“I don’t really want the interview to be about me,” says Mick Harford, almost by way of introduction. It underlines why he is such a popular personality in the game and beyond. “It is all about ‘Prostate United’ and Prostate Cancer UK. Obviously, you’ll have to say a little bit about me but I just want to concentrate on all the help I’ve been getting and the way people have been around me, going out of their way to support me in my illness.”
It is almost 12 months since the Luton assistant manager and chief recruitment officer was diagnosed with prostate cancer and four since he started radiotherapy. This month staff at the Championship club, its academy and community trust signed up to the Prostate United fitness challenge to show support for Harford and raise money for Prostate Cancer UK, which funds research to enhance treatments for the most common cancer in men. It kills one man every 45 minutes in the UK. Harford wants to raise awareness and his openness has already had a meaningful impact.
“I’ve had lots and lots of letters,” he says. “‘Thanks Mick, I’ve gone and got checked out.’ I’ve had emails from people who have said they have got the all-clear or they’re at different stages of prostate cancer. I didn’t want sympathy; I didn’t want to do interviews … I just hoped to raise awareness because it will get anyone. As football players, we think we’re invincible, we think we rule the world at times. But this illness doesn’t leave anyone alone.”
A speck of normality returned when Harford returned to the north-east to visit family last weekend. He took in four games in five days, starting with Leeds v Chelsea under-23s and ending with Luton’s draw at Nottingham Forest on Tuesday. “The supporters have been absolutely amazing. I’ve got tears in my eyes thinking about what they’re doing for me; every away game, every home game, they’re singing my name. It was a very overwhelming experience.”
Harford says he was taken aback by the billboard outside Kenilworth Road bearing the words “Big Mick, we’re with you every step”, organised by the club’s community ambassador, Raj Koyes, whose charity awards dinner raised £1,500. Last month Harford completed 40 days of radiotherapy at University College Hospital (UCLH) in London. The 62-year-old remains on hormone medication and goes for hyperbaric oxygen therapy three or four times a week. His next consultation is on 29 December. “I have good days and bad days. My numbers are good. My blood tests have been positive, so I’m quite happy, but it is a long road and I know it is going to be a big fight ahead.”
While at UCLH he inevitably ended up talking football. “I met a guy whilst I was having treatment whose father was in the Munich air disaster, a player for Manchester United,” Harford says. “I met his son, who was having treatment for cancer. He wrote a book called Johnny The Forgotten Babe. I said to him: ‘What was your father’s name?’ He went: ‘Johnny Berry.’ I said: ‘I can’t remember him. He said: ‘Exactly, no one remembers him.’ And the next day he brought me the book in, so I read it and it was really inspirational.”
Sixty-one people from the club, academy and trust are in Luton’s Prostate United squad, including the manager, Nathan Jones. Each participant chooses a daily distance to run or cycle: 10km, 5km or 3km on foot; or 25km, 15km or 10km on the bike. There have been a couple of bumps along the way; Chris Clark, the club secretary, spent two nights in hospital after falling off his bike and into a ditch and this week Carl Turner, an electrician on the maintenance team, was knocked off his bike by a car. Every effort keeps the club’s WhatsApp group ticking over. “I get a ping every five minutes because someone else has done another 15 miles, 10 miles or 5km,” Harford says.
Harford tries to visit the training ground once a fortnight – “I miss being around the boys” – but he has had to get used to watching games from home in Harpenden. “I am trying to get out as much as I can, keep active and try to stay positive. You sit at home and your mind wanders and you become full of negativity.”
One of the first messages of support came from Sir Alex Ferguson. “I have met him on odd occasions but to get a text off the great man was awesome. I was actually a closet Manchester United fan a few years ago because my best friend, Tony Coton, worked there as a goalkeeping coach. Whenever United were in town, in London or locally, I’d try and get there. I loved watching United play in their heyday, when [Roy] Keane was in the team.
“I’ve had messages from some my heroes,” he continues, referencing Dennis Tueart, who he grew up idolising in Sunderland. Then there is Alvin Martin, with whom he duelled in his playing days. “He said: ‘Who’d have thought, Mick, me and you – me and you – would have been speaking to each other like this in a nice manner, [given] the way we used to kick lumps out of each other?’ It was a brilliant conversation. He rings me every week, just to give me that support. That’s the football family. You leave all of that behind when people are suffering a little bit. I’ve had support from all walks of life.”
What would be his message to anyone reluctant to get tested? “We don’t want to know we’ve got cancer, and that’s the biggest hurdle you have to get over,” Harford says. “The PSA test is unbelievably quick – you’re in and out of the surgery in 30 seconds, finished. It’s a simple test – just a little prick in your arm and a blood test and it’s done. I would say please don’t be scared or frightened because the longer you leave it, the worse it will become.”