MICK HARFORD: Luton Town legend is back on the touchline after cancer diagnosis and fighting hard

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Mick Harford is back where a living Luton Town legend truly belongs, at the heart of the ramshackle charms of Kenilworth Road.

Savouring the memories and talking visitors through the curiosities of the old place while confessing to reservations about his return to the touchline after five months away to focus on treatment for prostate cancer.

‘I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me,’ says Harford at regular intervals during an hour in his company, but he has decided to fight his illness in public to raise awareness, encourage others to get symptoms checked promptly and ease their fears.

Mick Harford returned to the dugout earlier this month for Luton's cup tie against Harrogate

Mick Harford returned to the dugout earlier this month for Luton’s cup tie against Harrogate

The courage that defined him as a centre forward, an icon of his era who played for 10 different clubs and won two England caps, has found a new focus and still endears himself to the masses on the terraces.

‘I was a bit apprehensive about coming back and stepping out in front of the fans,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want anything to detract from the team but the fans applauded me and it felt good. Everyone at the club has been so supportive. I can’t thank them enough.

‘The biggest single thing I’ve learned is that you’re never ever alone, and it’s gratifying to know. The support has been immense, and I’m sure this will be the same for any other person who goes through this.

‘You shouldn’t be fearful. There are people there to support you, especially at Prostate Cancer UK. You’re never alone. Please don’t think you’re ever going to be alone.’ 

The 62-year-old encourages others to get symptoms of prostate cancer properly checked

At 62, Luton’s assistant manager and chief recruitment officer has a smile on his face and a sparkle in his eyes. He has lost some weight, putting his leanness down to an improved diet, although the body aches at times to remind him what’s going on. He has lost some of his natural strength and fitness, too, and vows to recapture it but the mental side of the illness has been the hardest.

‘Mentally, it can be quite draining,’ says Harford. ‘I’ve sat on my own at home wondering what’s going to happen and if this is ever going to come to an end. Your mind plays tricks with you. That’s the hardest part, it’s really tough. I can handle the side effects of the medication and treatment but when your mind starts playing tricks it’s really dangerous, you know.’

Harford’s diagnosis came in December 2020. The cancer had already spread from his prostate to his groin and lymph nodes. Last summer, he made his illness public and declared it his ‘biggest fight’ as he stepped away from his role at Luton to undergo an intense course of radiotherapy at the University College London Hospital (UCLH).

Harford had two separate spells at Luton as a player

Harford had two separate spells at Luton as a player

‘Forty days of treatment, every week day, weekends off,’ he smiles. ‘It’s not painful but it’s a tough gig, down at UCLH every day for a long procedure. I met lots of interesting people in that underground dungeon, starting conversations because you’re in a vulnerable place.’

One of them was with Neil Berry, son of former Birmingham, Manchester United and England winger Johnny Berry, a Busby Babe who survived the Munich air disaster in 1958 but sustained serious injuries that ended his playing career.

‘I said I was sorry but I couldn’t remember Johnny Berry,’ says Harford, who also played for Birmingham. ‘He pointed a finger at me in a cheeky way and said, ‘Exactly. No one remembers Johnny Berry’. Next day, he brought me the book he wrote about his father, called Johnny the Forgotten Babe. I read it and it’s a brilliant book.’

Calls and goodwill messages came in from around the world. One from a long-lost friend, now living in Australia. Others from Sir Alex Ferguson and Arthur Cox, Harford’s boss at Derby and Newcastle. Also from former team-mates and opponents, including West Ham and England centre half Alvin Martin.

‘Alvin rings every week and sends texts. He says, “I can’t believe I’m calling you Mick, the fights and battles we used to have”. I’m really thankful.’

As manager, Harford led Luton to glory in the Football League Trophy in the 2008-09 season

As manager, Harford led Luton to glory in the Football League Trophy in the 2008-09 season

Everyone at Luton rallied around. In his absence, Luton staff combined to raise £30,000 for Prostate Cancer UK. The club handed its shirt sponsorship to the charity for a match in November and posted a billboard by Kenilworth Road, promising to be with Harford “every step of the way”.

Perhaps more importantly, his situation inspired others to consult doctors and one member of the match-day staff picked up an early diagnosis on another cancer, and has since undergone surgery.

‘If I’ve helped one person then I’m happy,’ said Harford.

‘Hopefully I can help others. The simple message is that if you have any symptoms you feel might lead to prostate or any kind of cancer then get it checked out. It’s not a big deal, a little blood test, a prick in the arm and then you’ll know.’

Earlier this month, he returned to work. First to the training ground and then to Kenilworth Road. His first game back in the dugout with manager Nathan Jones was an FA Cup tie against Harrogate, followed by a thrilling 3-2 stoppage-time win against Bournemouth in the Championship.

‘One of the great days at Kenilworth Road,’ says Harford. ‘The way we played, the ending was incredible, and the win was fully deserved.’

Luton have promised to be with Harford 'every step of the way' throughout his cancer battle

Luton have promised to be with Harford ‘every step of the way’ throughout his cancer battle

He will spend another two years on medication with regular blood tests to monitor his PSA levels and his next scan in three months to see how the cancer is reacting to the treatment.

‘The numbers are right down so that’s positive,’ says Harford. ‘Coming back to work has been great for me. Back into a positive environment with young players, a vibrant atmosphere with people taking the mickey out of my boots.

‘It gives your spirits a big lift every day and takes your mind off other things. I’m in a good place.’

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