So goodbye then John Hartson. We hardly knew you…..
If any a player had caused most interest at WFC, it was one John Hartson. A record Â£7m buy, the only player we’d ever bought who’d played in a Euro final (apart from Laurie Cunningham), a big, towering centre forward who once got loads of goals for West Ham. The day it was announced, the whole of football was in shock. Joe Kinnear went on record and crowed about how WFC were now ready for the big time. Europe beckoned. WFC fans were in abject delight. Surely with this monumental purchase meant that we would be playing at the San Siro. The Crazy Gang (excuse me while I spew) were going to Europe. Such jollities. Nobody would fear us, we had the perfect WFC centre forward, the footballing world would surely take notice now, wouldn’t they?
Well, actually, they didn’t. West Ham fans laughed at us for paying Â£7m smacker. And I have to admit, it was a lot. Well, to get the best you have to buy the best, don’t you? After all, on the same day, Arsenal paid Â£3m less for some unknown Nigerian called Nwanko Kanu. Never mind, this was our moment, we’d just bought the 5th most expensive transfer between two English clubs, and the whole world could whistle….
Fast forward to 8 February 2001. John Hartson joins Coventry City for that bizzare sum of “undisclosed fee”. Although the clubs involved won’t say what the deal is, it probably involves some sort of pay-as-you-play deal. WFC are in the first division, with a huge deficit in the wage bill. WFC have lost Â£7m practically on a player and yet nobody minds. Why? What happened since that day when John Hartson started accepting wages from a football club from SW19? And how did his transfer mean a radial overhaul of how WFC was run in ways never thought possible.
To answer these questions, it has to be asked “why did WFC sign JH in the first place?”. It’s probably a lot deeper than merely pushing into Europe, and for that I will risk getting my ass sued in court. Personally, I think that JH was the makeweight in a very dodgy deal involving Kinnear, Hammam, Barnett and Harry Redknapp. Hartson was after all a “mate” of both Kinnear and Vinny Jones and is a business partner of Barnett. Kinnear is a mate of Harry Redknapp. And Hammam is a mate of Kinnear and anyone who will bung him a few quid. Hardly a good start is it?
The first thing to examine here is JH’s debut and the fallout from it. He looked horribly unfit. He put a good touch or two on, but really did he make much impact? Trevor Brooking ominously decreed that “he doesn’t look like a Â£7m player”. For a Â£7m striker he didn’t put the ball in the net did he? Never mind, people were going to give him time. After all, aren’t we supposed to be the masters at getting the best out of renegade players?
I won’t bother going into the ins and outs of what he did on the pitch, but there has to be something dodgy when you sign a guy who’s majorly unfit and was subsequently banned for that head tennis incident. Worrying still was the fact that his fitness wasn’t improving – the reasons being that he had a troublesome knee injury (but that would be sorted for next season), that JK’s ticker going pushed his development back, that his suspension was doing him in etc etc.
The next thing here is that JH’s transfer cost Sam Hammam his job, with the immediate aftermath being a horrifically bloody boardroom battle (we all know basically what happened). When Svein Bakke looked to see why Hammam was asking for a Â£3m bridging loan from KIR, and KIR said “no”, doubts were being raised as to the funding for the JH deal. WFC owed West Ham Â£3m for the deal, and Hammam needed the money. So he went to the Norwegian Cash Elk to get it and was suddenly questioned. It’s only very recently come to light that R&G were never told about the JH deal until sometime AFTER the signing.
Did somebody say that Hartson was Hammam’s political pawn? Maybe Hammam knew he would have to sell up eventually, and would use Hartson as his Trojan Horse. This theory holds weight when you consider that the Spurz deal was brokered on the same day that Hammam publically announced his selling. There is a strong rumour going about that Hartson never had a medical at Spurz anyway – it was in Hammam’s contract that he could sell JH to whoever he wanted, and as the Lebanese Arms Dealer was heavily linked with Spurz at the time, well…… It would have been interesting to see had Hammam bought into Spurz if JH would have somehow “got through” any medical.
Up until now, I haven’t mentioned one bit about JH’s on-field performances and his rapport with the fans. WFC loved him. He was seen as the major star and we’d never had one of those before. He was always polite to the fans (I’ve never heard anyone say that he WASN’T a nice man) and even did a bit of the old wind-up things that fans love (you know, “I love this club”). On the field, it was a bit of a different story. JH once scored about 25 goals for West Ham in one season. The key here is “once”. He hadn’t performed in over 18 months for West Ham and wasn’t really setting the place alight for WFC. Inbetween the time he signed for WFC and the end of that season, he scored a grand total of 2 goals. The terms “million”, “7”, “pounds” and “flop” were being bandied about.
The fitness thing remained, and I doubt if the suspension did his head any good, but what of the rest of the team? Did they really think much of him? Was he being “imposed” on them, earning twice as much as they were? We will never know, but when you consider that we only won two games between the start of the year he signed until the end of the season, I doubt if his appearance was helping morale much for the whole team. Sure, he was mates with some of them, but unity?
The next season, and you could write a whole book on it. However, this was the season where some were questioning JH’s general attitude to playing. Thinking about it now, Drillo was actually doing to JH what many people were suggesting that TB should have done in the dying days of JH’s WFC tenure. You clearly remember the fitness tests, the blood tests etc. This should have helped JH – and it did for a while (“I’ve never felt so fit in pre-season training” he said at the time).
