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On This Day (18 March 1993): England striker realises lifelong ambition – and signs for the lads!

Terry Butcher’s first signing as Sunderland manager was a player we’d turned down 16 years earlier.

Mick Harford was always a thorn in Sunderland’s side. And that’s putting it politely.

The Humbleton lad had played for the youth team as a youngster at Roker Park, and was released without playing a game by then-manager Jimmy Adamson.

And he seemed to be keen to prove a point all throughout his career – as eight goals in 10 games against Sunderland attests.

Harford, a powerful, goalscoring target man, had joined Lincoln after his release from Sunderland (Lincoln were under the management of Bobby Kerr’s brother George at the time) – and caught the eye of Newcastle, whose manager Arthur Cox – the former Sunderland assistant manager) brought the 21-year-old back to the North East for a fee of £180,000.

His move to St James’ didn’t work out, however, and he was on the move again, first to Bristol City and then to Birmingham, where he again caught the eye – and became the bane of Sunderland’s existence.

Mick Harford Newcastle United 1980 Photo by Danny Brannigan/Hulton Archive

He scored an 86th-minute winner for Birmingham in a crucial end-of-season league game at Roker Park in 1982/83 that finished 2-1 to the away team (Colin West had put the lads 1-0 up), and repeated the feat a year later in an FA Cup tie – netting a winner in the 86th minute after Sunderland had been 1-0 up... through Colin West.

His goalscoring exploits, and all-round play, had piqued the interest of a number of clubs – unsurprisingly, including Sunderland – and maybe more surprisingly, Newcastle. Jack Charlton wanted to bring him back to Tyneside, but the board baulked at paying £300,000 for him two years after selling for half that price.

Len Ashurst greatly admired Harford, and offered cash plus Colin West to Birmingham in December 1984, but Harford had already accepted a deal to go to Luton – and it was at Kenilworth Road that Harford really established himself as a player to fear, and earned two international caps in 1988. Harford was linked to Manchester United, while Luton turned down an £800,000 move to Arsenal too, but a bigger move never came off.

He played more than 200 games in two spells at Kenilworth Road – either side of a spell at Derby, during which time he bagged a first half League Cup hat-trick against Sunderland as Arthur Cox’s Rams battered Sunderland 6-0.

Soccer - Barclays League Division One - Derby County v Norwich City Photo by Phil O’Brien/EMPICS via Getty Images

Strangely enough, at the end of that season – 1990/91 – Harford’s already relegated Derby were playing Luton at Kenilworth Road on the last day of the season, as we took on Manchester City at Maine Road.

It was a straight shoot-out between Sunderland and Luton to see who accompanied Derby to the Second Division (the 20 team top flight was being expanded the following season).

News filtered through to Maine Road that Mick Harford had scored just before half time... only for it to transpire that it was an own goal, and Luton were one-nil up.

Harford had headed the ball past Peter Shilton – and it looked rather dodgy, particularly when Harford rejoined The Hatters during the summer. Harford has later admitted the own goal was deliberate...

He stayed there for a year before heading to Ian Porterfield’s Chelsea in the top flight, where he scored Chelsea’s first Premier League goal, but was tempted away from Stamford Bridge – despite interest from Aston Villa, who were vying for the title – Oldham and Palace – to sign for Terry Butcher’s Sunderland.

Harford said:

The attraction of playing for Sunderland, Terry Butcher and the Roker fans were the only reasons I would have left Chelsea, the Premier League and my business interests in the South East.

It's been my dream since I’ve been in professional football to put on the red and white jersey of Sunderland. I was probably Sunderland’s biggest fan.

Terry Butcher, who’d been appointed manager the month before, was delighted to get the 34-year-old tied down to a two and a half year contract, and said he was the ‘first piece in the jigsaw’.

I was looking for a Mick Harford type of player but when the genuine article came along it was great.

It’s good to get someone of experience. We have some players here who need to be taught how to get into the Premier League.

Age isn’t important. The older, more experienced players look after their bodies more. You can pace yourself in a game situation.

Harford made his debut in a 2-0 defeat away at Barnsley the following Saturday, before making his belated Roker Park bow in a 1-0 win over Derby, before bagging his first goal for Sunderland against Wolves the following weekend, albeit in a 2-1 defeat.

Soccer - Barclays League Division One - Sunderland v Oxford United Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

It wasn’t a good time on the field for Sunderland. Harford’s second and, as it turned out, final goal for the club came the following week at Roker in a 4-2 defeat to a Stan Collymore inspired Southend – those who were there will remember Barry Fry tearing down the touchline in celebration – and we avoided relegation by the skin of our teeth, thanks to defeats for both Brentford and Cambridge on the final day of the season.

Less than three months into his two-and-a-half-year contract, Harford departed Roker Park, citing a desire to move back down south. He joined Coventry, where he played one game in an injury-plagued 12 months – scoring against Newcastle – before signing for Wimbledon and spending four years as part of the crazy gang – scoring his last senior goal aged 38 against West Ham.

After waiting so long, Mick Harford’s Sunderland career was over in a flash, which was a real shame.

It always seemed the case of right player, wrong time to me.

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