Football: The Swan who turned ugly

John Hartson should heed an old hard man.
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HALF A CENTURY ago the very name of Trevor Ford had the same kind of effect on opposing goalkeepers and defenders that Dracula had on young virgins stranded in Transylvania. As Leeds' Jack Charlton, never a man who could be accused of shirking a penalty-box skirmish, once said of one of Swansea's most revered footballing sons: "That fellow came towards me like a dragon, with fire coming out of his mouth. And they expected me to stand there and stop him."

There's something about Swansea as a foundry for casting forwards blessed with Welsh steel fused to a goalscoring prowess. They've flowed out of city's parks and back streets like molten metal from the works where Ford once toiled as a blast furnace worker while his professional football career was in its infancy, names like Ivor Allchurch, Cliff Jones, Mel and John Charles and, in more recent years, John Hartson.

The off and on-field excesses of the latter, who returns to his home city with West Ham on Wednesday when the Premiership club attempt to avoid FA Cup humiliation in their third-round replay, have been well chronicled. Yet Hartson can only genuflect to Ford when it comes to being a part of the folklore of the Principality and a controversial reputation which today would have made him the subject of constant back-page damnation.

In the immediate post-war years the forward who departed to enhance his earnings with Aston Villa, Sunderland, and Swansea's arch-rivals Cardiff before seeking lucrative exile in Holland with PSV Eindhoven after being banned by the FA following an inquiry into under-the-table payments at Roker Park, was described as "the dirtiest centre-forward in the business" and "a half-crazed Welsh dragon".

In the days when it was legal to shoulder-charge goalkeepers, this was a quite lethal exponent. Ford, now 75, who lives with his wife of 50 years, Louise, at Mumbles Head, just up the road from the Vetch Field, summed up his attitude thus: "I changed personality when I came out of the tunnel and put my foot on the pitch. I was like an animal. I was totally fired up because it was serious business. If you didn't score you hadn't done your job. That's what John Hartson has to remember. That he's out there to do a job for the crowd and nobody else."

Ford, who became the first pounds 30,000 footballer when moving from Villa to Sunderland in 1950, added: "I don't begrudge them their money today but it has changed the game. The stakes are much higher. That's why we get the cheating, the elbows and the tackling from behind to try to put their opponents out of the game. It's disgusting. And this falling-down caper - they start crying even before they've hit the ground. They're just bloody little cowards."

Remarkably, Ford was never cautioned or sent off, although admittedly his was an era when men were men, referees were indulgent of strong challenges as long as they were deemed fair, and goalkeepers had to possess sufficient constitution to withstand a battering. "I remember in my first game for Sunderland I scored a hat-trick," he recalled with a wry smile. "For one of the goals I went in so hard I ended up in the net with the goalkeeper, the ball, and the rigging all round us."

Not everybody approved of his approach. Certainly not the England and Birmingham goalkeeper Gil Merrick who, in a book, described his opponent's tactics as unfair and dangerous, having been charged by him over the line when Ford was playing for Villa. "I never set out to injure anyone in my life," Ford explained insouciantly. "But if it was 50-50 I made sure it was my ball, just shoulder to shoulder. I never crippled anyone."

Ford scored a then record of 23 goals for Wales in 38 games, including one in a rare victory over England. It was equalled by Allchurch and only passed by Ian Rush, although he played twice as many matches for his country.

Whether Hartson will challenge the records of those illustrious internationals lies within his mind as much as his boots. "Hartson's improving all the time and he's young enough but he knows he's still got a way to go. Once he starts scoring regularly for his country and has the confidence against top opposition, like I did, nothing will stop him. Of course, a couple of players like Ivor Allchurch at inside-forward and Cliff Jones at outside left, who I had alongside me, would help him. You need the support. You can't do it on your own."

On Wednesday, there is no doubting where his allegiance lies. "It was a great result for Swansea at West Ham, and I was so proud of them," said Ford. "John Hollins [the Swansea manager] has done a marvellous job. At last, we're getting some pride back in Wales again, with Cardiff doing well, too. It's 11 against 11 and if they work hard, and have that little bit of luck you always need, who says they can't do it?"