Football: Harford the minder and mentor: Joe Lovejoy talks to Chelsea's battle-scarred leader of the line who is helping to nurture the young brood at Stamford Bridge

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THE Premier League will reverberate to the thunder of irresistible force meeting immovable object this afternoon, when the roughest, toughest striker of them all comes into shuddering collision with the meanest defence in the country.

Mick Harford's 500th League game, for Chelsea at home to Manchester United, is sure to be just like all the others, with bruising knocks given and taken, and a one- in-three chance of the old warrior getting his name on the scoresheet.

Eight weeks short of his 34th birthday, the archetypal battering ram centre-forward is basking in a glorious Indian summer, 10 goals in 21 appearances since a pounds 300,000 transfer from Luton in August helping to improve a very respectable career return which stands at 173 from 499 League matches.

The glowering giant, whose intimidating mien saw him nicknamed Jack, as in Palance, has mellowed with age. Off the field, at least. There was a time, especially during his Wild Bunch days at Birmingham, when requests for an interview were likely to be met with a two-word response, the letter f prominent. This week, if not quite a pussy cat, he was a tame lion. Wary, but obliging.

He cursed what he described as his 'wayward' past, and felt it probably cost him a move to a top-six club when he was at his peak. Had he been playing for Chelsea in his prime, instead of Birmingham, Luton (twice) and Derby, he would surely have had more than the two England caps he won in 1988.

'It is a big regret of mine,' he said, 'that I've had to wait so long for my chance with a big club like Chelsea. I've got my caps, and I'm proud of them, but I would have liked a longer run in the England squad, and I'm sure the fact that I wasn't playing for a fashionable team, and my reputation as a wayward character, had some bearing on it.'

Not that he was totally shunned by the creme de la creme. Far from it. Arsenal and Marseille both wanted to buy him from Luton, only to pull out when he was laid low by the injuries which have been the bane of his career, and he might easily have been playing on the other side today.

A well-kept secret was confided by David Pleat, who revealed that Alex Ferguson had spoken to him about Harford towards the end of last season, when United's championship challenge was faltering.

It never happened, of course. Luton kept their principal scorer in the hope of staying up, were relegated despite his 12 goals in 29 games, and Harford, with two years of his contract to run, was resigned to soldiering on at the lower level until Ian Porterfield threw him a lifeline.

Having served his time on the provincial treadmill, with Lincoln and Bristol City, he had no desire to go back, and jumped at the chance to prove 'I still had something to offer in the big league.'

Chelsea have had their money's worth already. Harford's importance to the new, long-ball strategy Don Howe brought with him was demonstrated by the one-on-one training Porterfield supervised this week to top up the fitness eroded by another three-match suspension. Initially, Porterfield had paid lip service to the managerial maxim that you don't change a winning team, but a come-off-it look ended the pretence. 'Yes,' he said, 'Mick will play. Fitness permitting.'

The familiar proviso was needed yet again, Tuesday's shuttle runs having been brought to a premature conclusion when Harford complained of twinges in a calf muscle. Suggestions that the old sweat might have been swinging the lead were quickly refuted. Porterfield, like Pleat before him, said Harford was the most enthusiastic trainer he had ever come across.

Back in the treatment room - the physio calls it 'Mick's lounge' - Peter Nicholas, a mutual friend, pokes his head round the door to engage in the banter beloved of players everywhere. 'Watch that Lovejoy, Mick. He likes a scrap.' The face which has seen more cuts that Dennis Norden creases into a wicked grin. 'He's in good company then, isn't he?'

Harford said he still enjoyed 'a battle', but that they were all on the field these days. 'I'll always have a few drinks, but I'm not out clubbing it every night. I admit I was wayward when I was younger. At Birmingham we had a rough, tough lot (Coton, Van Den Hauwe, Blake, Hopkins, Gayle and Harford made Wimbledon's 'Crazy Gang' look like a Sunday school team). It was wild, but nothing really bad.' A conspiratorial wink. 'I'd better say it wasn't, anyway.'

Apart from teaching him how to 'socialise', Harford's spell at St Andrews transformed him from a raw-boned scrapper into a high- class act. 'Ron Saunders had a big influence on my career, giving me my first chance in the First Division. He had been working with Peter Withe, and taught me everything Peter knew.'

Next stop Luton, where further improvement brought international recognition, and those two caps, against Israel and Denmark.

'Present company excepted, if I had to pick another club where I really enjoyed my time it would have to be Luton, where we won the Littlewoods Cup and got to two FA Cup semi-finals. All my managers there - Pleat, Harford, Ryan - wanted to play good football, and that was good for me. The plastic pitch helped me a lot. The Astroturf definitely improves your game - your technique and awareness.'

Pleat, who has signed him twice, and hopes to do so again one day, says he has nothing but praise for his old favourite. 'Mick has done a few daft things in his time, and has paid for being a rough diamond, but he is one of few players in the country who has both powerful physical characteristics and a fine touch. He's not only big and strong but, uniquely in my experience, he combines that with good control.

'I remember seeing him play at Birmingham, in a reserves match against Reading. I'd already made my offer, but Ron Saunders made me pay another pounds 10,000 ( pounds 250,000) to get him. I couldn't refuse. He'd played like Johnny Haynes. He came off his marker a couple of times and slid balls inside the full- back absolutely exquisitely.

'He's got a wonderful feeling for pacing a pass. He does well in the air, in all his challenges, and in making people fearful of him, but he also has this marvellous ability to lead the line and lay the ball off to others with a sure touch. At Chelsea, his help and know-how will triple the value of their good young players.'

Minder and mentor - the godfather role is one that fits nicely. 'The young lads who have been thrust into the team have done tremendously well,' he said, proud of his brood. 'They've had to learn how to handle big games, which is difficult for kids. The spirit between them helps. They've been here since they were 14 or 15, and used to be ball boys at Stamford Bridge, so they have a feeling for the club, and for each other.'

With nine wins in 12 games, Chelsea are one of the League's form teams - arguably the form team after Norwich City's defeat last week - and Harford is not about to write them off as title contenders. Pressed for a forecast, though, he turns elsewhere. 'If I had to put money on someone, it would be Manchester United. They've a good, strong squad, and they'll be there at the death, no question.

'I rate Bruce and Pallister as the best defensive pair in the country. Bruce is a good leader - he puts his head in where it hurts, really gets stuck in - and Pallister is probably the best in the League in the air.' Modesty prevented him from adding the rider, defensively. Harford has no peers when the ball is lofted into the penalty area, and scored with a header for Luton against United in April.

He says he is ready. Rough and ready. Bruce and Pallister will be thinking catgut and bandages, and 'Why didn't you buy him, boss?' when they arrive at the Bridge this afternoon to the big man's standard greeting: 'See you at the far post.'

(Photograph omitted)