Chris O (follow on Twitter: @COakleyFtbl)
Sun 24 February 2008

Before, During and After: Luton Town, 1988

Welcome to a new and occasional feature on Some People Are On The Pitch where we look at a team at their peak, choose three players from it and track where they were in their lives before, during and after that peak as well as the fortunes of the team itself.

As today sees the taking place of the 2008 League Cup Final, we thought we'd take as our subject the Luton Town team that beat Arsenal 3-2 in the same Final 20 years ago. The late 80's were a boom time for the Bedfordshire club, not only winning the League Cup in 1988 but also reaching the Final a year later.

So from that glorious Wembley match that saw Luton Town's name etched onto the trophy twenty years ago, let's track the fortunes of three of those medal-winning players: Brian Stein, Mal Donaghy and Mick Harford.

Born in Cape Town in 1959, Brian Stein began his career with non-league Edgware Town and soon attracted the attention of Luton who persuaded him to put pen to paper in 1977, a year before Mal Donaghy who joined from Northern Irish club Larne, and a full seven years before Mick Harford who'd had spells playing for Newcastle, Bristol City and Birmingham before arriving at Kenilworth Road.

Luton had struggled to maintain a place in Division One in the late 1970's, but the arrival of David Pleat as manager eventually saw a turnaround in their fortunes as they gained promotion from Division 2 in the 1981-82 season as champions.

Under Pleat's guidance, Luton were starting to go places and the team boasted a range of great talent such as Paul Walsh (PFA Young Player of the Year in 1984), Brian Horton, future manager of Oxford United and Manchester City, and talented midfielder Ricky Hill, future Luton Town manager.

At this time, Mal Donaghy was forging an international career with Northern Ireland and played in the 1982 World Cup Finals, although perhaps he'd rather forget the infamous defeat over Spain as that was a match in which he was sent off for shoving José Camacho, later to lead the Spanish national team himself. Brian Stein, meanwhile, was scoring goals regularly for his club and was every bit a regular in the side as Donaghy.

Having narrowly avoided relegation in the 1983 season, The Hatters, complete with their controversial artificial pitch, remained intent on staying in the top flight and in so doing added renowned goalscorer Mick Harford to their side at the end of 1984. That was the year that Brian Stein attracted the attention of then England manager Bobby Robson who gave him his first and only cap in the friendly against France which England lost 2-0.

The 1985-86 Canon League Division 1 season saw Luton finish in ninth spot and everything seemed to be going well for them, but then came a bombshell. Manager David Pleat had been approached by Tottenham to become their new boss and he'd accepted their offer.

While Mal Donaghy again represented Northern Ireland in the 1986 World Cup, Luton searched for a replacement to Pleat and they eventually plumped for John Moore. It would be a tough job filling his predecessor's boots, but Moore improved the team still further, getting them up to 7th place in the table at the end of 1986-87 - the highest league position the club had ever reached.

Amazingly, yet another bombshell was around the corner. Moore, despite his undoubted success in his first season in management, wasn't happy with the high-profile nature of the job and duly left the club.

Come the momentous 1987-88 season, Luton turned to Moore's assistant manager Ray Harford to lead the team and maintain their success, and that he did. Luton reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup and the Final of the Simod Cup (don't ask) as well as achieving the ultimate goal - winning some silverware in what was then known as the Littlewoods Cup - the League Cup, as we know it now.

So here it is, the peak of Luton's success in summary form - their 1988 League Cup Final against the holders of the trophy at the time, Arsenal.

As you can see, two of Luton's three goals that day were scored by none other than Brian Stein. Ironically, Mick Harford socred Luton's only goal in the League Cup Final the following year against Nottingham Forest.

Harford weaved his magic again the following season by getting Luton back to Wembley to retain the League Cup but Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest side rode out 3-1 winners signalling the beginning of the end for that great Luton Town side.

Many of its best players, now approaching the tail-end of their careers, were sold off and one was Brian Stein who opted to hop over the Channel and join Caen at the end of the 1988 season. In eleven years, he'd scored 127 goals in 388 appearances for The Hatters and his form continued when playing alongside former Arsenal player Graham Rix at the French club.

Mal Donaghy was next to go in 1989 when he secured a move to Manchester United for £650,000 - at the time quite a lot of money for a 31-year-old defender. In 1990, Mick Harford drew an end to his time at Luton Town when he moved to Derby County for £450,000 and continued to score on average a goal every four games as he'd done earlier in his career.

Having perhaps seen the error of their ways, Harford was re-signed by Luton in 1991 who by then were once again being managed by David Pleat. He stayed for one season and was their top scorer in it.

With some degree of irony, Harford was also joined by Brian Stein as Pleat attempted to return a sense of former greatness to the side. Stein had moved to French Second Division side Annecy in 1990 and scored three times in fourteen appearances.

1992 saw both Mick Harford and Mal Donaghy move to Chelsea. Donaghy was 34 and Harford was 33, but both provided goals and experience for the side who were re-establishing themselves in the First Division again. For Brian Stein, however, his move was to Barnet who had recently gained promotion from the Football Conference.

It proved to be the last season as a player for Stein who hung up his boots having scored over 150 goals in his career, most of them for Luton Town. The following season, Mal Donaghy did the same, ending on a high note with a friendly against Mexico in Miami in 1994.

Mick Harford, however, had a bit more playing left in him. He was curiously offloaded to Sunderland before the end of his first season at Stamford Bridge and four months later went to Coventry City where he played just one game. Given his proven track record as a goalscorer, it was strange why anyone would be keen to get rid of him so quickly - in fact so reliable was he that he even managed to get a goal in that one game at Highfield Road.

Harford's playing days ended at Wimbledon in 1998 where he had four good seasons, but it was here that he got his first taste of coaching under Joe Kinnear. His relationship with his former manager saw them both move to Luton Town (of all places) where they helped the club climb out of the old Third Division into Division 2 in 2001.

Stein was following a similar path, coaching Luton's reserve team in 2000, while Mal Donaghy became under-19 coach of Northern Ireland following brief spells as manager of Newry Town and coach of Cliftonville. Donaghy still holds this position with the Northern Ireland FA and continues to do great work developing their stars of tomorrow.

Stein became assistant manager to Mike Newell at Luton Town in 2004, and when Newell left in 2007, he became caretaker manager until Kevin Blackwell got the job permanently soon after. Brian Stein is now, as far as we know, 'in between jobs'.

Harford, meanwhile, had been sacked along with Joe Kinnear at Luton but returned as Director of Football and then First Team coach not long after. He was to work once again with Kinnear when he was manager of Nottingham Forest in 2004 and became caretaker manager when Kinnear was sacked only months after Harford's arrival. When Gary Megson got the job full time in 2005, Harford was forced to move on and this led to his first stint as a manager in his own right with Rotherham United.

His year-long run began well but a 17-match spell without a win soon put paid to his time there and he ended up as assistant manager at Colchester United before taking up the equivalent post at Queens Park Rangers in June 2007. When manager John Gregory was sacked in October last year, Harford's days again seemed numbered, but this time a return to Luton Town was on the cards as his former club appointed him their own manager in January 2008. Unfortunately since the start of his tenure there, Luton Town have failed to win a match and are currently 22nd of 24 teams in League One.

Strange how Stein and Harford have returned to Luton long after their playing careers. Perhaps we shouldn't rule out the same for Mal Donaghy some time in the future? Who knows, but that's the story of three of Luton Town's stars of 1988 and the long and winding road they've followed.

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