But reality took a hold and the problems flaired up again. His knee went for most of the season. And his rumoured love for the hard liquor was taking control. In his book, Drillo insinuated that JH often went to the pub during training, taking some of the team with him. Footballers are sheep a lot of the time – if there’s a strong character in the side, many players will follow what that character does. And JH had a pretty powerful pull amongst some. Fitness suffered, along with a rampant Hammam trying to sabotage the club and the more Drillo tried to lay down the law, the more he failed…..
Fast forward to the next season. Relegation was the result of the previous season, but the term “new start” was bandied about. Drillo had left, TB came in. Some of the disruptive elements of that previous season (you know who) had departed. As for JH, he had a massive opportunity. He could come back injury free, he was in a lower division and after all, was the “star”. 30 goals this season, surely? However, problems were circulating again. Were we going to sell him? We needed a wage cut and he was the obvious choice : this was further fuelled by him saying that he wanted to play in the Prem and would only give us one year at WFC.
None the less, pre season came and went and the first friendly at Sutton. He was playing, but you wouldn’t have noticed it. He came in looking like a beached whale. What the fuck had happened? It’s worth remembering that of all the people he knew when he came to WFC, only Mick Harford remained. Maybe that had an effect on him? Who knows, I’m sure that professionalism would take centre stage. TB would surely demand it. JH had been suspended for the first two games and would return fitter than ever. Except he didn’t – the day when he returned from suspension probably decided his eventual fate. He looked unfit, he couldn’t run, he did get into positions but wasn’t able enough to do anything with them. What had happened to him? The fans still loved him, of course. Just give him time to get fit….
Then, like a shot from the blue, came that transfer story to Glasgow Rangers. Â£6m was offered. Great. Except one thing – JH’s knee was fucked. He failed the medical and returned to London. People were angry that we’d tried to sell him, even though most privately admitted that the lure of Champions League football was too great. Would he return sharp? Well, for two games, he started to look like the Â£7m player playing in the first division. Two goals in the Sheff Wed thumping, one goal against Ooodersfield, and then…….. er, nothing.
He was becoming unfit to the point he wasn’t performing, and WFC were starting to get a little bit POed. A game against Boro and suddenly he became good again. Well, for about 10 seconds when he took a penalty. A phone call from Charlton set the next installment up – Â£5m plus Kevin Lisbie. Hartson was sent there and guess what? He failed the medical. And that’s where JH’s contribution to WFC became the drunk, fat, disinterested slob that he’s been given ever since. He basically lost interest, despite being tried to get going by becoming the captain. Many of the performances he played in forced the team to play one-dimensional. He was being marked out of games by defenders from Pompey and 35 year olds. Then Coventry came a-calling……
Before we get into the Highfield Road wrangles, the writing on the wall had actually been coming since that hot sunny day in Sutton. Those who saw him labour against a Ryman League side subconciously knew that the club weren’t going to privately tolerate such goings-on for much longer. If the alarm bells were starting to tinkle at Gander Green Lane, they were ringing at Preston. By the time the non-performances at Palace and Bolton, to name but two, came about, the local residents were complaining about a loud alarm constantly going off.
Worse still was whenever he DIDN’T play – suddenly, the team played with conviction. His last performance in a WFC shirt was at Pompey, where the immortal lines “Get off Hartson you fat cunt” were uttered. The fans, who had loved him for so long, had finally lost patience. They saw games where he played and we looked awful. They saw games where he didn’t play and looked good. Hartson was basically a liability. As soon as he was dropped for the FA cup games with the excuse of “food poisioning”, and then “upset stomach”, and when it was revealed he opted to train with the reserves rather than play against Middlesbrough in a cup tie, the WFC marriage was over.
The Coventry saga was a soap opera in itself. WFC tried to sell him for Â£5m, but Coventry didn’t have the dough. Coventry offer player, player doesn’t want to go (his loss). Hartson is kept in limbo with a pint of beer in hand. Deal is ressurected and then dropped. Then resurrected and dropped again for “insurance”. Finally, after some really weird deal – so weird we aren’t going to officially know what fee was paid – he signs for Coventry. And the chapter closes.
Many questions remain unanswered. Did he jump? Did we push him? Did WFC treat him badly? I don’t believe WFC did, in fact if anything we treated him too well. He should have been given an ultimatum after Preston – get fit or get out. There were probably commercial reasons why he still played like an obsese whale and was made captain, but it didn’t do anyone any good. Did the players like him? Well, playing better sans JH and stories that the younger players had no respect for him whatsoever may answer that.
Why he decided not to act professionally is anyone’s guess. Maybe not having Hammam around affected him? Maybe he enjoyed the hedonism last season and decided he wanted to stay the same? Maybe he just had a lousy attitude in general? Who knows. TB’s comments about attitudes at that Radio 5 show spoke volumes.
What was JH’s legacy? In many ways, he summed up WFC at the time. Had a lot of potential, cost a bomb, more concerned with going on the piss than anything else, had a “reputation” and never proved anything. And having plenty of people looking back, tutting and wondering what might have been.
Goodbye then John Hartson. We hardly knew you…..