John Hartson: Hartson determined to pass his biggest test

Colourful Welsh striker looks forward to the two most important games of what has already been an eventful career

John Hartson is in no doubt that the next 10 days will be the most important so far of his impressively and sometimes regrettably eventful career.

Today in Moscow and on Wednesday in Cardiff, knocks and strains permitting, he will line up for Wales against Russia in the last-ditch bid to reach next summer's European Championship. And less than a week after that he expects to play for Celtic against Bayern Munich for a coveted place in the second phase of the Champions' League.

These are exciting times for the 28-year-old striker, back to full fitness after the back operation which ruled him out of last season's Uefa Cup final, his reputation resuscitated after he was vilified for volleying the head of his West Ham team-mate Eyal Berkovic.

We'll come to that unsavoury incident, and to the period of heavy gambling which he tried to conceal from his wife by making an arrangement with his bookie that whenever he phoned to place a bet, the bookie would automatically add a zero. We'll come, too, to the startling contrast between his childhood on a tough council estate in Swansea and his riches now, for he is an intelligent man and movingly eloquent on the subject.

But first we need to talk about Wales and the thrilling prospect of reaching Euro 2004, which Hartson says would cap anything else he has achieved in football.

"It has been on my mind for two years," he says. "Obviously you try and switch off. You can't be over in Munich for a Champions' League match thinking about Wales. But as Sparky [Mark Hughes, the Wales manager] has said, if we do get to the finals, and it's a big ask, it will take football in Wales to a whole new level. There's been an unbelievable turnaround already. When Sparky took the job three or four years ago I remember playing against Armenia at the Millennium Stadium and there were about 4,000 there. But we played Azerbaijan in front of 72,000."

He shakes his head at the incredible thrillingness of it all. We are sitting on squashy sofas in a room at Parkhead, the day before he is due to join the rest of the Wales squad. Hartson is sanguine about the draw for the play-offs. As hard as it will be to beat the Russians, the challenge could have been tougher.

"We wanted to avoid the big three, Spain, Holland and Turkey. But Scotland would have been nice, especially with me playing my football up here. The Joe Jordan handball [a reference to the dubious penalty awarded for Scotland against Wales in the World Cup qualifier at Anfield in October 1977, when Hartson was all of two years old], it would have been nice to put that to bed. Saying that, we might have got turned over..."

He grins, and stretches out two meaty legs. Eyal Berkovic and one or two others might contest the assertion, but it is hard not to warm to Hartson, the more so as he is happy to converse for an hour or more so shortly before packing his bags for Cardiff and Moscow; I can't think of any England players who would be as generous with their time.

The revival in Welsh fortunes, he adds, is down almost entirely to Hughes, who has the ability - shared in spades by Martin O'Neill at Celtic - to make every player give his all. Yet Hughes, I venture, is a quiet, uncharismatic chap, hardly a Clough or a Shankly or even an O'Neill. So how does he assert himself among a squad of livewires such as Robbie Savage and Craig Bellamy, and for that matter Hartson himself?

"He doesn't have to say much. He's done everything, won everything, he's just such a well respected guy. And he's respected for what he's done as a manager, too. He's changed everything, the training's spot-on, what we eat, he's really thorough.

"And when you respect someone that much you play for them, like the gaffer here. You don't ever want to be in the gaffer's office. But when he's not saying anything to you, just picking you, that's great. Sparky's the same. And Gordon Strachan. He took me to Coventry and I played like a man possessed for 12 games. When the manager doesn't have your respect you just get on with it, do it for yourself, but it's not the same.

"Luckily, I've had tremendous respect for 95 per cent of the managers I've worked with." (The remaining five per cent, though he doesn't spell it out, constituting Bruce Rioch at Arsenal and Bobby Gould for Wales). Moreover, I say, Hartson is cast from the same mould as Hughes the player, not only a prolific goal-scorer but an uncompromising ball-winner.

