How Arsenal’s kindness helped me back on the road to health – John Hartson exclusive interview
Battle with cancer has given former Gunners striker a new perspective on life
When he signed for Arsenal from Luton Town, back in January 1995, John Hartson was the most expensive teenager in British football.
Big, strong, deceptively quick and technically accomplished, the Welsh prodigy looked destined for great things.
But his manager George Graham was gone in a matter of weeks, and after 16 goals in 62 games, West Ham came calling. Then injury-plagued spells at Wimbledon and Coventry. Nevertheless, Hartson still averaged nearly a goal every other game for all three clubs.
He did even better at Glasgow Celtic. Nearly 90 goals in around 150 league starts. Even those headaches couldn’t stop him.
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Long after he left Celtic Park and returned to his native South Wales, via West Bromwich and Norwich, the headaches and lumps wouldn’t go away. Alarm bells belatedly began ringing.
Big John had the Big C, as he calls it. Cancer.
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His battle for survival, which he has managed to win, has been well documented, but it is remarkable. For years cancerous cells worked their way through his body while he worked his way through opposition defences, starting from his testicles and reaching his head.
The lumps and headaches were finally explained.
Now evangelical about his second coming he has written a book all about it – Please Don’t Go: Big John’s Journey Back To Life – a touching read which leaves little to the imagination. This is a fight with cancer explained in all its chilling and gory detail.
Hartson says money is not a motivating factor in writing the book. “I’ve got money – I’ve earned damned good money in my career, more than I could ever have hoped for,” he tells Ham&High Sport.
“At Arsenal 15 years ago, when I was still in my teens, I was bringing in more than �3,000 a week, so in that respect I’m a lucky boy.
“And I’m not getting a great deal for doing this, no big whack and no bonuses for sales... This is not about the money. This is about trying to save lives, bigger people than me have been beaten by the Big C.”
The embarrassment factor, Hartson says, nearly killed him. And he is not alone.
“Blokes don’t do things. They’d rather just forget about it. I had lumps on my testicles for six or seven years before I acted, and then it was only because my wife booked me an appointment – even then I nearly didn’t go,” he said.
“I’ve been at a few book signings and, I’m telling you, there have been far more women at some of them buying the book for their fellas. If it wasn’t for my woman I probably wouldn’t be here now.”
While Hartson lay in bed in a Swansea hospital, after chemotherapy left him “totally helpless, totally knackered”, he wasn’t forgotten back in north London by his final Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger.
“It was lovely. I got this massive card from the club with me on the front playing for Arsenal,” he smiles. “Inside it Arsene wrote ‘be strong’ and some other nice things. It meant an awful lot to me. It seems everyone in the club – both playing and office staff – signed it.
“I still remember a lot of lovely people from my Highbury days, but then many people stay at the club for a long time, which speaks volumes.
“I loved my time there even though it was only two years. I worked with legends; Lee Dixon, David Seaman, Tony Adams, Ian Wright... It don’t get any better than that, esepcially for a teenager just starting out in the game. I can really say I learned my trade at Highbury.”
Arsenal, of course, have been touched by cancer before. David Rocastle lost his battle with Non-Hodgkins lymphoma in March 2001 – a fact not lost on Hartson.
“I didn’t think about it at the time but after my recovery I did,” he says solemnly. “People say this all the time about dead people, but I knew Rocky and he was truly one of the loveliest, most gentle human beings you could ever wish to meet. A warm person with a heart of gold. You’ll never hear bad words about David – because nobody has any.
“Up at Celtic people said the loveliest things about little Jimmy Jonhstone after his death. Why on earth do people have to wait until someone dies? It annoys me.”
Not that much does annoy him these days. The hot-headed youngster, who infamously once kicked West Ham team-mate Eyal Berkovic in the head, seems a lifetime away. Cancer has changed Hartson for the better.
“I’ve got four gorgeous children and a beautiful wife who rely on me – so I can’t go around booting people in the head now can I?” he says.
“That said, I got called a dirty player but I only got sent off once in something like 238 games for Celtic. And that was later rescinded. I was hard, strong and played a physical game, but I wasn’t a dirty player.”
The new gentle John looks at life from a different perspective.
“Since my cancer I enjoy the simplest things in life. I’m humble and I want people to know it. I’m a lad from a Swansea council estate, I lived the dream and then battled through this.
“I don’t judge people and I urge others not to. I’m hated by half of Glasgow just because I played in the green and white of Celtic. Why? They don’t know me and, I like to think, if they did they would actually think I’m an alright bloke. Well, I reckon I am, anyway.”
So full of life is Hartson now, that he has even applied for the vacant Wales manager’s job,” he said.
“I’m turning down a lot of work at the moment, TV stuff, and I really want a break in management and I want the Wales job.
“Harry [Redknapp] has said I can do some coaching at Spurs and so has Roberto Martinez at Wigan. Tony Adams got a chance and so did Paul Merson. Now I want it. Hey, Aaron Ramsey could be calling me boss soon...”