‘I played the best football of my career while at West Ham’

Former Hammers striker John Hartson on that great escape, kicking out at Eyal Berkovic and how cancer turned his world upside down

I f life does indeed begin at 40, then clearly someone forgot to tell John Hartson. The former West Ham striker celebrated his 40th birthday on April 5, having already managed to cram in more than many people do in twice that time. Record-breaking striker, hero, villain, public enemy, father of five, cancer survivor and now charity fundraiser – Hartson has lived through it all, and has the scars (literally) to prove it.

Arsenal made him British football’s most expensive teenager when they paid Luton £2.5m for him in January 1995, and learning his craft alongside Dennis Bergkamp and Ian Wright, it was clear the youngster from Swansea was destined for great things. But as he told Blowing Bubbles in an exclusive interview, despite Arsene Wenger’s desire to keep him at Highbury, Hartson’s future lay further east than that.

‘Wenger had offered me a new four-year deal – he wanted me to stay and learn from two of the best strikers in the world, but West Ham were really in trouble at that time, and I had Harry Redknapp in my ear,’ explained Hartson. ‘He’s persistent, and when he wants something, he goes all out to get it. Arsenal had broken a record to sign me, and then he did the same – that’s how much he wanted me.’

When Hartson arrived at West Ham in January 1997, all hopes were pinned on him and fellow new signing Paul Kitson to drag the team out of a serious relegation struggle – not that Hartson was daunted by the prospect. ‘I was 21, and totally fearless – at that age you can achieve anything you want, you think you can run through walls,’ he said. ‘Harry made Kits and I play together as much as possible in training to build an understanding and then put us straight into the first team.

‘Fortunately, we just clicked. We both scored on our home debuts, a 4-3 win over Spurs, and went on to produce 13 goals between us. ‘The way the team turned things round and managed to stay up after the position they had been in before we arrived was a miracle.’ But if fans thought Hartson’s first half-season in claret and blue was something to get excited about, they hadn’t seen anything yet.

I’ve got friends from back home who’ve been at every single match of my career, from my debut for Luton to playing for Celtic at Barcelona – these guys have known me since I was a kid, so I can trust them more than anyone else, and they say that without a doubt, the 1997-98 season at West Ham was the best football I’ve ever played,’ said Hartson. ‘I was absolutely unplayable that season – I scored 24 goals, which was my best ever total in the Premier League, I finished just one behind Michael Owen for the Golden Boot, and I was only 22. West Ham fans really got to see the best of me that year.’

It wasn’t just Upton Park regulars who were impressed by Hartson’s achievements that season. In the build-up to the campaign where his side would go on to win the treble, Sir Alex Ferguson came close to signing the Welsh international striker for Manchester United. Not that Hartson knew anything about it, though.

‘I only found this out after I’d retired, when I read Fergie’s book,’ he said. ‘It was complete news to me, but that shows you how well I was playing.’ Pride comes before a fall, though, and Hartson’s descent from such giddy heights to rock bottom and the exit door was as shocking as it was unpredictable.

‘I’d have loved to stay at West Ham,’ he said. ‘I was only two years into a seven-year deal and I had a fantastic rapport with the fans, then the Berkovic incident happened, and it absolutely killed me at the club.’ The incident in question was a training ground bust-up with Israeli team-mate Eyal Berkovic, which culminated in Hartson kicking the midfielder in the face as he knelt on the ground – all of it, caught on camera.

‘What I did was terrible – it’s undoubtedly the biggest regret of my career, and it soured everything that I’d been building up at West Ham,’ Hartson explained. ‘Why I reacted as I did, I really don’t know – it wasn’t anything personal, we got on perfectly well, he set up loads of my goals and he certainly didn’t deserve anything like that.

‘Things just weren’t going right that season – I wasn’t moving as well or scoring as much, I was a boisterous, angry young man and something snapped. ‘It was horrible for everyone – it brought shame on me and my family. I was told ‘don’t worry, the pictures will never see the light of day’ and then there it was, the lead story on the News at Ten, getting coverage all around the world. It was a real eye-opener of an experience for me.’

An eye-opener and a door-shutter; inevitably after such an incident, Hartson’s West Ham days were numbered. ‘Of all the places in the world, my last game for West Ham was an FA Cup defeat away at Swansea – my home town, where I live again now, and the team I have season tickets for,’ he said. ‘Things were in a very bad way, so when Harry got the call from Wimbledon about signing me, he must have bitten their hands off down the phone.’

Two years after his arrival as a gamble signing, Hartson left West Ham – again, for a record fee – the tried and tested article, albeit with questions about his temperament. ‘Obviously how it happened is a huge regret, but I had to leave West Ham to save my career, and I think the fans could see that too,’ he said. But if there was any suggestion that Hartson had blown his chance at the big time, what happened in years to come would put that right. Even if he nearly died in the process.

