by Paul McNamara

(first published in the Sports Pink on December 4)

DAN Harding was playing his football last season in the Championship. For two-time European Cup winners Nottingham Forest, to boot.

Naturally, therefore, when the defender opted to sign for Eastleigh in the summer it was a decision that was met with a good deal of astonishment in the football world.

At 31, and with offers on the table from a number of Football League clubs, including Millwall where he spent the second-half of last season on loan, the question was obvious.

Why? Why would a player who was celebrating promotion out of the Championship with Southampton three years previously, choose now to play his football in the National League?

“I wanted a fresh start,” explains Harding. “I wanted to get back to playing football.

"To re-discover why, as a kid, I used to stay out until nine, ten o’clock every night playing.

“That was the sort of mentality and fun that I wanted to get back into my life.”

It’s working.

Harding is in cheerful form when we meet. He has been training in the morning, a simple pleasure that has been deprived him since he injured a calf in Eastleigh’s FA Cup win at Crewe on November 7.

“It’s been a lot longer than I originally expected,” he says.

“It’s been especially frustrating, because one of the things that has really impressed me is the gaffer’s choice of assistant, Northy (Shaun North).

“He’s been fantastic. He’s a brilliant coach. He’s got so many good sessions. The lads are looking forward to training every day.

“Now I’ve trained today, I’m much happier than I was this time last week.”

This is a man who has seen his fair share of both sides of a footballer’s life: the wonderful highs and the gut-wrenching lows.

Moreover, while he was deliberating over his on-pitch future this year, Harding was living through an ordeal that put any footballing considerations firmly in the shade.

He describes what happened after his wife Vicki (below) fell pregnant for a fourth time.

Daily Echo:


“I came home from training one day and my wife was on the floor, in tears, saying she was pregnant, which was a bit of a shock to us.

“When we went for the scan they said: ‘Congratulations Mr and Mrs Harding, it’s twins’.

“So we’d gone from having three kids (Jessie, 8, Bobby, 6, and Lottie, 3) to thinking we were having twins as well.

“We were both shocked. When we went for another scan, unbelievably, they said they’d missed another baby. It was triplets.

“That was another shock.

“We went back for another scan and unfortunately the youngest triplet had passed away at ten weeks.

“There were also complications with one of the girls, Millie. It was the case that Millie was going to pass away. We just didn’t know when.

“But we were told that when she did pass away, there was the possibility that it could bring on a false labour and kill the other baby.

“My wife had to deal with losing one of the triplets early, and then we obviously had this situation where one of the babies was going to die, and potentially the third one as well.

“Every time we went for a scan – we were going weekly – the doctor would say Millie’s heartbeat was slowing down, that it looked like she would go this week.

“We must have had that for 15 weeks. She just kept fighting.

“We actually believe she fought long enough that when she did pass way, if she did induce a false labour, she had gone long enough for her sister, Lexie, to be born okay. Premature, but okay.”

Lexie was born on August 25.

Daily Echo:


Asked if focusing on his job against such a testing backdrop was tough, Harding (pictured above with Jessie and Bobby in 2010) answers to the contrary: “It was a total release,” he says.

“When I was at Ipswich I lost my mum, Linda, to cancer. I found then that going into training every day really helped me.

“I went in within one or two days of my mum dying. It helped me enormously just to switch off from it all and concentrate on something else for a few hours.”

If his move to the Silverlake Stadium came out of the blue, rather, then that is in keeping with how Harding stormed onto the scene as a fresh faced youngster at Brighton & Hove Albion.

With a dad, Kevan, in the army, the Gloucestershire born player didn’t find anywhere to call home, until his family settled in the town of the club where he would make his name.

A product of Albion’s youth academy, the defender’s major breakthrough came during the club’s Division Two (now League One) promotion campaign in 2003/2004.

There had been one substitute outing in the previous campaign - and it was a similar appearance that would prove the launch pad for Harding’s professional football career.

“I came on as a sub in my first game (in 2003/2004),” he instantly recalls, a joyful time in his life etched into his mind forever.

“We managed to hang on and win, and it all took off from there.”

The rookie nailed down the left-back positon as his own at the Withdean Stadium, as Brighton secured a spot in the play-offs.

