Football: Hardy still has hunger for success

Rupert Metcalf talks to the veteran manager of FA Trophy finalists Dagenham & Redbridge
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Today the teams contesting the FA Cup final will be led out by two young managers who enjoyed hugely successful playing careers, and are now being handsomely rewarded for attempting to pass on their wisdom to their equally well-paid players. The contrast could hardly be greater tomorrow, when Wembley hosts the FA Umbro Trophy final.

The two teams stepping out at the national stadium will be Woking, where Geoff Chapple is one of the longest-serving managers in the GM Vauxhall Conference, and Dagenham & Redbridge - where Ted Hardy, at 68, is football's equivalent of Ted Heath, the House of Commons' wise old man.

Hardy, believed to be the oldest manager in senior football in England, is in many ways a relic of a vanished age, yet he retains an enthusiasm for the game and a lack of cynicism that is pleasingly refreshing. Half a century ago Hardy was an apprentice and then a junior professional at Orient, Arsenal and Blackpool, before a cruciate ligament injury ended his hopes of a playing career in the Football League.

Because he had been a professional, Hardy had to wait a year, boots on the shelf, before he could play in the amateur game. Such petty restrictions may have been the norm in rugby union until very recently, but in football they are as old-fashioned as Brylcreem and laced-up balls. But Hardy served his time on the sidelines, and then gave sterling service to Wealdstone, Hendon and Leyton.

His playing days over, Hardy embarked on a managerial career that has become a legend in the non-League world. He is in his fourth spell in charge at Victoria Road, the cosy stadium in suburban Essex that is home to Dagenham & Redbridge. He has had three spells as manager of Enfield, and has also held the reins at Bishop's Stortford, Hendon and Leytonstone & Ilford.

Hardy's current club, Dagenham & Redbridge, are the product of several mergers. Leytonstone joined forces with Ilford in 1979 and then merged with Walthamstow Avenue in 1988, becoming Redbridge Forest a year later. In 1992 Redbridge Forest joined up with Dagenham to produce the present set-up.

Tomorrow Chapple takes Woking to Wembley for the third time in four seasons. Hardy is no stranger to the twin towers, although his last visit was 23 years ago. He suffered heavy defeats with Dagenham in the FA Amateur Cup finals of 1970 (5-1 to Enfield) and 1971 (4-1 to Skelmersdale), but in 1974 he steered Bishop's Stortford to a 4-1 win over Ilford in the last Amateur Cup final before the Football Association scrapped the distinction between amateur and professional players.

So, after a long wait, Hardy is back at Wembley. He still gets the same buzz out of the game as he did when he started all those years ago. "If I didn't enjoy it, I wouldn't do it," he said this week after a trip to the tailor for his Wembley suit. "Once I lose, the enthusiasm, I'll walk away."

Hardy is clearly enjoying himself at Dagenham & Redbridge. "I've got the best spirit within the club that I could wish for," he said. The story of his return to Victoria Road for a fourth time is, like his career, a long one. "When the merger happened in '92 I was manager of Dagenham. John Still [who played under Hardy as Bishop's Stortford's centre-half in the '74 Amateur Cup final] was in charge of Redbridge Forest. As the younger man, I thought it only right that he should be the manager [of the merged club], and I took over the reserves.

"When Still went to Peterborough, I packed it in. I wasn't going to work for anyone else. Then Dagenham got into a bad way, and they asked me to come back last season. I thought I was too old, but I finally went back with seven games to go. I couldn't save them, though."

Dagenham & Redbridge were duly relegated from the Conference last season, and when they began the '96-97 campaign in the Icis League Hardy's ambitions were modest. "The previous manager had used a lot of players from up north, which didn't work, so I cleared them all out," he said. "All I had left was four local lads, so I had to bring in players from other local clubs and kids from the reserves. Our only aim was to stay in the Icis League."

Hardy, a charming and modest man, perhaps underestimated his ability. As well as reaching the Trophy final, his side had a good season in the league. "The players have done this, not me," he insisted. "Injuries cost us in the league but we finished up fourth - despite having to play a lot of games in the last few weeks of the season - and here we are at Wembley. It's the icing on the cake - double icing if we win."

Despite Woking's higher status and impressive record in cup football this term, a win is not out of the question for Dagenham & Redbridge - the first club from the Icis League to reach the Trophy final since Bishop's Stortford in 1981.

The experienced Steve Conner and Glyn Creaser, who captained Wycombe Wanderers to their Trophy triumph in 1991, form a formidable defensive barrier in front of Paul Gothard, an England semi-professional international goalkeeper. Up front Tony Rogers is another seasoned performer, while this season's major discovery is Courtney Naylor, whose uncle Terry played for Tottenham in the 1970s.

Whatever happens tomorrow, Hardy will enjoy the day and, despite all his years of service, he will not be complacent. "I've been in the game for a long, long time," he said, "and I'm still picking things up. You never stop learning."