Harford returns to management at West Brom

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The Independent Online
Ray Harford was anxious for West Bromwich Albion fans to know that he is not as dour as he is painted, but not that anxious. Declining a photographers' request to hold an Albion scarf aloft in the time-honoured fashion, the new manager at The Hawthorns offered to pretend to push the lawn-mower instead.

Not one to let the grass grow under his feet, Harford returned to management yesterday barely three months after resigning at Blackburn Rovers. He has agreed a three-year contract, already has a new back-room team in place for tomorrow's First Division match at home to Swindon, and made the obligatory noises about Albion's potential.

Exactly how great that is and whether he is the man to fulfil it remain to be seen. What is clear is that Albion's eighth manager in 10 years was a compromise candidate after their failed attempts to land Chris Waddle, Bruce Rioch and, according to some sources, Lou Macari, John Toshack and Jack Charlton to boot.

Their chairman, Tony Hale, initially expressed his intention to replace the determinedly uncommunicative Alan Buckley with a manager who had charisma, a high media profile, coaching ability and a proven record. Harford, with the best will in the world, meets only the third and arguably the fourth of those criteria.

Hale admitted he had not satisfied all his ideals, qualifying his candour by doubting whether the combination existed in any individual. But he was confident that Harford's coach and No 3 - confirmed last night as the former Albion players John Trewick and Cyrille Regis, respectively - would complete a "dream team".

Legend has it that Harford was dismissed by Luton for not smiling enough when they won the League Cup. He claimed that was a misconception, but conceded that he had a "stern face" which he could not change. Hale, raising the mind-boggling image of Harford as the Ken Dodd of football management, chipped in: "We've got a tickling stick in the boardroom just in case.''

Albion supporters, fearful that their Black Country rivals Wolves may be about to beat them back to the top division they both left in the mid- 1980s, will forgive Harford any amount of taciturnity provided he delivers success. His coaching credentials are impressive, yet the problems he encountered after taking over from Kenny Dalglish at Blackburn revived doubts about his ability to adapt to the pressures of management.

Harford believes there is an important difference this time. "This is the first job I've ever been appointed to from outside," he said. "In all my previous jobs [Fulham, Luton, Wimbledon and Blackburn], I was promoted from within. I always promised my wife I wouldn't do that again. The players at those clubs already knew me as Ray the coach, whereas here I'm coming in fresh. That's the appeal of it.

"Obviously, it was difficult following Kenny at Blackburn. We'd just won the championship and he was a god. I don't think that made it impossible, though it did make it hard. Having said that, it was a great adventure and I wouldn't have missed it for the world. I'm pleased to see Blackburn doing well and I've backed them to win the FA Cup.''

After leaving Ewood Park in late October, Harford kept his hand in by coaching at both Reading and his first opponents, Swindon. "That was just therapy for me. I said I'd get itchy feet very quickly and I did. I've been waiting for the right opportunity and I feel this is it. This is a big club - potentially a giant.''

A giant currently slumbering at 15th in the table, but one, Hale promised, with funds for Harford to enter the transfer market, if quite not on the scale he and Dalglish did in Lancashire.

"Ray was the power behind the throne at Blackburn, helping them up from the First Division," the chairman added. "We're powering this club towards the Premiership too. If it doesn't happen within the next two years I'll be bitterly disappointed.''

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