Hartson to extend the pain game for Rangers

Ibrox has suffered for rejecting the Celtic striker - and there's much more to come.
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The Independent Football

It will always rank as one of the worst decisions ever made. Just as those who chose to put their money into Betamax instead of VHS, or the TV executives who vowed that Eldorado would become the new EastEnders, so John Hartson has come back to haunt Rangers in glorious technicolour.

It is now more than four years since the Ibrox club passed on the Welshman, giving into anxiety about an X-ray on his knee. It has passed into Old Firm folklore that Celtic then went where Rangers feared to tread and offered Hartson a home on the other side of Glasgow. Today, the striker has another chance to inflict even greater regret upon his rivals.

The Scottish Cup third-round encounter between the sides at Parkhead will see Hartson celebrate signing a new contract extension that keeps him at Celtic until June 2007. Not bad for a man with a dodgy knee, whom Rangers rejected at the 11th hour in August 2000 after a medical had wrecked a £7m move from Wimbledon.

A year later, Martin O'Neill took a gamble on Hartson, and his 78 goals since then - including seven in Old Firm games - mock Rangers' decision. Indeed, Hartson now intends to finish his career in green and white, and hopes to emulate the scoring exploits of his former colleague, the Swede Henrik Larsson. "I want to achieve things the way Henrik Larsson did," the 29-year-old said. "He was relentless.

"That's why he won so many people's hearts here, because he was a phenom-enon. he did it every week, not just once a month. I want to finish this season with 30-odd goals and with some silverware - then I want to start all over again next season."

O'Neill readily admitted on Friday that it would have taken a lot of money to replace Hartson had they not negotiated a new deal and had the striker become a free agent in June and moved to Europe, as Larsson did last summer. His 18 goals this season gave Hartson a powerful bargaining card.

"The manager does not dish out contracts, they have to be earned, and that makes me feel prouder," declared Hartson. "I have worked hard all my career to get to a place like this. I have grafted and been in relegation battles at West Ham and Coventry, so being at Celtic is so different. It's what you dream about as a kid - and now I'm here.

"I have a great relationship with the manager and the supporters, who have been fantastic to me since day one, and I'm scoring goals. Why would I throw it all away when things are going so well?

"We won the title in my first season here and missed out on the Double because we lost the Scottish Cup 3-2 to Rangers, though I managed to score. Then we had a great run in getting to the Uefa Cup final in 2003. Even though I missed it, I had plenty of goals to look back on, like the one at Liverpool. Last season was hampered by injuries. My back problem was caused by another disc that was causing me to have shooting pains down my legs. But since my second operation, last summer, it has been like night and day. I can move much better. My knee is fine.

"I want to close in on my century and then I'd like to score 150 or 160 goals for this club. One day, I would like to feel I have made my mark here and see my picture up on the wall with some of the greats who have served Celtic. But you can't do that unless you stay at a club for five or six years, not two or three."

Hartson's contribution in major games is what has seen Celtic supporters take him to their hearts. He netted in the 1-1 draw with Barcelona in the Champions' League at the Nou Camp, and has struck in seven Old Firm meetings. "I have a good record against Rangers; it would be nice to score again," he smiled.