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Interview with John Hartson

Interview with John Hartson

UP FRONT and in person, two Welsh football icons grace the stage to talk about their incredible careers as Ian Rush and John Hartson come to St David’s Hall on Monday 13 January!

For one night only, the Liverpool and Celtic legends give fascinating insights behind the scenes and discuss Wales' chances at Euro 2020 with ex-Arsenal defender and talkSPORT presenter Perry Groves. Plus, there's a chance to ask them a question yourself, and VIP tickets are available to have your photo taken with two of Wales' greatest ever strikers!

Now a respected pundit for BT Sport and S4C, John Hartson played for eight clubs between 1992 and 2007. Neil Collins chats to him about his incredible career.

You’re coming to St David’s Hall with fellow Welsh football legend, Ian Rush. Can you remember the first time you met him?

I would’ve been about 17-18 and we were sharing the same hotel, which was the County Court. The squad always used to meet up there we used to train at the old athletics stadium in Newport.

Ian was in and around the hotel with the Welsh seniors, and I was there with the under-21s. I used to look up to Rushy. Him, Dean Saunders and Mark Hughes are all 10 or 11 years older than me, so my aspirations and goals were to emulate them. They were already seasoned Premier League and international players and I was just coming through, so I was always watching them and how they trained and how they conducted themselves at the hotel. Over time I improved, and once I moved to Arsenal I was then called up to the senior team.

In the senior group I trained with Rushy, but sadly I never shared a playing field with him. I came on for him against Turkey once, and he came off and shook my hand. He called it a day not long after that, having 70-odd caps as top goalscorer, but over the years I’ve gone back and forth to Liverpool to do commentary and I’ve met up with him. We’ve had several conversations and I see him at the odd Welsh game. When I was doing my coaching badges in Aberystwyth, Ian was one of the advisors in the seminars. I can’t say I know him as a really good friend, but well enough to shake his hand and have a conversation.

I always looked up to him as I was a Liverpool supporter growing up in Swansea. I had a Liverpool kit and my brother had a Manchester United kit – there would be ructions Christmas morning! I worshipped Rushy and he was my idol as I watched so much of Liverpool, but then I had to move on and excel within my own right as Wales’ No.9.

 

You made your senior Wales debut in Bulgaria in March 1995. Were you pinching yourself to be rubbing shoulders with Welsh legends like him, Neville Southall, Gary Speed and Dean Saunders in that line-up?

Yes, my debut was in Sofia and I played the full game alongside Dean (Saunders), but we lost 3-1 unfortunately. Rushy wasn’t involved in that game.
The likes of Stoichkov, Kostadinov were playing in a really good Bulgaria team, who had reached the semi-final of the 1994 World Cup.

Although Rushy was my favourite and I had an obsession with Liverpool, I respected all the boys. Speedo was a wonderful friend of mine, Dean Saunders who I still speak to regularly and we do the dinner circuit; Neville Southall and Mark Hughes are legends, and Barry Horne was a great captain. I enjoyed my 10 years with Wales, I might have gone on a little bit longer under John Toshack. I regretted not staying around, but I just felt my time had come. I’d won 51 caps and the likes of Robbie Earnshaw and Simon Church were coming through, and I thought it was now their time. I’d had a great time, played in some huge games – the win against Italy, the play-off with Russia and playing against England.

What was it like having Vinnie Jones in the Wales camp back in the mid-90s?
 
It was good having him in the squad, and we became friends on the back of that. He’s the godfather of my daughter Rebecca, who is now nearly 21. I haven’t talked to Vinnie in several years, but we stay in touch via social media. He’s over in L.A. doing his thing making films, but one of our first meetings was when we started to room together. We became friends and I was living quite near him in Hertfordshire. Then the move to Wimbledon came about with Joe Kinnear and Sam Hammam. I signed for them in 1999 for £7.5m, which is would be over £100m today. That was such a huge amount of money, it was ridiculous at the time!

Vinnie always wore his heart on his sleeve and everything he did was with passion and he wanted to get the most out of what he had. He wasn’t a fantastic footballer, but he was better than what people game him credit for.
You don’t play for Chelsea, Sheffield United and Leeds if you can’t play.

You started as a trainee at Luton Town at the age of 16 in December 1992. Did you enjoy your time as an apprentice at Kenilworth Road?

Going away from home to Luton was challenging. Lots of kids struggle leaving their home on their council estate and leaving their parents, brothers, sisters and friends, but I realised that as Swansea was in the old third/fourth division I needed to go away from home to succeed in what I wanted to do. When I went to Luton, I quickly got into the first team and it was great. I’d advise any young kid to go away, I think you grow up quickly. You learn a lot about yourself. You need to get to the ground on your own, take buses and fend for yourself. You become a man quickly, living outside your comfort zone. You have to have some sort of drive if you want to succeed and I had that at a very young age, so Luton was fantastic for me.

In January 1995, you became Britain’s most expensive teenager when you joined George Graham’s Arsenal for £2.5m. How did you deal with suddenly being thrust into the national spotlight?
 