So has the manager given him advice?

"He's helped with little things, yeah, like when to close down, reminders of when to go and when not to go, how to save a little bit of energy. For Wales I play up front on my own, in a 4-5-1, and when we lose the ball we get nine players behind it and leave me on the half-way line.

"But he can't teach me instinct. You're born with that. My dad always says that when he threw me a header as a young kid, I never let the ball just hit my head, I used to spring up ... and he knew then I'd be a decent player."

Hartson's parents still live in Swansea, in a house he bought for them. "I got them off the estate to somewhere a bit posher. Well, I wouldn't say posh; nowhere in Swansea's posh. But there are doctors and lawyers living down their street and they're the only ones without a mortgage. I like that.

"It's, like, if my little girl, who's four, wants a bike, then I'll buy her three bikes. Because I never used to have a bike. I never used to go on skiing holidays. We went to a caravan in Tenby."

Like plenty of other top-class footballers from humble backgrounds who find themselves earning more money than they know what to do with, Hartson spent several years subsidising the bookmaking industry. It was never an addiction, he insists, just a phase. But a mightily expensive phase.

"I'd always liked to bet, even when I worked in Baron's nightclub in Swansea when I was 14, collecting glasses. I worked there on Fridays and Saturdays, got £11 a night for it, then went over to Riley's snooker club and did all the glasses there, and at the end of the night I'd put £20 in the bleedin' fruit machine. Then I started earning bigger money. The tens turned into hundreds, the hundreds into grands. I arranged with my bookie to put an extra nought on, so I'd phone him up and say, 'Can I have £250?', and the wife would think, 'That's not too bad', but it would be £2,500.

"It's stopped now. I might go to the greyhound track with the lads and take £500, but it doesn't change my life if I lose it. I don't have any accounts. That's the dangerous thing, because you can just phone up and say 'Five grand'. If you went to a bank and got out five grand and held it in your hand, it's a lot of money, like. My old man has to work five months for that. More. But I thought nothing of putting it on a horse, and of chasing my money back. If I lost a grand, I'd put two grand down on an even-money shot, and suddenly I'm three grand down, so you think 'Right', and stick three grand on an odds-on thing, and then you're six grand behind....

"But I sorted myself out, with a lot of help from my agent, Jonathan [Barnett]. He sat me down and we worked out my ins-and- outs, what I could play with, what had to go away for the future. Having kids changed things.

"And I started buying a bit of property. I've a place in Spain, a flat in Marylebone, two houses in Swansea, my house up here, a bit of land in Wales with planning [permission] to build. I know now that there are so many better things to do with your money."

And that money must be considerable, regardless of his gambling losses, regardless even of his wages. A percentage of his transfer fees alone would have made Hartson a rich man: he moved from Arsenal to West Ham for £3.2m, then to Wimbledon for £7.5m, then to Coventry for £5m and to Celtic for over £6m.

But it was at Luton that it all started, in 1992, under David Pleat. "He was great, a father figure to me," Hartson says. "Then George Graham took me to Arsenal, but I only worked with him for three or four months before he was sacked, and I never got on at all with [Graham's successor] Bruce Rioch. Then Arsène Wenger came. He was fine, and he didn't want me to go to West Ham. He said, 'We'd like you to stay and learn off Wrighty [Ian Wright] and Dennis [Bergkamp]'. But I felt West Ham was the right move for me, working for Harry [Redknapp]. Even now I'm not frightened to leave a big club if I'm not playing. I have to play.

"Harry was very different. Arsène Wenger did everything with the whistle, with the clock, but Harry was out there bawling. I got on great with Harry. Then the old Berkovic thing happened. It was nothing personal with Eyal. It could have been anyone that day, John Moncur, anyone. But we'd lost to Swansea and Northampton in both cups and I took a lot of flak from supporters, which was strange to me, I wasn't used to getting stick. It all exploded in that incident, and I was unlucky, I suppose, that the Sky cameras were there. Training ground bust-ups happen all the time and don't get reported.

