Hartson will meet 'fire with fire' in England confrontation

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It would not have been much of a contest, the big striker armed with a fearsome spring and elbows like razor wire and the gangly, young defender. Duels between John Hartson and a teenager called Rio Ferdinand at West Ham's training ground at Chadwell Heath would appear to have been brutally one-sided affairs.

"No, no," Hartson smiled when reminded of his first meeting with Ferdinand, "he used to rough me up." Somehow, you can't imagine it, although their rematch at Old Trafford on Saturday, in Ferdinand's first competitive international in 18 months, is one of the pivots on which England versus Wales will turn.

"Rio is top-drawer, he has everything that a top-class centre-half needs; he has got pace, he's very good in the air, he's good on the deck, he's an all-round player. Manchester United don't pay £30m for people if they haven't got everything and he's come back like he's never been away. He's a fantastic player but then he always was as a kid.

"He'll know what to expect from me. Rio will know all about me," said Hartson. "It will be a physical game, I imagine, with the likes of [John] Terry and [Sol] Campbell, because it always is, but I'll meet fire with fire. It's a challenge you want to thrive on, playing against the best."

In terms of international football, Ferdinand and Campbell, a formidable but rarely-played partnership, are as good as Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta. And Hartson will tell you that two years ago on a magical, perhaps unrepeatable, October evening in Cardiff, Milan's two most formidable defenders became fallible, tormented beings.

"I'm hoping to get back to that sort of form, that was probably my best performance for Wales but the way I play you need the right delivery, you need things to go at. Yes, you've got to do all the other things well, like hold it up and be as mobile as you can but you need crosses you can go at."

Perhaps because of his thinning hair and perhaps because he made his breakthrough so young in the days when Luton could remember what it was like to be a top-flight side, it is easy to forget that, at 29, Hartson should be at his peak. However, a draining back injury that arrived just when his relationship with Martin O'Neill, his manager at Parkhead, had been repaired and cost him his place in Celtic's Uefa Cup final, has taken a wearying toll.

"I have tried to stay positive, especially after my second back operation. Even now I don't feel I'm playing as well as I was 15 months ago. I've started every game for Celtic this season but I don't feel I've played as well as I was. I'm searching for that."

In a week where a European Union map managed to erase Wales from the United Kingdom, it is important to recall that Hartson is the most Welsh of Mark Hughes' squad, although the vast majority were born in the Principality.

Growing up on a council estate in Swansea, Hartson spoke Welsh and holidays were taken in a caravan in Tenby. These days he owns two houses in his home town, one bought for his parents, and has acquired land in Wales for when his playing days are done.

"I do wear my heart on my sleeve," he said. "While you dream of playing for Wales, you never dream of playing in a World Cup qualifier against England so it's absolutely huge, I'm really excited about it. I just hope we can get the right result because we know you can sometimes let the occasion get the better of you.

"Martin O'Neill made the point last week, before Celtic played Milan, that it's okay going to these great places like the Nou Camp or San Siro but you want to leave your mark on the game. It's no good looking around thinking that I've played here and what a lovely noise there is. You have to do all the things that got you there and I am aware how important it is to play well in these games, not just to take part in them."

Old Trafford on Saturday will be in Hartson's eyes "the biggest game I have ever featured in", greater than any Glasgow or north London derby, more significant even than the two matches Wales played against the Italians.

It is difficult to appreciate just how disliked the English are in some quarters of the Principality and it is not a healthy rivalry. The Welsh sports minister, Alun Pugh, has already written to the BBC's director general complaining of the corporation's "England-centric" build-up.

"I don't really know why the rivalry is so intense," Hartson remarked. "I remember years ago sitting at home watching the rugby in the Five Nations, as it was then. Whenever Wales played France or Scotland, they were big games but it was the game against England that was always the biggest. It was the one we all said we had to win and it's the same in football.

"Even when Brazil or the world champions go to play England they - the media - build England up so big. In the eyes of the people of England, they should win every game, whoever they are playing."

THE WELSH BATTERING RAM WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT HARTSON

'If my head had been a football, it would have been in the back of the net.'

Eyal Berkovic, Hartson's former West Ham team-mate, on the training-ground incident in which Hartson kicked him in the head.

'John is just like me. We are of the same spirit. I was angry at the time, but all friends fall out.'

Berkovic, later.

'He's a special talent. He is the best finisher I have ever worked with.'

Terry Burton,Hartson's manager at Wimbledon.

'He would put his head in the blades of a combine harvester if that's what it took to get a goal.'

Joe Kinnear, Hartson's manager at Wimbledon.

'People were saying jeepers, creepers when Harry Redknapp paid £5m for him. Some people thought Harry had gone crazy. But Hartson saved West Ham from relegation.'

Bobby Gould, his former Wales manager.

'We need someone who will make the other side worry. We are not giving that aura. No one is scaring anybody, but John will change that.'

Gordon Strachan, his manager at Coventry.

'Of course Hartson has this tough, Welsh, manly exterior and he doesn't want to show it [but] the image he has on the field of play is not how he really is.'

Jonathan Barnett, Hartson's agent.

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