 1 June 1945; played for Charlton Athletic 1964-66, Exeter City 1966-67, Lincoln City 1967-71, Mansfield Town 1971, Port Vale 1971-73, Colchester United 1973-76; managed Fulham 1984-86, Luton Town 1987-90, Wimbledon 1990-91, Blackburn Rovers 1995-97; West Bromwich Albion 1997; Queen's Park Rangers 1997-98; married (one son); died London 9 August 2003.

Raymond Thomas Harford, footballer and coach; born Halifax, Yorkshire 1 June 1945; played for Charlton Athletic 1964-66, Exeter City 1966-67, Lincoln City 1967-71, Mansfield Town 1971, Port Vale 1971-73, Colchester United 1973-76; managed Fulham 1984-86, Luton Town 1987-90, Wimbledon 1990-91, Blackburn Rovers 1995-97; West Bromwich Albion 1997; Queen's Park Rangers 1997-98; married (one son); died London 9 August 2003.

The twin peaks of Ray Harford's career offered compelling testimony to his stature as one of the most accomplished English football coaches of the last two decades.

In 1988 he managed the unfashionable Luton Town to the sole major prize in their history when they overturned Arsenal in an enthralling League Cup Final at Wembley; and in 1995 he played a colossally influential role, as Kenny Dalglish's No 2, in enabling Blackburn Rovers to pip Manchester United to the Premiership title.

For all that, Harford was never a glamorous figure, being noted for his uneasiness with the media and a taciturn public demeanour. In private he was warm, engaging and forthright, but the stern image - heightened by one club chairman, who remarked that he did not smile at the fans enough - could not be shaken off.

Essentially Harford was a gifted organiser who excelled repeatedly when working with meagre resources. He was a devoted student of the game, always questing for technical improvement, and whenever possible his teams played neat, attractive football, though he was practical enough to employ less pretty long-ball methods at need. A Yorkshireman by birth, Harford grew up in the Elephant and Castle area of London, emerging as a promising central defender and turning professional with the Second Division Charlton Athletic in 1964.

However, he failed to make his mark at that level and, despite occasional whispers of a transfer to the big time, the hardy six-footer joined Exeter City in January 1966, experiencing relegation to the Fourth Division with the Grecians that term, then spending the remainder of his playing career in the Football League's lower reaches.

There was a 170-match spell with Lincoln City - performing alongside Graham Taylor, a future England boss who would one day employ Harford briefly to coach his country's under-21 side - followed by stints at Mansfield Town, Port Vale and Colchester United, whom he helped to win promotion from the basement flight in 1973/74.

When knee problems signalled a premature end to his playing days in 1976, Harford was appointed youth coach at Layer Road, where he remained for five years before accepting a similar post at Fulham in 1981. In his first season the Cottagers were promoted to the Second Division, after which he became assistant boss to Malcolm Macdonald, and was instrumental in producing the fluent play which almost secured an immediate rise to the top flight.

Deservedly Harford was awarded his first full managerial job when Macdonald left in 1984, but financial restraints and the consequent sale of key players such as the midfielder Ray Houghton limited his scope drastically, and he resigned after Fulham were relegated in the spring of 1986. With his reputation as a fine coach intact, Harford had no difficulty in graduating immediately to employment on a higher plane, becoming assistant to John Moore, the boss of Luton Town, then a decent side in the old First Division (the equivalent of the modern Premiership).

After helping the Hatters to finish a highly creditable seventh in 1986/87, he took over from Moore the following summer and embarked on the most successful season the club had ever known. Harford's team retained their top-half League status, lost an FA Cup semi-final to Wimbledon (the eventual winners), but best of all they lifted the League Cup, producing two late goals to defeat the mighty Arsenal 3-2 in a rousing final.

Even in that moment of triumph Harford sat stone-faced on the Wembley bench while bedlam broke out around him, and he was lampooned unkindly for his apparent coldness. In truth, as he revealed later, he was extremely emotional and, after spotting his family in the stands, was fighting to hold back the tears.

In 1988/89 Luton reached the League Cup Final again, this time losing to Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest, but their League form deteriorated and when they struggled again during the following campaign he was sacked, controversially, in January 1990.

Harford continued to be in demand, though, becoming assistant manager of the top-flight Wimbledon that February, then succeeding Bobby Gould as boss in June before presiding over a seventh-place finish - a mere three points adrift of Manchester United - in 1990/91. History repeated itself that autumn when he resigned following the sale of an important player, this time Keith Curle, and swiftly he was enlisted by Kenny Dalglish to become his right-hand man in the revival of Blackburn Rovers, which was about to be funded by the wealthy industrialist Jack Walker.

With Dalglish the figurehead and Harford a crucial power behind the throne, Rovers earned promotion to the new Premier League via the play-offs that term, then consolidated spectacularly by finishing fourth and second among the élite in the next two seasons.

Finally, in 1994/95, fielding a splendid side starring Alan Shearer and including the likes of Chris Sutton, Colin Hendry and Tim Sherwood, Blackburn became League champions for the first time in 81 years.

Most of the public accolades went to Dalglish, but insiders recognised the enormity of Harford's contribution and, though they were stunned by the Scot's decision to move "upstairs" as director of football, they applauded the appointment of the erstwhile assistant to the top job. Harford had accepted the challenge despite vowing that never again would he occupy a manager's chair, and subsequent events could be said to have borne out his apprehension.

In 1995/96 the injury-ravaged Rovers were found sadly wanting in the Champions League and were a shadow of their former selves in domestic competition. Then, after the sale of Shearer to Newcastle United was followed by a chronic start to 1996/97, the Ewood Park boss fell on his sword in the autumn.

Dalglish had proved too hard an act to follow, yet arguably Harford had been victim to the club's new wave of supporters, attracted by the recent dazzling renaissance. Ironically he retained the backing of the board and the players, and he had real money at his disposal for the first time in his life, but, when the fans started calling for his head, he had to go.

Still in love with the game, Harford went on to manage West Bromwich Albion and Queen's Park Rangers in the First Division, resigning from the first because he was attracted to a move back to London, and the second after disagreements with his board.

Millwall persuaded him out of semi-retirement in 1999 and benefited hugely from his coaching expertise, which helped to secure Second Division title glory in 2001. He served under several bosses and was still employed by the Lions when cancer claimed his life.

Ivan Ponting

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