Albion would overcome Swindon in a thrilling two-leg semi-final tie, Seagulls’ player Adam Virgo scoring deep into extra-time at Withdean to level the aggregate scores, before Brighton triumphed on penalties.

“I was very, very nervous before the semis,” he recalls.

“All I wanted to do was play at the Millennium Stadium (the final was played in Cardiff, while Wembley was being re-built) in front of a packed crowd.

“Before the final itself, I didn’t really have any nerves at all. I just thought: ‘This is where I want to be. Enjoy it’.”

He was able to enjoy it all the more for Brighton beating Bristol City 1-0 to win promotion into the Championship.

“It was a very exciting time,” Harding reflects.

“In hindsight, it was also a very lucky time for me. I broke into a team that was winning games and was promoted.

“Looking back now, I don’t think I appreciated at the time what a big achievement it was.”

If he modestly credits part of his emergence at the Withdean to luck, then there was nothing fortunate about the England under-21 call that arrived for the Brighton kid early in the next season.

Harding did, though, need persuading that he wasn’t the subject of a prank when the invitation to represent his country came along.

“I actually thought it was one of the lads winding me up,” he says, laughing at the memory.

“It was only when I got a call from someone at the club, and then one from someone at the FA, that I really believed it. That was amazing.”

It was true alright. Harding made his under-21 debut as a substitute, playing at Middlesbrough’s Riverside in a win over Ukraine in August 2004.

When Peter Taylor’s side beat Wales two months later Harding was in the starting 11. The full-back would win two more caps, in Azerbaijan and then, unforgettably against Spain.

Andres Iniesta, Santi Cazorla and Sergio Ramos lined up against Harding and his national team colleagues in Madrid. Cesc Fabregas appeared as a half-time substitute for the Spaniards, scored a decisive free-kick, and promptly took his leave, job done.

“It was a bit of an eye-opener playing against those boys; a lesson learned,” Harding says.

“It was a fantastic experience and one that I’ll always carry with me.”

Harding was making waves. An exciting home-grown prospect, internationally recognised, and now making his mark in the Championship, the defender’s name was linked with a host of glamorous clubs.

In the summer of 2005, Harding packed up his four under-21 caps and headed north. He plumped for Leeds United as his next destination. It was the club he had grown up supporting.

Living in Germany for a brief period, after his dad had been posted there, the young Harding didn’t see much English football on his television, in a foreign land. The little action on offer often featured the 1992 title winning side from Elland Road.

Such revered teams as that Leeds United one, though, featuring Gary McAllister, Gordon Strachan and Eric Cantona et al can act as a chain around the neck of all those who follow in their stead; something Harding quickly recognised.

“It is a massive club,” he says. “The expectations there were huge. We could be beating a so called lesser team 1-0 and get booed off at half-time.

“They thought we should be winning every game four or five nil. It was far more pressure than I’d been used to at Brighton.

“It was a massive learning curve. I would have liked to stay for longer but I took a lot from it.”

As it was, Harding’s stay with his boyhood favourites didn’t last beyond his first season. His time in West Yorkshire was effectively ended in a meeting with then Leeds manager Kevin Blackwell.

“I was called into the gaffer’s office in pre-season,” Harding remembers. “The words he said were: ‘You’re a good player and a young lad and, in time, you’ll be a top class left-back. However, I don’t have time, as Leeds United manager, to wait for you to blossom into that player’.

“He said I could stay and fight for my place, but that he would be using more experienced pros to help us get out of the league – and that if I wanted to be playing every week I should go to Ipswich and enjoy that.

“I decided that playing football was what I wanted to do.”

Harding talks about a fantastic first season at Ipswich, one in which he only missed out on club player-of-the-year honours to Sylvain Legwinski, the talented French midfielder.

“We had some good players,” Harding reflects. “I had some good times and played a lot of games there.”

In the defender’s third season at Portman Road, however, Jim Magilton decided that the man who had been his first signing at the club was suddenly surplus to requirements.

Harding went out on loan to Southend, before enjoying a temporary stint with Reading, who were destined for that season’s Championship play-offs.

Reflecting on a strange period in his career, Harding says: “Sometimes managers make decisions on you that aren’t always based on football.

