From Bhoy To Man

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A hard exterior covered up a fragile interior in powerful striker John Hartson. The Welshman tells Ewan MacKenna how he went close to death before realising how he really wanted to live his life.

The story doing the rounds a few years ago, told by an Irish international, involved John Hartson in the back seat of a taxi undressing after a feed of drink. First he whipped off his belt, announced the rather large price he’d paid, threw it out the window and casually said, “There, £500, gone.”

Next came the shoes as they too ruthlessly departed the vehicle. “£600, gone, just like that.” You don’t inquire how many more items may have ended up on the roadside, or precisely why, but instead Hartson gives you a sliver of insight into the otherworldly life of a professional footballer.

Asked about shopping back in the day, he tells you that he never went to a store. Instead, a lady would fill a van with clobber, drive to his house, lay it all out in his lounge, he’d pick what he wanted, write a cheque and that was it. There was the travel agent too that had the details of both he and his family and when he’d call up, he’d just name a destination, not even look for a price, and a first-class trip would take care of itself. “Privileged,” he says, “but only if you appreciate what you have and I never had my head screwed on enough to appreciate it back then.” With that, he gets up and goes for more gravy to drown his carvery in and you are left wondering about the person he’s become.

Just a couple of weeks ago, that same spoiled man pulled in at a petrol station and found he was sharing the shop with a youth group. It got him thinking about his own childhood on a council estate in Swansea, and, worrying some of the children may not be able to feed themselves and might not have the courage to speak up, he went to their supervisors, took £50 from his wallet and told them to make sure no one went hungry. It’s quite a change. As for how such an overhaul took place and a conscience grew, that much is obvious. There’s the thick ridge cut out of his skull from brain surgery, the sliced piece of his neck from a tracheotomy, his carved up chest from work done on his lungs and the eyes of a man who, at 38, is living a full life all because he very nearly lost it.

“I was gravely ill, literally at death’s door and I don’t think you’ve to be overly religious to appreciate my belief there’s a God up there that helped me through illness,” he announces upon his return to the table. “And physically I’m better than ever. My way of looking at my illness, if anyone is worried about employing me after what I’ve been through — because football chairman always seem to ask how’s my health — well it’s better now than ever before. I’ve had a total flushout. I’ve had over 60 sessions of chemotherapy and every single piece of badness in my body has been eradicated. I’ve been discharged from hospital two months ago; they don’t want to see me anymore. I’m better.

“You’ve to realise four or five years ago, I was carrying cancer around with me. So today, I’m in a great place. And I am totally a different person mentally. I manage my life properly now. Plus, having been through it, it doesn’t scare me because there’s nothing you can do. No disrespect, but you can get cancer tomorrow. There’s no rhyme or reason. It’s cancer. It’s a killer. It’s an horrific word that takes good people off us. So I don’t get scared because I believe what’s for you is for you. I believe we’ve all got a number and maybe mine wasn’t up. I believe when we come onto the planet, you’ve your day, whether that means you’re 86 or 26. It’s made me very realistic about it all.”

He pauses between sentences and gives deep thought to each sentiment he expresses. Little wonder then that you don’t recognise the person speaking articulately and intelligently as big, bad John Hartson who drove a boot into the jaw of Eyal Berkovic during a training game at West Ham and in a moment’s madness earned himself a thuggish reputation he could never scrub clean. But you take him back in time to his playing days nonetheless, starting in 1995 at Arsenal where he became the most expensive teenager signed by a British club when moving to Highbury for £2.5m. You want to contrast that past with this present, but you also want to gain insight about those he played the game with and under.

George Graham? “A passionate disciplinarian. He would spend hours and hours with his back four after training. We’d just go off home but he’d stay, working religiously with them.”

Arsene Wenger? “Very quiet, never heard him swear and so well spoken. He explained everything to you and never lost his temper.”

Dennis Bergkamp? “We called him the ice man, nothing flustered him. He’d run like he was bouncing, eating up the ground, so light.”

Tony Adams? “A born leader, a Martin Johnson of a man. He’d take over the dressing room, go around pointing the finger at people at five to three. ‘You need to be better this week. You were brilliant, more of the same. You, nowhere near what I expected of you last time. Lads, this is Highbury, our home, protect it.’ Best captain I played under.”

