close-up : New man in the mask

Ray Harford : Blackburn have made a change at the top to extend a tradition. Ian Ridley meets a fitting successor to Kenny Dalglish
Click to follow
THE manager of Blackburn Rovers listened patiently to a question about Manchester United's summer upheavals, raised an eyebrow as part of that familiar look - a mixture of the quizzical and disdain - and answered typically. "That's no consideration of mine at all," he said, his tone inviting no follow-up. The accent, however, came from London rather than Glasgow.

Exit Kenny Dalglish, enter Ray Harford. Actually, the man who has stepped up from coach to manager may try the tight-lipped, poker-faced approach but it does not altogether suit him, much as he professes to dislike the public-speaking aspect of the job. His face breaks into a smile. "I do sometimes think `What would Kenny say in this situation?'" he says of the man who has become director of football. "I've been trying to buy his mask."

Dalglish is often publicly cold but privately warm and Harford indeed follows the tell-'em-nothing credo of his former gaffer when confronted by a televised press conference. In a less formal environ- ment, he can be engaging and more forthright, however. "We are all in competition and when you see one of your competitors slip up you are highly pleased, aren't you?" he later says when asked about United in a more private setting.

When Harford left one of his former clubs, Luton, a chairman who has not gone on to greater things since cited a dour character and an inability to smile at his faults. Be that as it may, Harford's ability as an organisational coach, first developed at Fulham, has always been highly respected within the game. He turned David Pleat's neat Luton team into winners of the 1988 League Cup, and carried on the Wimbledon dynasty. Dalglish could have had the pick of any coach in Britain when he took over at Blackburn - he chose Harford.

At Ewood, or rather Brockhall training ground, Harford has always been the power behind the throne. Those who thought Blackburn disproved the theory that a team always reflected its manager, Dalglish's deft playing strokes being contradicted by Rovers' broad brush, probably have an explanation now.

Harford, born in Halifax but brought up in the tough Elephant and Castle area of London, was a solid but unspectacular lower division centre-half and played in the same Lincoln City side as Graham Taylor, who later gave him a spell in charge of the England Under-21 team. Now his task is one of thinking big. Make that thinking biggest.

He will, he says, have control of team selection as well as preparation. And of transfers, though it has been an irony of the high-spending close season that so far Blackburn have bought only a young squad player, the Darlington defender Adam Reed, for pounds 200,000. None of the big names who have so far moved would have suited Blackburn, Harford says, and it could be that he is looking for a creative midfield player. One big signing may be imminent.

Has he talked yet to Jack Walker about how much money is available? "It's not like that. I just go to him and say `Can I buy him?' and he says `yes'." If it used to be a case of Kenny's from heaven, now Dalglish has moved upstairs Walker seems determined to preserve the tradition of pennies from heaven.

What price Harford? "I feel very comfortable with Ray," Graeme Le Saux, the Blackburn left-back, says. "He is very honest and treats you like an adult. I think that is how he has got so much out of me and I think all the players feel the same. The intensity and quality of our training, which comes out in matches, is down to him." Indeed, Harford has always been popular with players; the one at Luton who punched him after being rebuked is a clear exception.

Le Saux has tried calling him "boss" but found it did not sit properly and is back to "Ray". "I don't mind what they call me - Ray or boss - as long as it isn't something worse," Harford says. "The problem for them is what to call Kenny [the artist formerly known as gaffer] now. They can call him Kenny, I suppose, but no one's had the bottle to do it so far."

The question for Harford is how he reacts to being boss, if not being called it. It was clearly a transition he was keen to make; when asked whether he would have stayed with Blackburn had they not altered their hierarchy, he replies, "Next question", as a smile breaks out. The question, too, is how Blackburn will cope with being champions.

"There will be a reaction from all the staff. It's whether that reaction is good or bad that is the secret," he says. "I have tried to drive it into them pre-season how much everybody wants to beat the champions. That's a challenge some people may want while others want an easy life having won it once. I like to think they want to win it again."

Then there is the question of Europe. Possibly to avoid the kind of obsession it became with Manchester United last season, Harford does not attach the same priority to the Champions' League that he does to the Premiership. It may be why the same personnel is being retained, along with the functional 4-4-2 that looked so ordinary against Trelleborg in the Uefa Cup last year.

"We would have been better equipped for Europe two months after we went out," Harford insists. "We hadn't bedded in Chris Sutton and had a terrible pre-season with injuries. You have to go with the players you have. It would be interesting to ask the players if they want to change the system. I think they are clever enough, and they are certainly open-minded enough. But I think they feel it has worked. And as a working coach, I will stick with it." He believes that David Batty makes Blackburn prettier. "Because he is a good passer," he explains.

He points out that Milan also play a pressing game with a flat back four, although this ignores the fact that Dejan Savicevic was often a lone striker supported from wide and deep and that Ajax's Dutch flexibility mastered them in the European Cup final. The importance that Harford places on events at home may slightly sadden, as does his admission that the Champions' League is an unknown quantity.

Harford, though, did have a reputation as an innovative coach earlier in his career - one willing to play with a sweeper or strikers pulling wide to disrupt the shapes of back fours. He does, too, have Alan Shearer. "A one-off," Harford says. "He's got limitations, like all players, and we probably know his small faults better than most, but he just has a sixth sense of how to behave, how to make people happy."

All reservations aside - and he agrees that the lifting of the Championship burden at last might make his team freer and more entertaining - Harford is not a downbeat figure. "We could have played it at a neutral venue, like Old Trafford," he says mischievously when asked if the North- west might have been a better place to hold today's Charity Shield match against the FA Cup winners, Everton.

He also once explained that his stone face after Luton's win at Wembley was because he was trying not to cry at seeing his parents and son in the stand -it would have been "unmanly". Expect it to be business as usual at Blackburn, on and off the field.

Life and times

Born: Halifax 1 June 1945.

Playing career: Centre-half with Charlton (1964), Exeter (1966), Lincoln (1967), Mansfield (1971), Port Vale (1971), Colchester (1973-76). Once wanted by Liverpool but transfer never materialised.

Managerial career: Youth team coach at Colchester (1976), coach to Fulham under Malcolm Macdonald's management (1982) then manager (1984-86); coach/manager of Luton (1986-90), winning Littlewoods Cup in 1988 by beating Arsenal 2-1 (lost in final the following year to Nottingham Forest); coach to Wimbledon (under Bobby Gould's management) then manager (1990-91) - resigned after giving six months' notice when Keith Curle was sold to Manchester City; coach to Blackburn Rovers then manager (1991-).

Career low point: Leaving Luton "by mutual consent". The then chairman, Brian Cole, said: "Ray doesn't have the charisma or ability to relate to the fans in the right way. He's a dour character who doesn't smile very often at the supporters."

Career high point: Championship.