Asa Hartford was meant to form the creative centrepiece of Gordon Lee’s Everton team in the 1979/80 season, a side seeking to build on fourth and third placed finishes. The sort of stylish midfield dynamo who would not have looked out of place in any of Everton’s great post-war teams, the shortcomings and inexperience of his teammates meant he was ultimately unable to lift the club beyond mediocrity.
Hartford had started out as a young midfielder with West Bromwich Albion in the late-1960s, garnering a reputation as one of English football’s most exciting young talents. A transfer to Don Revie’s Leeds United in 1971 fell through after a cardiac scan revealed a ‘hole in his heart’, and although it never otherwise undermined his career the whisperings about his health never quite went away. He made his Scotland debut in 1972 and was an international regular for much of the next decade, playing at the World Cups in Argentina in 1978 and Spain four years later. In 1974 he joined Manchester City, where his reputation grew.
In the summer of 1979, City made Hartford available for transfer, and Lee saw him as a direct replacement for Martin Dobson, whom he had recently sold to Burnley. He was involved in a transfer tussle with Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, and Hartford eventually plumped for the European Champions over Everton. However within weeks of signing for Forest he fell out with Clough, who transfer listed him, and Lee finally got his man for a club record fee of £500,000.
A skilful industrious midfielder, who shared many of the characteristics of an old-style inside forward, Hartford was the sort of stylish midfielder that Evertonians inherently took to their hearts. He formed a new look midfield with Garry Stanley, but it was the Scot who impressed, despite Everton’s poor form. Everton flirted with relegation, finishing the 1979/80 season nineteenth, but Hartford was voted the club’s player of the year.
Hartford remained modest about his contribution that year. ‘I did not play as well as I had done in my last season with Manchester City, but I was quite happy with my form from Christmas onwards,’ he told the Everton matchday programme at the start of the 1980/81 season. ‘It’s never easy for players to adjust to a new team. Some seem to be lucky in that they can move and settle straight away but for some it never works at all. I was somewhere in the middle of two extremes and now I’m looking forward to a more consistent season, both for myself and my club.’
Certainly he started the 1980/81 season well and was one of the main driving forces behind Everton’s good start. By October Everton were third with the top of the table in sight. But his more inexperienced and less talented team mates could not sustain the momentum and in the final seven months of the season Everton recorded just six league wins.
Gordon Lee exonerated the midfielder of any blame in another disappointing campaign. He used his programme notes for the last home game of the season to write: ‘I don’t think Asa has played better than at any time of his career’. It wasn’t enough to save Lee’s job, however, and that was the final time Goodison saw him as Everton manager. After finishing 1980/81 fifteenth he was sacked and replaced by Howard Kendall.
Hartford initially survived the swingeing cuts of the new regime, but in October 1981 Manchester City bid £350,000 for their former star and Kendall decided to accept and invest the much needed funds in creating his own vision for Everton. Hartford continued to play at Maine Road until 1984, before embarking on a tour of the lower leagues. He finished up as Shrewsbury Town player manager in 1989, where he briefly lined up alongside David Moyes.