There were other moments that stick with Hartson too. When Celtic played AC Milan in 2004, he found himself being shackled by Alessandro Costacurta. Afterwards, as they went to swap jerseys, the Italian had a question. He may have been nine years older than the Welsh man, but age is one thing, looks are another, and with his sallow skin and in a smooth Latin tone, he mused, “My God, you are still playing?” “You cheeky bastard, am I still playing?” laughs Hartson now.

As for the reason he was playing with Celtic, that involved a call from Dermot Desmond as Hartson scanned a contract with his agent. He asked the centre-forward did he like golf, said he was playing with Tiger Woods the following week and a signature meant a three-ball. “So I put the phone down, told my agent, ‘Brilliant, let’s sign this’. I’ve never come across Tiger Woods since. But Celtic was brilliant. Can you believe it’s already 10 years since we lost the Uefa Cup?” Ten years he could never have imagined, you say to him. “Or wanted to imagine,” he replies.

Hartson thinks back on his life and talks some more about money. As a trainee at Luton he stole a team-mate’s credit card in order to finance his playing of fruit machines, a moment that was the beginning of a gambling addiction that stayed with him until recently. He doesn’t hide his emotions and contemplates how his father worked hard seven-days-a-week to bring home £1,000 a month.

He’d blow that daily between betting and “the leeches you are surrounded by. There are people out there that try and sell you property that doesn’t get off the ground. They make you believe them, you hand over cheques and straight away you lose. But then there’s another £20,000 coming in the following week. It’s a bubble you live in and this goes back to my trust issue. I cannot trust people. I’ve barely a handful of friends and I don’t want any more. Don’t want them anywhere near me.

“I’ve the right people around me. My wife, my kids. They stopped me gambling and that’s the best thing I’ve done in my whole life, other than (beating) cancer. Never mind any goal or trophy or team or stadium, that’s not real life. But beating gambling saved my life. It enabled me to become a mature adult. It’s enabled me to raise my children properly. I’ve saved a fortune, and I feel I’m a much better, more rounded person for it. But when I came out of hospital, I continued to gamble. My wife sat me down one day and said, ‘I’m not prepared for you to put yourself through this and I’m not prepared to watch you put me and our children through this’.

“She threatened to go and made me get on the computer and look for help. I typed in Gamblers Anonymous and to my luck, there was a meeting. This was four o’clock on a Sunday. It started at seven in Swansea, my home town. The welcome and encouragement I received… Straight away one of the guys who had been 20 years clean pulled me aside. He said, ‘Look, you’re not John Hartson the footballer here, you are John that has come for help, just like Malcolm and Steven and Paul’. My last bet was on my mother’s birthday — October 5, 2011. If I bet again, I’ll die. Not physically, mentally. Without my wife and children and their support, I’ve nothing, I’d be dead.”

You remind Hartson that he released his autobiography in 2006 and given his age at the time of publishing, you recite the quote that says you shouldn’t release your life story until after you are dead. It’s a frighteningly fitting line because in 2011 he released another autobiography, < Please Don’t Go <, the origin of which was already in his body in the form of a lump on his testicle when he wrote the first book. Yet he did nothing about it. Year after year went by and he never saw a doctor. Inside, it slowly consumed him and while he never got angry with himself in the struggle that followed, his wife did. Instead, in the few moments he wasn’t fighting, he just felt stupid for not getting checked out sooner.

“I believe the stress I put myself under — driving back to Wales from the Midlands, I owed a lot of banks money because I borrowed excessively — I brought cancer on myself. I’d lumps on my testicles I never got checked and it escalated and I put myself in a very dangerous position. From head to toe I was riddled in it. I found out it was testicular cancer that spread to my lungs and to my brain.

“When you get told, your initial thoughts are you are going to die. I broke my heart in the car park outside the hospital. Big bad John they called me and I’m not afraid to say I cried for three hours, trying to come to terms with what I’d been told. Then I went home and told my wife and as a family you’ve just got to pray that you can be one of the lucky ones.

“It’s horrific because it’s constantly on your mind, you can’t sleep. It’s like having the biggest stress-related problem multiplied by 100. I was scared for a while but then I was more scared for my family because of the impact it has on those closest to you. I could deal with operations, but I was scared about what the kids were going through. How would they cope if they lose their father at 33? It’s not right and Sarah was eight months pregnant with Stephanie who is now three. I was thinking I can’t just die and leave this baby be born into a world where she has no father. I couldn’t let that happen but it could have quite easily happened.