When Wimbledon paid West Ham a club record £7.5m for John Hartson in February 1999, just two years after he had joined the Irons from Arsenal – also for a club record fee – there were sighs of relief all round. Having been in the form of his life the previous season, when he scored 24 goals, something had gone badly wrong for the Welsh international striker. His rapid slide from Golden Boot contender to being booted out was sealed by the infamous training ground clash with Eyal Berkovic.

Once outstanding, he was now an outcast, and it was with a sense of relief, mixed with regret, that he moved from east to south London. ‘It was great business all round when Wimbledon came in for me. This was a chance to put it all behind me and make a fresh start. I wasn’t scared – I was looking forward to the challenge and couldn’t wait to show I was worth all that money.’ However, it proved to be a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire – literally – as his new Crazy Gang team-mates burnt his tracksuit on his arrival at the club, and four games into his Dons career, Joe Kinnear, the manager who had signed Hartson, suffered a heart attack. After struggling under successors Terry Burton and Egil Olsen, in summer 2000, the Dons were relegated from the Premier League.

As the big-ticket item, Hartson was thrust straight into the shop window, but doubts about a knee problem saw several possible moves – most famously to Rangers – fall through, and he ended up having a short pay as you play stint at Coventry. The decline of a player who had been so brilliant for West Ham just three years earlier seemed to be almost irreversible. But then fate took Hartson to Glasgow, and his career never looked back.

If his West Ham career had been a sample of what Hartson could do, Celtic was the real deal. ‘I was 26 when I joined them for £6m, at the peak of my career, and I had an incredible time there,’ said Hartson. ‘In five years there I scored 110 goals and won seven major trophies, including three League titles, I played with the likes of Henrik Larsson, I met my wife, and the relationship I had with the fans was something else. Everything about my time there was good.

Glasgow football is, famously, a different world, and Hartson’s flirtation with Celtic’s bitter rivals only added spice to his time there. ‘Not buying me was the biggest mistake Rangers have ever made in their history,’ he said. ‘They could have signed me for £6m, but decided not to because they weren’t sure about my knee. I went on to play 220 games for Celtic without ever once having an ice pack on my knee, and I scored nine times against them in 27 Old Firm games. ‘Rather than me, they went out and spent £12m on Tore Andre Flo from Chelsea. He lasted two seasons – both of which we won the title – and then they sold him for half what they’d paid for him. Turning me down was their loss, nobody else’s.’

Whilst Hartson was finally fulfilling the promise he had shown at West Ham, he noticed small lumps on his testicles, but thought nothing of it. After all, he was a successful professional athlete at the peak of his powers and fathering an ever-growing family – health was not an issue.

Or so he thought, until after he had retired, when after six years of noticing the lumps, he went to get them looked at. Two words changed everything. ‘Testicular cancer – and because I’d left it so late to get them looked at, it had spread to my lungs and brain,’ he said. ‘All three, all at once. That was it – I was a goner, this is something people just don’t come back from. Not a bug or a disease – three types of cancer. My wife was pregnant at the time, and when we heard, we cried like babies. This was 100% the most terrifying moment of my life.’

Hartson was now about to realise the full price of having ignored the warning signs. ‘If only I’d got them looked at earlier, things would have been so different. I could have had a testicle removed, and that’d be it. ‘But I didn’t, and as a result of that I ended up having to undergo 67 chemotherapy sessions, eight operations and six weeks in hospital fighting for my life.’ Mercifully for all concerned, Hartson recovered – as much as anyone can. ‘The cancer I had has gone away, but I can’t say I’m ‘clear clear’ – no-one is,’ he explained.

‘There’s no logic to cancer, anyone can get it any time. It might come back in 20 years, it might never come back. You can be the most clean-living person and cancer takes you at 50, or be a total slob and live until you’re 90. It’s a horrendous disease, which takes away good people every day.’ Hartson’s brush with death put the ups and downs of his career as a footballer in perspective, and left him a deeply changed individual, with a new goal in life – to help others. ‘The way I look at it is, someone somewhere did me a favour to help me survive, so I have to pay it back,’ he said.

‘I’m an utterly changed character from the person I used to be. I’ve had mansions, and Bentleys, and five-year contracts on £40,000 a week – but without health, it’s all irrelevant. I lived to help others, and that’s why we have the John Hartson Foundation.’ So far, the Foundation has raised over £200,000 to help cancer-related organisations with all aspects of their work, from research to toys for hospices, and with a packed list of fundraising events in the coming months, that work and those funds are only going to grow.

In the 16 years since he left West Ham, Hartson has undergone a remarkable journey both as a footballer and as a human being. And whilst the nature of his departure from Upton Park is still a source of sadness, time has proved to be a great healer. ‘I had to leave West Ham to save my career,’ he said. ‘Obviously the way it happened was regrettable – but I was a 23-year-old from a council estate, living the high life. You live and you learn.’ Now aged 40, John Hartson has indeed learned. But far more importantly, he has lived.

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