He talked to Adam Szreter about unhappy endings and bright new beginnings.
For someone who has supposedly failed at the highest level, Ray Harford still cuts an imposing figure. He possesses a certain style and quality that, in footballing terms at least, have the stamp of the Premier League. But First Division West Bromwich Albion are benefiting from the former Blackburn manager's expertise at the moment, to such an extent that victory at Portsmouth today could put the Baggies second in the table.
At a time when Albion were floundering around after the shock of dropping outside the top two divisions for the first time in their history, Harford was engaged in what he now describes as "a wonderful five-year adventure" with Blackburn Rovers, whom he joined as first-team coach and left as manager exactly one year ago next Wednesday.
It was a sad farewell for almost all concerned. "It was my decision," Harford said earlier this week, on the eve of West Brom's Coca-Cola Cup third-round tie against Liverpool. "The directors and the club didn't want me to go, the players didn't want me to go, but the fans did. And the biggest problem we had was with the new supporters."
Those "new supporters" had been lured to Ewood Park by Jack Walker's million-pound side and the appointment of Kenny Dalglish, and when Dalglish suddenly vacated the manager's chair to move "upstairs" after winning the title, the coach stepped into the limelight. But failure in the Champions' League was followed by disaster in the Premier League, and pretty soon Harford's days were numbered.
"The fans that had been there all the way with us were still very grateful to be playing the Liverpools and Man Uniteds," he said. "But the ones who joined the bandwagon when we were only successful, they couldn't handle it when we got beaten. And there was always going to be a reaction to winning the League. The year after Leeds won the League they nearly got relegated, and I was very aware of that.
"I'm of the opinion that I didn't do such a bad job considering we finished seventh in that first year," Harford added. "All right, we had a poor European Cup, but last season, after losing Alan Shearer and having horrendous injuries, we got 10 matches in and hadn't won a game, and I cared too much for the club not to fall on my sword, as someone put it."
Many believed that, with Dalglish still hovering in the background, Harford's task was made unnecessarily difficult. "It wasn't the position between me and him, but Kenny was a hard act to follow," Harford admitted, "and being around the place, he still had that presence.
"There was never any disagreement between us. We were brilliant together, as good as there was. He taught me things and I taught him things. He was a world-class player and I was a Third or Fourth Division player, but we were both inquisitive and always wanted to improve.
"But him being around all the time when I became manager was just one of those situations that didn't work. He said to me that he'd do the same things for me as I'd done for him when he was manager, but he just couldn't.
"Anyway, Blackburn's gone now and it's out of my system. We played there pre-season, they're great people, they have a wonderful chairman and I've had some nice letters from supporters. They realise what happened was the best thing for the club, but it wasn't a slight on me. They needed a change, and one or two people needed a rocket up their arse. Tony [Parkes] took it on and did a good job."
After a three-month break, Harford was installed as Albion manager, but two weeks earlier Dalglish had taken over at Newcastle. Had Harford been approached by his old boss? "If I was, you wouldn't know about it," he said.
"But I still wanted to test my wits as a No 1, and I'm enjoying it. I'm doing a lot more coaching than I did at Blackburn because I thought I had to distance myself. I was getting withdrawal pangs.
"This is the first job I've come to from the outside. With all the other jobs I was promoted from within and it's an impossible situation. But I've done the same things here as I did at Blackburn, Wimbledon and Luton. I've tried to get them organised, used to winning consistently and being hard to beat. The players have reacted fantastically and it was probably the best pre-season I've ever had at any club.
"When I arrived I was amazed by the support here, so many satellite fan clubs all over Europe, even the world. That and the tradition were the things that hit me. It's something to cling hold of. But if we get to the play-offs I think it would be a miracle. It may sound a bit unambitious on my part, but I think it's realistic."
Harford still lives in the Home Counties and has stalled over signing a contract at The Hawthorns, inevitably leading to speculation that he is less than fully committed. But Harford rejects the accusation, knowing that as long as West Brom are pushing to reclaim their rightful place among the elite he can more or less please himself. One way or another, it will be no surprise if Ray Harford is back in the Premier League before too long.Reuse content