John Hartson: 'It would be nice to get a break – and the game is still my life'

The Brian Viner Interview: Having beaten cancer and kicked a serious gambling addiction, 'Big Bad' John has turned over a new leaf and now wants to take on the challenge of managing Wales
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The Independent Online

"This will be my last night. I'm losing the battle."

It was Friday 24 July 2009. John Hartson, 34 years old and scorer of 167 goals for six clubs including Arsenal, West Ham and Celtic, plus 14 more for Wales, lay in hospital in Swansea suffering from testicular cancer that had spread to the brain and would later reach his lungs. All the strength he had used to overpower countless centre-halves had seeped away. He knew that the cyclist Lance Armstrong had survived the same perilous condition, indeed had gone on to win the Tour de France seven times, but that evening Hartson whispered to his older brother, James, that he had reached the end of the road.

A year later Hartson meets me at the railway station in Neath. Apart from two scars on the top and back of his head, and a further impressive collection on his torso, that he proudly shows me later after whipping off his shirt, there is no outward sign of his traumatic illness.

"I had 73 sessions of chemotherapy over a three-month period," he tells me cheerfully, while driving me to his house. "Luckily, I'd always been a non-smoker. I had a really strong heart and fantastically strong lungs, which helped a lot. I still lost five stone in weight, and became very frail, but my cancer markers went from 200,000 to zero. My wife, Sarah, and I went to see my oncologist, Dr Bertelli. He said, 'John you've got zero markers, it's an amazing reaction'. Sarah and I just broke down."

Hartson says all this so non-mawkishly that he might be relating a story about a trip to the supermarket, then merrily waves at the driver of a car coming the other way. "My sister," he says. After all his travels, not to mention his travails, Hartson is back in the bosom of his family. Home is on an executive housing estate with splendid views of the Neath hills. Executives and sportsmen; the boxer Enzo Maccarinelli lives just a few doors up. And Sarah, his second wife, whom he married this summer, has had the baby she was carrying during the torment of last July. She wasn't the only one who dared to wonder whether the big man would live to see his fourth child.

Inside the house, Hartson throws baby Stephanie in the air and catches her, to her gurgling delight. He appears to have regained much of his former strength, looking and, despite a tracheotomy, sounding, no less robust than he did the last time I interviewed him, when he was at Celtic, banging goals in for fun. Yet it was at Celtic where he first felt lumps in his scrotum. "I just wasn't aware that it was a sign of testicular cancer," he says. "There was a club doctor at every club I played for but I never had it checked." Eventually he did, however, and cancer was swiftly diagnosed. "And that week I started to get headaches, mind-blowing headaches. I phoned the GP, and with all due respect to her, she wasn't aware of how ill I was. I was failing badly."

The press had always had a field day with "Big Bad" John Hartson, from the 1998 training-ground assault on his West Ham team-mate Eyal Berkovic to his "£20,000-a-day" gambling addiction. This time the coverage was cloaked in compassion but still yielded lots of excited banner headlines. And as when any sportsman in the prime of life is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, the shock reverberated beyond the sporting world.

"People from outside football came to see me, like Bradley Walsh. Jimmy Tarbuck got in touch. Joe Calzaghe. Ben Thatcher, who I played with at Wimbledon, came all the way down from Ipswich, and cried with my dad. I got messages from Alan Stubbs and Jimmy White, who'd both had cancer. They told me to stay positive, which I mostly did. But you've also got to have goals. The major one was to live to see the baby being born. And my boy [his son by his first marriage] is going to be a footballer, in my opinion. I had to be there for him, to guide him. That definitely helped pull me through, but a lot of people give up and I can understand why, because you just get fed up of feeling terrible. You think three in the afternoon is two in the morning. And the medication makes you half-mad. I thought my wife was having an affair with one of the Filipino male nurses up there, I thought my dad was on the piss every night..."

He gives a hearty laugh. I ask him whether his illness has diminished his appetite for football, whether it made this boyhood Liverpool supporter see the daftness of Bill Shankly's quip about the game being bigger than life and death.

A pause. "No, it's still my life. I've done all my coaching badges, and I've applied for the Welsh [manager's] job, along with Chris Coleman and Rushy [Ian Rush]. I probably won't get it, but it would nice to get a break. I put a shift in for my country. I played for over 10 years up front on my own. I'd like to be rewarded for that."

He knows, however, that the Football Association of Wales will not appoint him out of sentimentality. So let's pretend this is a job interview, right here in his kitchen. What would he bring as manager of Wales?

