'I hoped it would disappear, but the lump got larger'
John Hartson in his Celtic days, where he scored more than 100 goals alongside Henrik Larsson. - (Photograph: Getty Images)
INTERVIEW: Former Celtic striker John Hartson is trying to rebuild his ravaged life as he endures a brutal battle with cancer, writes Donald McCrae
I BROKE my heart in that hospital car park,” John Hartson says, his eyes shining as he remembers the moment in Swansea, last July, when he first confronted the reality of cancer. “It was just an ordinary day outside but in my car, on my own, I was crying my eyes out. My doctor had sent me to hospital and they made the diagnosis. I finally got round to phoning Sarah, my girlfriend, who’s now my wife, and told her the news. She started crying too and it was horrendous. Something I had long suspected had suddenly come true. I had cancer.”
In a plush hotel on Park Lane in London, the cocktail music continues to tinkle and the soft lights gleam on the deep dents that scar Hartson’s hairless scalp after extensive brain surgery. Despite his despair last summer the former Wales international footballer stresses that he was not shocked. “I actually knew it would be cancer,” he murmurs. “I had this feeling in my gut.”
It is tempting to believe Hartson’s instinct lasted just a few weeks or, at worst, months. He shakes his head. “I had a lump on my testicles for around four years and so I had this picture in my head. It was of me walking into a doctor’s room, or a hospital, and them telling me exactly what I heard in Swansea. I foresaw it.”
Did fear prevent Hartson from visiting a doctor for so long?
“No, it was just me being stupid, and boyish, and not mature enough to face it. I hoped it would just disappear. But the lump got larger.”
It also spread, catastrophically, to his lungs and brain. An hour after he heard the diagnosis of stage-four cancer, Hartson began to suffer from “a blinding headache. It went on for days and nothing could stop the pain. I felt so bad I asked my sister to take me to hospital. The cancer was right on top of me then and the next six weeks were a blur.”
The breath at the back of Hartson’s throat is rasping now but he speaks powerfully.
“I had to be moved to the neurology unit and, funnily enough, it’s now in Cardiff. But last summer it was still in Swansea and so I got lucky. It was only a 10-minute ambulance journey. They tell me that if I’d had to travel to Cardiff I wouldn’t be here now. I had two brain operations and was in intensive care. I got pneumonia and I apparently stopped breathing at one stage. But they brought me back and I had pipes and tubes coming out of me, connected to a ventilator. For a month they were just trying to keep me alive rather than tackle the cancer.”
When Hartson was strong enough he was subjected to intense chemotherapy. “I had 67 sessions over three months. Your body is zapped and I lost five stone in weight. Thankfully, my appetite came back and I’ve put half a stone back since then.”
As “bald as a coot”, and with Sarah almost eight months pregnant, Hartson married in secret a few weeks ago. “It was just us with my cousin and his new wife. We got married on the same day and we wanted to keep it secret but, in the story of my life, the Sunday Mirror got wind of it. It’s not how you want your family to find out. But we had our reasons. The plan is to have a big bash and renew our vows again in July. But because of the baby and all these operations I’m facing we wanted to get married now. Someone got a few quid for stitching us up.”
Hartson has, slowly, rebuilt his ravaged life. Last weekend he was a pundit on Football Focusfor the BBC and an analyst for ITV during Stoke City’s defeat of Arsenal in the FA Cup. The Sunday before that he was a special guest on Radio 5 Live’s 606– revealing a calm dignity that is rarely associated with a phone-in show.
In addressing the brutal way in which cancer took hold of him Hartson draws a stark link between his carefree but essentially thoughtless footballing days and the ignorance that allowed his illness to develop. Years ago, as the most expensive teenager in British football, he played for Arsenal alongside Ian Wright. The ginger-haired Welsh hulk, sold by Luton Town for £2.5 million 15 years ago this very month, was one of George Graham’s last signings for the club.
Six months later Graham was found to have accepted a bung and was banished from Highbury’s marble halls. Hartson featured briefly under Arsene Wenger, but he soon moved to West Ham in a team including the young Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard and the more infamous Julian Dicks. He seems to belong to that lost, less glamorous era of football personified by Graham and Dicks.