"That doesn't mean I don't regret it. It was a horrendous thing and I'm ever so sorry for it, but it was on News at Ten, we had reporters coming to the house asking my missus, 'Does he beat you at home?'. I had about 150 bleeding lenses at the bottom of my garden. Harry had to send me away to France to get away from it, things were that bad.

"But sometimes, you know, it's good to get your fingers burnt. There've been times since when I've been about to react and held back ... I've only been booked twice in the last 30 or 40 games. But I've always been an aggressive player, kicking and clattering people and being kicked myself. That's when I'm at my best. If I try to play tippy-tappy stuff I end up having a stinker. I have to hate the centre-half."

At Celtic, Hartson's clattering style, not to mention some crucial big-match goals such as those against Celta Vigo and Liverpool, has made him a huge favourite of the fans. Not quite in the Henrik Larsson class of popularity but not far off. Which would not have been the case had he moved to Rangers, as he would have done had he not failed a medical, one of four he failed scuppering moves to Tottenham, Charlton and, initially, Coventry.

He has 18 months left on his contract and is happy to entertain thoughts of returning to the Premiership, he says, but nor could he be any happier than at Celtic, where O'Neill invariably plays him in tandem with Larsson, with Chris Sutton operating just behind. Larsson, Sutton, Bergkamp, Wright, Giggs, Hughes ... it occurs to me that he has partnered some truly great strikers. Which of them, I wonder, does he rate the greatest?

"Well, Henrik is awesome. Everything about the man is different class. And Giggsy's got 18 bleedin' medals. But Wrighty for me was phenomenal. He could do everything, volley with both feet, head it, he could be nasty, he had a great touch. I picked up so much watching him. Saying that, I enjoyed learning off Kerry Dixon at Luton years ago." A grin. "His tips were crap, though."

And with that Hartson shakes my hand and strides into the unusually warm November sunlight outside Parkhead, where a bunch of excited Celtic fans clammer for his autograph. He painstakingly signs every one of them, and tells nobody that Celtic's match against Bayern Munich, right now, is the last thing on his mind.

John Hartson the life and times

Born: 5 April 1975 in Swansea, Wales.

13 January 1995: Hartson moves from Luton to Arsenal for £2.5m, a British record fee for a teenager. He scores on his debut.

29 March 1995: Makes debut for Wales in 3-1 defeat by Bulgaria.

10 May 1995: Scores in the Cup-Winners Cup final but David Seaman is lobbed (not for the last time) by Real Zaragoza's Nayim and Arsenal lose 2-1.

14 January 1999: Signed by Wimbledon for a club record fee of £7.5m from West Ham.

1 February 1999: Hartson is retrospectively fined £20,000 and suspended for three matches for his involvement in a fight with former West Ham team mate Eyal Berkovic. He was videotaped kicking the Israeli player in the head and became the first player to be punished by the FA for offences on the training ground.

2 August 2001: Moves from Coventry north of the border to Celtic for £6m, bringing his career transfer total to £19.3m.

21 May 2003: Having helped Celtic reach the Uefa Cup final, Hartson is sidelined though injury. The club's hopes for a first European trophy in 36 years are crushed as they are beaten 2-3 by FC Porto after an extra-time winner.

10 September 2003: Plays for Wales in the 1-1 draw that sees them go through to the European Championship play-off against Russia.

7 October 2003: Awarded the Welsh Player of the Year award for the third time (previously 1998, 2001) after his performances in the Euro 2004 qualifiers which put Wales two steps away from their first major championship finals since 1958.

They say: "John is very experienced in the special front role he plays for us. He is one of our potential match-winners." the Wales manager, Mark Hughes.

He says: "Getting to Portugal with Wales will mean more to me than anything I've achieved in football so far." Dan Hall

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