Hartson still bears heavy burden of expectation

Extra pounds have always been a problem for a Welsh striker still worth his weight in goals
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The Independent Football

Chicken, just plain on white bread, he demands. And no mayonnaise. John Hartson orders his lunch at a hotel near his West Midlands home in Hockley, with the fastidiousness of a supermodel. At the age of 31, maintaining a fighting weight and prime fitness is no more easily achieved than it was during the infancy of his career. "I hate the running aspect of the training," he says, having just returned from West Bromwich Albion's training ground.

"Pre-season is worst. When the balls aren't out, and you're doing these drills. It's a nightmare for me - to be 16 stone and you've got these young whippets laughing at you. It's always been the case, since I was 19. Although these boys are beating me by two laps, I'm working harder than them."

Experience has taught him that such dedication, onerous though it is, brings its reward. The Swansea-born striker, who recently missed four games to build up his fitness after injury, appeared as substitute for the last half-hour against Derby last Saturday, and scored an excellently executed late winner.

Hartson will readily concede, however, that the pounds have always weighed heavily on him. In both senses. The pounds sterling of his transfer fees - an aggregate of just under £20 million - have ensured that the pounds imperial of the Wales international have been under constant scrutiny. No matter that he has amassed over 200 goals for club and country.

"If I'd gone to Arsenal at 19 for, say, £100,000, does it really matter how well I do? Not really," he answers his own question. "A hundred grand for a kid who's played 50-odd games in Luton's team? But I go to Arsenal for £2.5m, and I'm Britain's most expensive teenager. I'm carrying a few extra pounds and all of a sudden I get all the 'overweight' jibes from the crowd if I go four or five games without scoring."

Though no one would suggest that the svelte Andriy Shev-chenko is a direct comparison, Hartson can empathise with the Ukranian striker whose Chelsea goal tally in all competitions reads six . "It must be a horrible situation for him," Hartson says. "He'll be hearing the jibes. He'll be reading the papers. His mates will be telling him what people are saying about him.

"If his wages weren't 80 grand a week but 20 grand, he wouldn't be getting half the stick. You're judged differently. You're a target."

He adds: "It was like me, when I went to Wimbledon, at 24, for £7.5m. It had never been heard of, Wimbledon paying that kind of money for a player, and straightaway, if I go a few games without a goal, they're saying: 'Oh, you're overweight'."

So, what's the answer? "You pray," he says wryly. "You get on your hands and knees the night before a game and say, 'Please tomorrow, just give me a goal...' You just hope for a lucky break. And you need a manager to back you, big time. That is vital. [Jose] Mourinho could have brought Shevchenko out of the team, given him a 'rest', but didn't. He is saying: 'He's my player, he's world-class, he'll do it'."

Hartson can list some illustrious managerial names who have supported him through difficult times, a reminder of which can be gleaned merely by scanning the index of his candid autobiography*. Under Hartson, John, there are are references to: divorce, drinking, gambling addiction, smoking, stealing, taking speed, arguments with managers, and several pages devoted to his disciplinary record.

Those managers include George Graham, Harry Redknapp, Gordon Strachan and Martin O'Neill. "They all paid big money for me. I'm proud of that, because I've never considered myself to be the greatest player of all time," he says. "I was never gifted with great pace, like Thierry Henry. I model myself more on someone like an Alan Shearer."

Hartson could have remained at Celtic, where he scored nine goals against Rangers, including the winner in four consecutive Old Firm games, but instead signed a two-year contract at The Hawthorns this summer, when Bryan Robson was still in situ. He is taking his coaching badges, with a possible view to management, and enjoys being a media pundit.

But for the moment, he relishes the craic of the dressing room and the euphoria of victory. Barnsley, Albion's hosts for today's Championship game, will be wary of a man whose lust for goals is undiminished.

John Hartson: The Autobiography (Orion, £17.99)