Harford uses his old head

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The Independent Online
When he came to London, the cynics said he was old, unfit, and looking for a final payday. But there he was at Stamford Bridge, usually strolling, occasionally sprinting, always there when it mattered, dictating the play and carrying a certain presence about him.

Eventually, Mick Harford tired - he is 37 after all - and left the FA Cup stage to Chelsea's Ruud Gullit. Even he was unable to kill off Wimbledon, and following Saturday's 2-2 draw, this sixth-round tie will be resumed next Wednesday at Selhurst Park. Harford will again be doing his Dean Richards impression, tidying up the loose, linking when Wimbledon have possession, disrupting when they do not.

"He has got a great football brain," Joe Kinnear, the Wimbledon manager, said. "He is good in both boxes. I played him as a withdrawn centre-forward - I hoped he would pick up a lot of loose balls and draw one of their three centre-halves on to him.''

Chelsea's back three were confused early on, although the loss of David Lee with sickness on the morning of the match did not help. Thus Harford was able to create gaps and send Efan Ekoku and Jon Goodman into them. As in the home game against Newcastle, his nous made him hard to pick up and his goalscoring instincts and physique made him a threat around the area - he hit the post at one point.

Kinnear signed Harford from Coventry in the summer of '95 for pounds 70,000. It was his 10th move, none made for more than pounds 450,000 but totalling more than pounds 2m, scoring 231 goals. His best period was with Luton - when he was in the side beaten in the 1988 FA Cup semi-final by Wimbledon. He was once a noted member of Birmingham City's infamous "Wild Bunch" and retains enough of an aura to even make Vinnie Jones think twice when attempting to conscript Harford into Wimbledon's early season skinhead look.

Harford is the sort of signing a club with Wimbledon's resources has to make. When Glenn Hoddle wanted some experience, he signed Gullit and Mark Hughes; Kinnear signed Harford and Andy Thorn. It is safe to assume their wages are somewhat lower.

In terms of achievement, they play their part in Wimbledon's ongoing miracle, a miracle which should be prolonged by Kinnear's refinements. Back in the bad old Eighties, it was possible to survive by "knocking it in the mixer'' and kicking seven bells out of the opposition. Now that referees are ordered to allow skill to flourish, such tactics can leave you bottom of the First Division, as Sheffield United eventually found.

Although they still get the ball forward quickly, Wimbledon are more inclined to play on the ground, to feet or just ahead, rather than lump it at a "Fash-the-Bash'' totem. The physical excess has also gone, the tough-but-legal philosophy exemplified by players like Dean Blackwell, their impressive young central defender.

For their part, Chelsea are still feeling their way towards the future and have postponed the adoption of the full Continental ethic. Like other English teams with three centre-backs, they are simply that - three defenders, not two markers and a sweeper as abroad.

The trio needed fortune and Kevin Hitchcock to survive early on. Wimbledon, quicker to the ball and sharper in the tackle, should have scored twice in the first 15 minutes, but Robbie Earle volleyed over and Harford hit a post.

The 1988 FA Cup winners (two of whom were playing for Chelsea, one for Wimbledon) finally went ahead after 54 minutes. A free-kick, won by Earle and taken by Jones, was headed in by Earle. Chelsea were finally roused - "we had paid them too much respect,'' Gullit said. Paul Furlong brought a flying save from Neil Sullivan, then Mark Hughes beat him, tapping in after Furlong, for once, beat Chris Perry to Dennis Wise's cross.

John Spencer hit the bar before Gullit scored with a deflected free-kick (off Jones), harshly awarded for a back-pass by Kenny Cunningham. It seemed Chelsea were through, but 53 seconds later, Dean Holdsworth headed in an Alan Kimble free-kick.

Harford, ever-combative, even when on the bench, is then alleged to have told Hoddle: "Justice is done. You obviously sorted the ref out on your side.'' Hoddle, unsurprisingly, took exception and exchanged words with Kinnear afterwards. With Chelsea fans joining in verbally, an excellent Cup tie ended angrily. Better, perhaps, to dwell on the encouraging performances of three young English defenders, Perry, Blackwell and Michael Duberry.

Perry is a Wimbledon lad, born off Plough Lane and a schoolboy supporter. Blackwell's promise allowed Wimbledon to sell John Scales - then Blackwell broke his leg. Duberry, who would be a candidate for young player of the year if it went to defenders, added to his growing repertoire with a series of polished forward excursions.

Goals: Earle (54) 0-1; Hughes (70) 1-1; Gullit (81) 2-1; Holdsworth (82) 2-2.

Chelsea (3-5-2): Hitchcock; Duberry, Clarke, Johnsen; Petrescu, Gullit, Wise, Spencer (Peacock, 85), Phelan; Furlong (Spackman, 77), Hughes. Substitute not used: Kharin (gk).

Wimbledon (4-3-1-2): Sullivan; Cunningham, Perry, Blackwell, Kimble; Earle, Jones, Leonardsen; Harford (Gayle, 77); Ekoku, Goodman (Holdsworth, 65). Substitute not used: Thorn.

Referee: G Poll (Herts).

Bookings: Chelsea: Duberry. Wimbledon: Cunningham.

Man of the match: Harford. Attendance: 30,805.