Hartson won 51 caps for Wales but he was often derided during fleeting stints at Wimbledon, Coventry, Norwich and West Brom.
Yet he made a significant impression at West Ham and, of course, Celtic, where he scored more than a 100 goals alongside Henrik Larsson. He developed a rapport with the passionate fans of Upton Park and Parkhead and he was the Player of the Year in Scotland in 2005.
“People just thought, ‘John Hartson – that big bleeding hard nut from Swansea.’ But I let myself down,” he says. “The Eyal Berkovic incident really blighted my career. It’s something I deeply regret.”
Even now, amid our consuming talk of chemotherapy and surgery, of cancer and death, Hartson shudders at the thought of what he did to his former team-mate at West Ham. After the talented Israeli midfielder struck him on the leg in training, Hartson booted Berkovic full in the face. It was a sickening sight, caught on camera, and Hartson is still mortified.
“Eyal is a terrific fella and he made a lot of my goals at West Ham. I get asked about it all the time, even though it happened 12 years ago. But when you do something that thuggish you rightly get a reputation. I then joined Wimbledon and that added to the thuggish image. But I come from a wonderful family. My parents have been married 30 years. I have a brother in the police force, a sister who is a hairdresser and another who is a solicitor’s secretary. I’ve now got a fantastic wife with three children of my own – and a fourth due in early March. I’ve got a big heart. But when you do something that vicious you carry a reputation.”
On Tuesday week the much more mature and generous Hartson will endure his next operation. He tries, admirably, to remain upbeat in describing yet another ordeal. “There is some activity on the lungs that needs to be addressed. The first operation is the big one. It’s a six-hour op on the one lung and I’ll be in hospital a week. And then a month later they’ll do the other lung and in May they’ll do the next brain surgery. There’s no abnormal activity on the brain but they need to clean out the debris.
“It’s tough but I like to think I’m already over the worst. I’ve had some wonderful news about the cancer. It came at what I thought might be a horrendous meeting with my oncologist. You just don’t know what he’s going to tell you. But when we went in he was smiling. He told us that the cancer is all but gone and that the chemo had shrunk the tumours. When we heard that, the missus and I were crying and hugging each other in his office.”
The dangers obviously remain but the warmth people now feel towards Hartson is evident as we leave the hotel. He is stopped in the lobby by a polite couple who tell him earnestly how they admire his courage. And then, down a side street, he is hailed by a London taxi driver – an Arsenal fan who just wants to shake his hand and hear how he is coping. “I’m doing great, mate,” Hartson beams as he leans into the cab, takes the man’s hand and mixes a quick medical update with chitchat about Arsenal’s title chances.
Later, as we say goodbye, Hartson’s longing to live burns through him. “If I was 75 I wouldn’t mind so much. I’d say, ‘Take me.’ But I’m 34. My children are 10, seven and 17 months. My new baby girl is not even born. I want to see them all grow up. And things are good now. The work’s rolling in and, while I’m going to have to take a break for these operations, I’m getting lots of offers. I was with the kids in the pool the other day and I thought, ‘This is what I want. I want to live’.”
Hartson clears his throat and, looking up, he acknowledges another obvious but defining truth.
“Some of us are outspoken and do lots of stupid things. We can’t all be Michael Owen. It took me a long time but, finally, I’ve matured. It took a couple of marriages, four kids and illness, but I’ve grown up. I’ve now set up The John Hartson Foundation in the hope I can help other young men avoid the same mistakes. Ryan Giggs and Martin Johnson are trustees and I think we can make a difference. If I’d heard someone like me talking four years ago I would’ve gone to the doctor straight away.
“I’ve got a long way to go but I can face anything now. I’m not especially religious but I believe in God. I feel he has been looking after me. I had a great career and scored over 200 goals.
“And now I’m lucky enough to still be here. You need a bit of luck whatever you do in life – whether you’re going for a job interview or you’re just crossing the street. I’ve had that good luck a long time now. I just hope it continues.”