Football: Upton Park reaps riches of Hartson the trouble-shooter

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First his ability was disparaged, then his lifestyle. But 22 goals in 32 games has silenced the criticism of John Hartson's football and now he hopes to refute the vilification of his character. The West Ham striker has proved the bargain of the year and will be out to emphasise his worth against Sheffield Wednesday today.

John Hartson had a touch of flu earlier this week so West Ham sent him home from training and quarantined him. This meant our interview had to be conducted on the telephone, not ideal but, according to tabloid legend probably a blessing in disguise. If you believe all you read he would have dragged me down the boozer for an all-day bender taking in the trashing of a hotel before driving home.

"I don't know where you got that idea from," responded the alleged Wild Man of Potters Bar when I laid that scenario before him. "I live with my fiancee, Lowry, and I don't think she'd like me out every night; golf's more my relaxation. I have the odd night out with the boys but no more than the average 22-year-old."

Hartson admits that: "I have been caught up in a few things the last couple of weeks," - notably a night out which ended with police involvement and the ill-advised comment in his local newspaper column after Rio Ferdinand's drink-driving arrest that "we've all done it" - but adds: "I'm learning the hard way, the experience will stand me in good stead."

For a 22-year-old Hartson has already acquired a lot of experience, good and bad. Swansea born and bred, he was spotted as a 10-year-old by Luton. Nine years later, half-way through his second season in the Hatters' first team, he signed for Arsenal for pounds 2.5m, the most expensive fee paid for a teenager. Within a month George Graham, the man who bought him, had been sacked. "I didn't know what to think," said Hartson. "I was just a kid."

Initially the change did not affect his progress, Stewart Houston took over, Hartson kept his place as Arsenal reached the final of the European Cup-Winners' Cup, Hartson scoring in the defeat.

Then came Bruce Rioch... and Dennis Bergkamp. He was partnered with Ian Wright. "Two great players," said Hartson. "I was out in the cold." There was no change under Arsene Wenger and, last February, Harry Redknapp, desperate for a striker to keep West Ham up, paid a reported pounds 5m for Hartson.

The actual fee was pounds 3.2m which may rise to pounds 5m but the latter figure took the public eye. Chelsea had just bought Gianfranco Zola for less and reaction was harsh, notably from the two Dannys, Baker and Kelly. Then broadcasting on BBC Radio Five Live they decried this "waste of money" in withering terms and appealed to West Ham fans travelling to Hartson's debut match at Derby to follow suit.

Hartson scored five goals in 11 games to lift West Ham clear of relegation and leads this season's charts with 17 in 21. A fortnight ago, in a rare show of humility, Baker and Kelly, now on Talkback Radio, admitted their error adding that every time he scored it "was like a knife through the heart".

Words to bring a glow of satisfaction to Hartson were he inclined to put the knife in but, not surprisingly, he was not listening at the time. Nor, bolstered by the security of his goals, does he seem bothered by the memory of their criticism.

"If it came from somebody I respected," he said, "someone like Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush or Alan Shearer, people who've done something in the game, I'd be offended. But it's come from people who know nothing about football.

"There is nothing I can do about it. It's not very nice but it's something you have to live with. These people are just employed by BBC or whoever to stir things up; they're doing their job.

"The fans have been superb. I scored on my home debut when we beat Tottenham 4-3, I kissed my shirt and the fans realised I was dedicated to the club. I have gone from strength to strength since. I've been fortunate enough to score lots of goals and they'll expect that now but I'm confident I will score if I keep fit and well.

"I don't feel I've proved something to anyone - or that I've anything to prove - all I do is play my game and the goals are there to look at."

Worth seeing as well. Naturally enough for a barnstorming 14st, 6ft-plus centre-forward a fair number are headers but he has also been thumping shots in from around the box at all angles.

"I'm not playing as well as I can but I'm scoring lots of goals so I can't complain. A lot of it is confidence and I'm playing in a good side which is creating lots of chances. We are getting crosses in and Eyel Berkovitch has been outstanding, he's been laying it on a plate for me. If we can start winning away from home we'll be in a decent position."

Hartson's immediate ambitions are to help Wales to the European Championship finals - "no disrespect but Scotland and Ireland are not that far ahead of us in players, we just have to get it together as a team" - and West Ham to Wembley. "I went to the FA Cup final with Kerry Dixon [a team-mate, rival, friend and mentor in Hartson's Luton days] and thought `it would be great for the fans if West Ham were here, they'd go in their droves'."

West Ham's Wembley prospects - they play Arsenal in the quarter-finals of the Littlewoods Cup next month - are helped by Hartson managing to avoid suspension. Last season he was sent off with Arsenal and booked almost every game for West Ham. This season he has been comparatively angelic.

"I had a chat to Harry [Redknapp] before the season and he said he wanted me in the team, not suspended in the stand, so I had a serious look at it. It is also because I've been carrying a knee injury so I've not been flying into tackles so much. Though I'm still committed I've had to curb it. I don't want to say too much though as I'll might get sent off this week and make myself look a mug.

"I got 11 bookings last year but three or four of those were very harsh. Suddenly I'm a dirty player with a bad reputation. People jump on bandwagons and point the finger at you."

His worst offence this season has been verbal, strongly criticising the referee Mike Reed after West Ham's match at Leicester. It added fuel to his off-field reputation but his improved on-field behaviour helped him escape heavy punishment - unlike, ironically, Danny Baker whose departure from the BBC followed criticism of Reed after last season's FA Cup tie between Chelsea and Leicester. This helped create the climate for Hartson's accusation that Reed was a biased towards Leicester.

"If someone asks me an honest question I give an honest answer but I'm learning to be careful. I've had a lot of press, good and bad. People try and make a few quid out of you, they sell a little quote somewhere, there's nothing you can do about it. You can't not talk to anybody because that's not pleasing the public - they want to know about you.

"I don't put anything on, I'm just myself. My real mates know me. I go to Wales often and see the boys from school. They also come to watch me play. They've told me they're glad I've not forgotten where I come from and I said I'll never do that because that's not the kind of guy I am."