"I would open the door to some former players, though it's probably a bit late for Giggsy. I would work out a system that suits the players, like Mark Hughes did with us. He built the team around me, the big centre-forward in a 4-5-1, and he drummed that shape into us. Players hate doing shape, because it doesn't really involve the ball a lot, but you have to work out a system. All I ask for is a break. Roberto Martinez says to me he'd have given his left hand for my career, the clubs I played for, over 50 caps for my country, but in management he's had the breaks. The same with Neil Lennon. All of a sudden he's manager of Celtic. It was the same for Mark Hughes. He was playing for Everton when Wales gave him the job."

Nonetheless, I venture, the lack of managerial experience will surely count against him. Fleetingly, he eyes me as he once did opposition defenders. "[Luiz Felipe] Scolari goes to Chelsea a World Cup winner, and has a fucking nightmare. Paul Le Guen goes to Rangers having just won the French championship for Lyons for the first time in 50 years... has a stinker. Iain Dowie's taken five clubs down, but he still keeps getting jobs. Are they good talkers? What is it? And look at the managers I worked under... Arsène Wenger, Harry Redknapp, George Graham, Mark Hughes, Martin O'Neill, Gordon Strachan."

A name missing from that list, one he'd quite like to be on it, is that of Sir Alex Ferguson. "He's the godfather," says Hartson. "I know for a fact that Martin O'Neill idolises him. They all do, in that LMA [League Managers' Association]. Whenever there's trouble at their club, with a player or the board, they all phone him for advice."

Even without Fergie it is still a formidable list of managers, although Hartson would be the first to admit that some of them needed every ounce of their expertise to get the best out of him. It was Strachan at Celtic, having also managed him at Coventry, who recognised that the best of him had probably gone for ever. "Gordon's a disciplinarian, and to play for him your head's got to be right. Mine wasn't. I was living on my own in a flat, my children were miles away, so he sold me to Bryan Robson at West Brom. I retired there, just before my 33rd birthday. I was going through a divorce, my children had moved back to Wales with their mam, my family life was down the pot, then Bryan Robson lost his job. I could've played with Kenny Jackett at Millwall, or John Sheridan at Oldham. They said, 'John, just train on a Friday and play on Saturday'. I said, 'Boys, I'll be 25 stone if I do that'. I always needed to train."

So Hartson hung up his boots, and swiftly got a punditry job with the broadcaster Setanta. "I thought, 'Brilliant, I don't have to get up early any more and train my nuts off'. And I was covering the SPL [Scottish Premier League], which I knew well. But then Setanta went bust, and I'd packed up football so the money side of things wasn't great. And there was the divorce, too. I'm sure all that stress contributed to my illness."

Moreover, Hartson had long been his own worst enemy with regard to what he calls the money side of things. He admitted to me six years ago that he'd had an arrangement with his bookmaker, to fox his then wife, whereby he'd phone in a bet of £100 but both he and his bookie would know it was £1,000. Whatever the bet, he always left a nought off.

It was an addiction that had started young; as a 16-year-old in the Luton Town youth team he had stolen a cash card from his team-mate Scott Goodfellow, whose parents he lodged with, to fund his fruit-machine habit. And while he lay in hospital last summer, Sarah checked their bank account and found four-figure debits. Despite his assurances to her, he was gambling again.

Is he still, or did the chemotherapy zap that impulse along with all those cancerous cells? At any rate, he wouldn't be the first seriously ill person to resolve to kick an addiction, in return for renewed health.

He summons Sarah, an attractive, engaging Scot. "How long is it since I had a bet?" he asks her. "I would say about a year," she replies, and he turns to me, triumphantly. "The thing is, Sarah handles our money now, and she gives me an allowance. I can buy a bag of chips, a bit of petrol, get the kids some tea, and if I want a £1,000 suit she'll buy me one, but if I want £1,000 to go to the races, no chance. I used to watch a bit of cricket, a bit of rugby league, and think, 'I can clean up here'. But that came from being bored, and boredom doesn't really come into my life now. I've got four kids, my mum and dad are round the corner, I work for the Welsh-language channel S4C, covering Welsh football. I have my column in the Scottish Sun. And there's the John Hartson Foundation too."

He takes little Stephanie in his arms again. "I feel like I'm clean from gambling now," he says, "and that's down to my illness, and to Sarah." I expect she'd rather have fought the campaign on her own. But as he drops me off at the station, I am left with the image of a man with his life sorted. And better still, with his life restored.

'Please Don't Go: Big John's Journey Back to Life' by John Hartson (Mainstream, £17.99) The John Hartson Foundation promotes awareness of testicular cancer (