“Next thing, you lose a lot of weight, you don’t feel like food and I love my food. I couldn’t have any, just couldn’t bring myself to eat. Always sick, diarrhoea, I say this as a joke but I didn’t have any hair to lose. But the weight loss scared me a bit. I went down to about 12-and-a-half stone and I walk around at 17 stone. This was like looking at a man who had not eaten for six weeks, grotesquely pale, gravely ill. When I came out of hospital I could see my kneecaps and I’d lost my calves and my wife used to love my calves. I’d lost all my muscle, was stick thin and things like that you remember.”

He remembers the night of July 24, 2009 vividly too. That was as low as it got, to the point he had run out of fight and gave up for a few brief seconds. Lying in a hospital bed, he called his brother James close and told him it was the end.

“I don’t know if it was the medication but something upset me. I must have been thinking too much about my kids. I told my brother, ‘If I go tonight, just make sure you look after them’.”

The words slow to the point of briefly stopping as he breaks down in tears. “I just thought that was going to be the night I was going to go, I felt it. Being a father has always been the most important thing in my life. My children have always been vitally important. I want to give my kids a better future. I want to buy my daughter her first car at 17.”

Yet amazingly, he will and there’s an inspirational symmetry to all of this and proof that the experience means more to Hartson than just his own experience.

On July 14, 2008, his daughter Lena was born after massive difficulties due to coming out face rather than head first. On July 14, 2009, just a couple of hundred metres away, he received emergency brain surgery. Another year on, he conquered his illness and the highest peak in the British Isles.

From the house of his in-laws in Scotland, on a clear day, he could see the roof of Ben Nevis. Having gone there for some peace and quiet during his recovery he decided that would be the challenge that would prove he was well again. So, on July 14, 2010, after setting up the John Hartson Foundation, he scaled four-and-half miles to the top and trekked all the way back down. He’s done it again since and this summer plans to make that same journey to raise yet more money.

“When you come close to death, what can you do to repay these people that saved you?” he asks. “These guys saved my life, they took care of my parents, brought them tea and biscuits and all these little touches. I thought with my profile, if I set up a foundation that raised money that went back into the hospital, I thought that’d be a nice thing to do. And when I was recovering, I thought to myself one day I’ll get to the top of that mountain. And if I get to the top of it, then I’m well. It’s funny thinking of all the money I wasted in that bubble world because now, every pound goes to something meaningful and it’s very important to me. I’ve got four kids and the bottom line for me is just to do the right thing and manage my life properly. And I’ve time to do the right things.

“I get asked to go to hospices a lot. And when you go there, you know parents will be spending their last days, weeks, months with that child. It’s a very sad place but they try and make it as comfortable as they can for the last moments of people’s lives. When I go to a bed there and there’s a guy that’s terminally ill, it’s very difficult to know that to say. My attitude is, if I can make that lad smile just by being there, then it’s all worthwhile. That person knows they are going to pass away, I know and his parents know, and it’s upsetting in these terminally ill cancer wards. There are kids dying, I’ve got four kids of my own, but that’s the side of me people don’t see. I was always judged on the pitch whereas you should be judged on what you do away from the pitch.”

He tells you that back in his playing days, he used to look in a dressing-room mirror before kick-off and think he was untouchable. Then one day during his battle with cancer, he caught sight of what he’d become in the mirror of a hospital elevator.

“I saw a skeleton and I couldn’t believe that was me. It wasn’t like looking at the big powerhouse that would batter centre-halves, the pictures of me going into tackles with Razor Ruddock and Tony Adams. I was staring at a dead man.” Given all that and the journey he’s been on ever since his playing career ended, you ask what he sees now when he stares himself down in the looking glass.

“I see somebody who loves his kids. I see somebody who is doing something to help others which makes me feel immensely proud. I see someone who is working hard on his personal life to try and get it right and to try and make his family proud of him. I see a loving husband and I appreciate life now. I appreciate this lovely air we suck in every day, I appreciate time with my kids even if it’s as simple as a walk along the beach. And I really appreciate the fact I’m finally a decent human being.”

8 June, 2013,
Irish Examiner 

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