“Obviously, they thought at Ipswich that I wasn’t good enough to play. They were in mid-table, but someone else thought I was good enough to go and play for a team that was pushing to get into the Premier League.”

Harding featured for the Royals in both legs of their play-off defeat by Burnley, playing under the management of Steve Coppell, who had been at Brighton when the left-back was still making his way in the game.

The Eastleigh man refutes the idea that a player would be any less committed to the cause when he is away from his parent club. A footballer out on loan, argues Harding, has a point to prove or, at least, an appetite to play the game.

Harding’s hunger for regular game time would be satiated by his next move in 2009. Roy Keane, newly in charge at Ipswich, decided he wanted to bring in his own men, leaving the ex-Brighton player to look elsewhere.

Nevertheless, when Southampton declared their interest in signing him Harding could have been forgiven if he was in no rush to pen the deal.

Fresh from falling fractionally short in Reading’s push for the Premier League, here was an offer to play for a club just relegated into League One – and due to embark on their season ten points behind the rest of the division.

But, as we’ve already established, Harding sees the bigger picture. His eyes sparkle as soon as the club’s name is mentioned.

Leaning forward in his seat and enthusiastically taking to his subject, Harding scoffs at the idea that he could ever have had any misgivings about becoming a Saint.

“You only have to walk into the stadium to realise what it’s all about,” he explains.

“It’s a huge club. It was Alan Pardew that brought me in. He’s not your average League One manager is he? Then they had Nicola Cortese (executive chairman) controlling the club.”

Daily Echo:


Harding, in an echo of his move to Ipswich, was the first player that Pardew brought through the door after taking over as Southampton boss. It would be the start of three years that Harding considers the happiest of his career.

“Not only on the pitch, but off the pitch as well,” he says. “We made some fantastic friends, who we still see all the time now.

“Even though we’re not geographically close, we all make the effort to meet up. “We made friends for life there; not only the players, but other people at the club as well.”

Harding’s first season back on the south coast was crowned with a trip to Wembley, as Pardew’s side thumped Carlisle 4-1 in the Football League Trophy final, with more than 73,000 people watching on.

Then, with Nigel Adkins now at the helm, came the back-to-back promotions that ended Saints’ seven-year top-flight exile.

Along the way, Harding was named in the PFA’s League One team of the year for 2010/2011, alongside team-mates; Kelvin Davis, Jose Fonte, Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Harding is glowing in his praise of some of his former St Mary’s colleagues. He does believe, though, that Pardew and Cortese don’t necessarily receive the accolades they should for Saints’ fight back from the abyss.

“Alan and Nicola were never given enough credit for the signings they made and the players they kept hold of,” he says. “We signed Rickie Lambert. Then, Lallana, Davis and Morgan Schneiderlin all could have gone. “Now look where the club is, and where those players are individually. The people who kept them there at the time probably don’t get enough credit for doing that and deciding they wanted to build a team around them.”

Harding remains full of admiration for Lallana today, a player he watched excel the night before we meet, as Liverpool demolished his former club in a League Cup tie at St Mary’s.

“Ads (Lallana), for me, he is on a different level,” he says. “He looked fantastic, even in that Liverpool team.

“The lads could see it when he played for us. I used to give him the ball and he’d have two or three people around him, and it wouldn’t bother him at all. He’d wriggle his way out of things and create and score goals.”

Harding, however, never got to tackle Premier League opposition with Lallana on his side. By the time Southampton kicked-off their top-flight return in 2012 with a visit to the champions, Manchester City, he was a Nottingham Forest player.

“I remember going into pre-season and Nigel wouldn’t clarify my future, to my face,” Harding says.

“I had a call from Forest and Nigel wouldn’t tell me what his plans for me were. I think that meant that either he didn’t want to tell me or he didn’t know. Only he can answer that.”

He describes his relationship with Adkins as okay, but Harding says that the manager’s refusal to commit one way or the other told him all he needed to know.

“Nigel didn’t answer any of my questions, so I presumed that meant I wasn’t going to be used any more. My choice then was to stay where I wasn’t wanted by the manager, or to move on.”

