Coventry City saved John Hartson’s career. A promising, if temperamental character on the pitch, and a man battling addiction off it, his knees were his enemy in 2001. With his club, Wimbledon, desperately trying to offload him and his high wages, Hartson failed medicals at Tottenham and Charlton, as well as the high publicised one at Rangers. Coventry City, desperately fighting to preserve our proud 34 year stint in the top flight of English football, played Russian roulette with a man’s knees. Our strike force of Craig Bellamy and Jay Bothroyd were so inept that Strachan must have realised that a man struggling to obtain medical insurance to play was a greater threat in front of goal than the young duo who were badly out of their depth.
He was an incredible signing. Scoring on both his debut and his home debut, City only lost two of his first eight matches. He was the best player on the park as we twice took the lead at Old Trafford before succumbing to a superior team. He shook a team that was dead and almost single handedly achieved the impossible. His six goals in twelve games came too late to save us from the drop, but his strong hold up play, his steely determination to succeed for a club and a fan base that immediately took to him, and his unrivalled passion for the game ensured that after a mere twelve games he will forever be a Coventry City hero. It is widely accepted amongst our supporters that if Strachan had signed Hartson at the start of the season rather than Bellamy, we would have stayed up. Of course, he only signed for us on a pay as you play deal and would have failed our medical too. Our desperation benefited both the club and the player, and helped him reach great heights after his move to Celtic.
As Hartson admits in his book, he was not enamoured at joining Coventry City. He had been relegated with Wimbledon a year before, and having been close to joining Spurs and Rangers, another relegation battle was thrust upon him. To his great credit, he also publicly stated that he found it hard to leave, such was his feeling for the club. However, to reject life in the Champions League in favour of life in the Championship is not a decision that anyone willing to further their career would do. From a financial point of you, to receive £6 million for a player who had only played twelve games was a great piece of business. We did not know it at the time, but we were in severe financial trouble, to the extent that we are still feeling the after-effects of our reckless spending to this day.
At Celtic, John Hartson will always be remembered for the stunning strike against Liverpool and for his goals against the team who, after he failed their medical, chose to wisely spend £12 million on Tore Andre Flo. It just shows the butterfly effect in action. What if Hartson’s knees were perfect and he signed for them? The alternate world is a frightening concept. Whilst not possessing the brilliance of Larsson, John Hartson was a natural goal scorer. His weight was an issue, but primarily in the sense that he could use his larger frame to powerfully hold off the opposition. It could be argued that he was fortunate to be blessed with such wonderful players around him, providing the service for his goals. However, Hartson scored wherever he played, and in his brief spell at Coventry, he was surrounded by ineffectual players. The big man still found the net.
In July 2009 I was in New York City when I read that John Hartson was suffering from testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and his brain. Most people assumed that he would die, given the severity of the cancer. I didn’t feel anything other than sadness for his family. I am not one to grieve for people I had never met, despite the feelings of intense joy they bring to you as a football supporter. As I drove across America, I had no access to the news, and merely assumed that the big man would lose the battle. Hartson was there as City fan and he was there as a Celtic fan. He was also deep in the background as my Dad was diagnosed with cancer in July 2009, just like Hartson. As BBJ received intense chemotherapy, my Dad was dying, his body too ravaged to even attempt treatment.
For Christmas, my Mum bought me John Hartson’s book which details his road to recovery. As I opened the first page, the big man had not only signed it, but included a personal message about my Dad. According to my Mum, when she had told him about my Dad having cancer at the same time as him, he stopped, chatted, asked about him and wanted to know the name of my Dad to make the message more personal. A warrior on the park and a gentleman off it, John Hartson is my favourite Celtic player of all time.