Welsh Football’s Hartson: Big Heart & Balls
What better way to celebrate St. David’s day than in the company of Welsh footballing legend John Hartson who joined a lunch on behalf of the Sussex cricket Foundation to celebrate the occasion. The former footballer, now turned television soccer pundit on BBC and BT Sports, addressed a keen audience on his career and life. John’s successfully played for Luton Town (1992-95), Arsenal (1995-97), West Ham (1997-99), Wimbledon (1999-2001), Celtic (2001-06), and West Bromwich Albion (2006-08). He was a strong centre forward who came from Swansea, Wales where he freely admitted is a Rugby country.
He left his home to join Luton Towns youth training scheme where he came across the manager David Pleat who he struggled to get on with. In training, Pleat would always show John what he should have done with a pass or shot on goal with the continue us patronising phrase ‘The way my mother does it’ or ‘Just kick it into the corner .. just as my mother would do it’. This irritated John. On leaving the club he told him ‘Your mother must have been one hell of a player’.
Hartson moved to Arsenal under George Graham who had complied a star studied line up of players with the likes of Ian Wright, Dennis Bergkamp, Anders Limpar, Paul Merson, David Seaman and Tony Adams. He was in awe of the talent at the club but settled in.
John had not been there long when team mate Paul Merson approached him for some help. Paul had just brought a racehorse and he didn’t want to go on the short club tour of Germany as he wanted to see his horse run its first race. So, he asked John to hard tackle him in training so he can get injured and miss the trip.
The session starts, immediately Hartson whacks him. Merson is rolling on the ground in agony. George Graham screams ‘What are you doing? He’s our best player?’. Up jogs Tony Adams, who John remarked was ‘a great leader’, saying ‘Save it John, save it’. Merson gets up and turns to Hartson ‘Any chance you can make it look a little more realistic?’
The game continues, he now cuts Paul Merson almost in half with a tackle, who is on the ground in awful pain. The manager walks off in disgust, Merson doesn’t play for four months, John gets fined six week’s wages and the racehorse was eventually shot!
John went on to West Ham where he worked with Harry Redknapp and unfortunately had another training ground incident captured on camera by a fan which made headlines for all the wrong reasons with a kick in the face on team mate Eval Berkovic in September 1998. The Israeli midfielder had punched Hartson in the leg as he attempted to help Berkovic to his feet.
John was fined and admitted in his biography that it was an error of judgement. Berkovic said of the incident “If my head had been a ball, it would have been in the top corner of the net”. This seemed to underline his hard man image. According to John, he recently bumped into Harry, now as a pundit he asked him privately why he left Tottenham. ‘Well’ said an upbeat Redknapp ‘I got a £3 million pay off, and after tax that’s £3.4 million.’
John Hartson played around fifty to sixty games for each of these clubs Luton Town, Arsenal, West Ham and Wimbledon before moving on to Celtic where he made 149 appearances, for a club alongside rivals Rangers, who completely dominate Scottish football. ‘I was hero worshipped for scoring each week against pub sides’ described Hartson.
Although he loved his time at Celtic especially on their European nights. He is passionate about playing for Wales (1995 – 2005) whom he played 51 times scoring 14 goals, and remains very proud about representing his country, ‘You can’t get higher’.
When playing for Wales, he came across fellow countryman and controversial footballer Craig Bellamy, who was not that bright, indeed ‘he struggled to spell OXO backwards’. Once he ordered a medium size pizza and the guy said to him do you want it cut into four or eight slices? He replied ‘Four …. I couldn’t eat eight’.
However, John’s comfortable lifestyle was given a massive jolt when in 2009 he was diagnosed with testicular cancer which made its way into his brain. John feared the worst, on being told by the hospital how bad it was. He drove home in tears to tell his wife. John went through drastic chemotherapy, with the chances of recovery slim. In the next moments of his talk we saw who John Hartson the man really was.
This fight which he eventually won changed his perception on life. It was clear as he spoke with real emotion and concern for others who he said ‘had not been as lucky’ with their personal battle, his outlook had altered. He set up the John Hartson foundation to increase awareness of the disease as well as to raise funds to support others affected by cancer.
Matthew Willetts MA is the Director of Comicus who has over 35 years experience in television, film, theatre, and comedy club/cabaret entertainment, working as a performer, screenwriter, producer and agent. He lectured at Southampton Solent University in Comedy, Screenwriting, Television, Theatre & Radio. Matthew can sometimes be seen and heard on TV & Radio and often quoted in the national press and media publications. As well as speaking regularly at festivals and industry conferences, he has been a judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Montreux Television Festival.