I never realised at the time I was breaking records, you take it in your stride. I went to Arsenal for record money, I broke the West Ham transfer record two years later and then I broke the Wimbledon transfer record. Then I went to Celtic for £6m, but as far as I was concerned I was just a young kid from Swansea off a council estate basically just enjoying myself!

I thought David Pleat had called me into his office for a rollicking, but he said “George Graham has been on the phone and he’s put a bid in for you. I’d like you to home, have a shave, put a suit on and I’ll take you to see him.” I didn’t have an agent at the time, so they organised it all on a Thursday and on the Saturday I made my debut with Ian Wright as a centre-forward at Highbury. Also, we played Everton and my Welsh team-mate Neville Southall was in goal. We drew 1-1, and Duncan Ferguson got sent off!
 
Chris Kiwomya signed at the same time as you from Ipswich Town. Did it help you settle in having an established Premier League star coming in new as well, or did you worry that you would be vying for the same jersey especially when George Graham was sacked a couple of months later?

Not really as Chris was more of a winger. He was signed on the same day and the Dutch player Glenn Helder came in around that time too. We all settled in pretty quickly, I probably did the best of the three of us to be honest. I went on to score in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final where we lost to Real Zaragoza. But they were great times at Arsenal with some fantastic players for those two years. Looking back, maybe I could’ve stuck around a bit longer if I wasn’t so eager to play. Ian Wright and Dennis Bergkamp were keeping me out of the team. Bruce Rioch had bought Bergkamp in, which was probably the best thing he did for Arsenal as he was an outstanding player. I learned a lot from him, but I wanted to play so I went to West Ham under Harry Redknapp and played every week.
 
You really hit the ground running at Upton Park and scored an amazing 24 goals in your second season – tied with Manchester United’s Andy Cole and narrowly missing out on the Golden Boot to Michael Owen by a single goal.

I was sent off a couple of times that season, and perhaps could’ve won it had I not had those suspensions – would’ve been nice!

After spells at Wimbledon and Coventry City, you joined Celtic in August 2001, and probably enjoyed the best years of your career at Celtic Park winning three league titles, two Scottish Cups, one Scottish League Cup and two Player of the Year awards in 2005.
 
I had a great time at Celtic, it’s a wonderful club. I scored 110 goals in the five seasons playing under two great managers in Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan. I really embraced Glasgow and the football club. It has an unbelievable fan base around the world. It’s nice to say that during my career I went up to play in Scotland, and I had a great rapport with the Celtic fans which will never change. I live in Edinburgh now, I love being up here in Scotland and being close to the Scottish football scene.

The Celtic fans really took you to their hearts, and I noticed yesterday on Twitter that a fan has even called his dog Hartson!

I think there’s been cats and mice and everything called Hartson over the years! I managed to do well against the big rivals Rangers. I scored nine goals against them in derbies – some of them winners – so if you can get the goals in the games that meant most to them, they would take you to their hearts.

I watched your goal against Liverpool again earlier on YouTube from March 2003, and it was one hell of a strike! You get the ball out of your feet, side-step Didi Hamann – which is no mean feat in itself _ and blast the ball into the top corner to give Jerzy Dudek no chance!

Yes, I enjoyed that 25-yarder at Anfield! I was a Liverpool fan, my mother and father were behind the goal, and we knocked Liverpool out of the UEFA Cup. That goal is up there as one of my best because of the moment – not many teams win at Anfield under the lights in Europe. To beat them 2-0 and play them off the park was a wonderful occasion and a wonderful result. I’ve probably scored better, but it was a huge goal for me.

We reached the final where we got beaten by Jose Mourinho’s Porto. We beat Boavista after Liverpool, but unfortunately the final in Seville was a difficult night and we lost 3-2 so that was disappointing. But there were 70,000+ Celtic supporters there, who had all taken the day off work. It was a wonderful experience for the fans as it was the first European final they had got to since 1967. Celtic always travel incredibly well in Europe and like Liverpool and Manchester United, they are a global club with ex-pats in New York, Canada, Australia – everywhere!

Both Liverpool and Celtic really have a place in your heart especially as you have a You’ll Never Walk Alone tattoo.

The hairs stood up on the back of my neck when both sets of fans sang You’ll Never Walk Alone at Celtic Park. To stand there at the start of the game and look round at the full house with all the scarves held aloft and coming together was one of the magic moments of my career.
 
You were still a teenager the last time Liverpool won the title. Surely they’ll win it this season?

I think Liverpool can only throw the title away now. Not winning it last season was probably the best thing that could’ve happened in a strange way because it’s given them a real drive and mental push to not give up this opportunity.

Liverpool probably played better at times last season, but I don’t think these players are so naive to lose four or five games. The mind-set is better and winning the Club World Cup a few weeks ago was fantastic for them. European champions and 14 points clear – it’s been brilliant!

 

To book your seats, please visit www.stdavidshallcardiff.co.uk or call the Box Office on 029 2087 8444.

 

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