An email conversation with John Hartson: 'With the ability I have I could've played for Man Utd'

Scrapes and scraps on the field and off; Learning the Wright stuff at Highbury; Pleasures and perils of pints and punts By Phil Shaw
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The Independent Football

Let's get the plug out of the way; tell me about your new book. I've read the best autobiographies, like Tony Adams, Paul Merson, Tony Cascarino, Andrew Flintoff and Roy Keane, and feel I've got an equally worthwhile story to tell. I also wanted to do it while I was still playing. I didn't want to be 40, telling my kids, "I played in the Nou Camp" or "I kicked this guy in the head" or "I failed a medical at four clubs". They'd be saying, "What's he on about?"

You famously kicked Eyal Berkovic in the head at West Ham. Why? We were in training one Sunday. I was a bear with a sore head, though not because I'd been out drinking the night before. I kicked him. Sky's cameras caught it. I apologised. He accepted it. In my defence, if I've got one, no bones were broken, no one was knocked out. There was no blood, no ambulance called, but it ended up on TV. Next day the Daily Star turned up with flowers for my wife. They asked her what it was like to live with an animal. She told them where to go. That's why I phoned Ben Thatcher with my support when people said he should be banned for life or fined 500 grand after the Pedro Mendes incident.

Do you still say you have to hate the centre-half you're facing? Yes, but that doesn't mean I dislike them. I just have to play nasty. I can't play nice. My hardest opponents were Martin Keown, Colin Hendry, Tony Adams, Gary Pallister, Steve Bruce and Neil Ruddock. If I back into a defender these days, they fall over. Those guys pushed back.

An ex-central defender, Tony Mowbray, is now manager of your club, West Bromwich Albion. How's that going? I played against him when he was with Ipswich. I remember thinking, "What a good player". And I'm not just saying that because he's my gaffer now! I won't pretend I wasn't disappointed when Bryan Robson left. He was one of the main reasons I came. I've had to wait my turn under Tony because other strikers were scoring. Then I got injured. But I came on to score the winner against Derby on Saturday and I've got a lot of goals in me yet.

You have had some great striking partners. Who was the best? I've played with Dennis Bergkamp, Mark Hughes, Ian Rush and Henrik Larsson. Also Ryan Giggs, who has arguably been the world's best player for 15 years. But it has to be Ian Wright. What a player. What a character. Wrighty helped me as a young striker. He also got me into trouble. When the keeper went for the ball, he'd shout, "Go on Johnny, smash him". I got a stack of bookings. But he could head, volley with either foot, made great runs, was quick, aggressive and scored all kinds of goals.

Who has been the best manager to work for? Harry Redknapp, George Graham, Arsène Wenger, Joe Kinnear, Martin O'Neill and Gordon Strachan were all brilliant. Gordon showed faith by signing me for Coventry after my knee problems. I'd already failed a medical, like I did at Rangers, Charlton and Tottenham. Martin said he'd definitely have me at Celtic unless I had a hole in the heart. That inspires you. Mark Hughes was similar with Wales. He gives players confidence. No disrespect to Blackburn, but he could manage one of the biggest clubs.

Is it true you and Bobby Gould had a fight when he managed Wales? There were no punches thrown. It was more of a grapple. I was 21 and embarrassed. He was middle-aged. We had mates in common, like Bob Wilson. But he wanted to take me on, like they did at Wimbledon with Fash and Vinnie. There, if two players were kicking lumps from each other at training, they'd form a circle and they'd have a scrap. Then it was broken up. They'd shake hands, have a cuddle. Bobby brought it to Wales. You just can't imagine Rush, Hughes and Giggs in a huddle around a fight. I liked Bobby, but he took Wales backwards.

Martin O'Neill has built quite a Celtic colony at Aston Villa. Ever wish you were in on the reunion? I'm happy where I am. But Martin's man management is incredible. Look how my disciplinary record improved at Celtic. One red card in five years. He's so strong on discipline. Like Brian Clough, he hated silly bookings. He fined you. If you had an incident he always asked you what actually happened before telling the press, "I'm doing him". Or not, as the case may be.

Arsenal haven't had a target man since you left. Do you regret missing out on their rise under Arsène Wenger? I could have given them something different, but I have no regrets. I played alongside Dennis Bergkamp in Wenger's first match. He became an Arsenal legend. I'm a footnote in their history. Wenger wanted me to stay and learn from Wrighty and Dennis. But Harry Redknapp sweet-talked me to West Ham. I met him in a hotel and signed within 20 minutes.

Could you have looked after yourself better? With the ability I possessed, and still have, I'd have played for a Manchester United, a Liverpool or a top foreign side if I'd gone through my career a stone and a half lighter. The extra weight has hampered my fitness and movement. So Wenger could have been good for me, with his emphasis on diet. But there's plenty of slim, fit footballers who would swap and have my 50 caps, 200 goals and £20m of transfers.

Has booze ever been a problem? I enjoy a pint but could go six months without one. It's all about socialising. If I've got a day off and go to my home town, Swansea, I love a few beers and a game of cards with my mates. My friends were there for me before I became a footballer. They'll still be there when I'm 50 or 60.

Is gambling a serious concern? I started young, playing one-armed bandits. It got to the stage where I had an understanding where the bookies added a nought to whatever I put on. My missus thought I was phoning up with £250 bets when it was really £2,500. People laugh, but it's an illness. I hardly bet now. At Stratford races I'll take £600 and limit myself to £50 a race. And I put a tenner in the pot in the pub in Swansea for the sweep on Watford v Fulham.

You still follow Swansea City. Will you ever play for them? They're my club. I'd like to go there before I finish but only if I could offer something. I'd want to score 20 goals and get them promoted. I took my kids to see them against Yeovil recently. I bought an executive box and we had eight adults and 14 kids in there. Next day we went to watch Port Talbot, who my brother plays for, against Cwmbran. We paid our 50p each to stand around the pitch with 80 others. And my boy, who's four, said: "Dad, where's our box?"

Cardiff City may be in next season's Premiership. As a proud Welshman, do you fancy playing for them? Ha, ha! I get horrendous stick there. When West Brom played at Ninian Park the gate was 7,000 up on the previous game. I think the extra people came to have a pop at me. There's only two clubs on this planet I wouldn't play for, even for £1m a week. That's Rangers and Cardiff.

John Hartson: My Autobiography (Orion Books, £17.99).