Here is an insight into the less attractive element of earning a living as a footballer. Harding at one point during this interview describes himself as ‘a bit of a gypsy,’ so often has he upped sticks for a new home.

Two weeks after moving into a newly built house, Harding was telling his wife that they’d need the removal men again.

“I was all set up to stay for the long-term here,” he says. “But decisions that were out of my hands forced me away.”

At Forest, Harding found a club that was being frustrated in its efforts for on-pitch progress, by events that were out of the players’ domain.

“We had some extremely good players but, for one reason or another, it just didn’t click – on or off the pitch,” he says.

“Perhaps there were influences there from people who shouldn’t have been involved. No, there definitely were. That affected how the club was run.

“It’s a massive club that should be doing a lot better than it is.”

Daily Echo:

Harding (pictured playing for Forest against Brighton) had only been at the City Ground five months when he had his eyes opened.

Forest blitzed Leeds 4-2 on Boxing Day 2012, to move one point outside the Championship play-off spots. Later in the day, Sean O’Driscoll, the manager who took Harding to the East Midlands, was sacked.

“It was absolutely bonkers,” Harding says, plainly still at a loss about his ex-manager’s demise. If Sean had been given a year, 18 months, we’d have made the play-offs, without a doubt.

“It was incredibly disheartening. Everyone likes stability. There was none of it at Forest. It’s so disruptive.”

No stability at his place of employment, and Harding was finding life away from the club increasingly onerous.

With a number of Forest players living outside the City, the left-back found none of the camaraderie that infused the team at Southampton. Vicki and his children were unsettled. It led Harding, in 2014, to move back to the house he had left in a hurry two years earlier, while commuting for training and matches.

The opportunity in January to spend a loan period with Millwall, then, was somewhat opportune. That despite him having forged a sound understanding with Stuart Pearce, the fourth permanent boss Harding had worked for at Forest.

“I had a good relationship with Stuart,” he says. “I played a few games for him and, overall, he was good to me. I’ve got a lot of time for him, and for his coaching staff. Steve Wigley was absolutely fantastic.

“Unfortunately, for one reason or another – and I’m still a bit baffled by it – he said I could go out on loan.”

Millwall, in March, replaced manager Ian Holloway – “a really nice guy” – with Neil Harris, in a bid to beat the drop into League One. The gamble didn’t quite pay-off. Harding says they had just left themselves with too much to do.

Asked if he was given the chance to make his move to London permanent Harding pauses briefly, replying, simply: “They offered me a contract but I decided I didn’t want to go down that route.”

Harding had reached a time when he wanted to take stock. On joining Eastleigh he confessed that he was no longer happy, adding that honesty and respect had disappeared from football.

Now, given the chance to expand on those comments, Harding doesn’t hesitate. First he talks about the issue of his own happiness last summer.

“I had become a bit fed up after the whole Forest thing, along with being away from home so much,” he reveals. “My wife was pregnant – we were going through a lot off the pitch. Then with Millwall being relegated, it was just a bad time. “I did become disillusioned with it.”

Next, Harding addresses the state of the game, as he sees it: “There is a lot of either miscommunication, or lies, between managers and chairmen,” he says. “Managers want to go in one direction and chairmen in another. From personal experience, I was speaking to managers and things were going in a certain direction. “They would then come back having spoken to the chairman and say they needed to go another way.

“Whether it was dishonesty, or a lack of communication from the top of clubs going down to the manager, I’m not sure.

“What I do know is players are messed about a lot. Fans look at it and think it’s the best job in the world. It is. However, it can be very frustrating when you get in situations like that, or get injured.

“There are dark times; not only for the players, but for their families – mums and dads, wives, sons and daughters. It isn’t everything it is cracked up to be.”

Harding has yet to decide what to do after he finishes playing.

If he does go into coaching or youth development, Harding will prioritise the welfare, above all else, of anybody coming under his tutelage.

“If I was ever to manage or coach, or look after kids, what I have learned from being in this game, is that you cannot keep lying to people,” he says. “You cannot mess people around. You are messing with people’s lives, with their livelihoods.

“That dishonesty in the game is so frustrating.”

Straight talking, hard-tackling. Dan Harding finishes this interview in the manner that he plainly lives his life.