John Hartson was a good, but not great, footballer.
Neither brilliant nor abysmal, he was merely, well, Hartson. He had the pace of a glacier, the litheness of a bookcase and precisely the kind of first touch you would expect from a player schooled in the academies of Afan Lido and Luton Town. He scored goals, but never at an exceptional frequency or with any great flair. For the most part, he simply Hartsonned his way through a moderately successful career without ever threatening to do anything extraordinary.
So why write about this strawberry blond beacon of footballing adequacy?
Because Hartson, as much as any player at the time, represented a period during the nineties when Arsenal had slipped well and truly into the swamp of mediocrity. The big Welshman personified the death throes of the Graham era and the dull agony of the subsequent but mercifully brief Rioch age, a glum few years of terrible football and even worse results.
Yet, initially at least, Hartson arrived at Arsenal to relatively high expectations. The club had judged it worthwhile to spend £2.5million in order to bring him to Highbury in January 1995, making him Britain’s then most expensive teenage footballer. “The bid surprised many,” noted a BBC article in 2015. Not least Hartson himself, who remarked, “It was a big moment for me in my life but I was very young and normally when you’re young you take things pretty much in your stride… But at 19 I was like a raging bull: I had lots of energy, I had the legs for it, I had the desire. This was what I wanted to be, this was where I belonged.”
There’s little doubt that Hartson was considered a player of promise. The boy had potential, albeit of a classically British type: bulk and aggression were his primary attributes – and Graham loved him for it. But the two would not be afforded much time to work together: around a month after shelling out the cash for Hartson, Graham was bunged out of the club following “irregularities” in his involvement with previous transfer deals.
Still, within months of Hartson’s arrival he’d bagged a goal in the final of a continental competition, the 1995 Cup Winners Cup, and was partnering up front, with varying degrees of competence, the rather more explosive Ian Wright. Those were the days of Two Up Top: a tactical system based on the premise of ordering a Big Man to stand near the goal and having a wiry Smaller Man sniff around for rebounds off his larger partner’s head, chest or arse.
Hartson was the archetypal Big Man, a lumbering hulk who bundled into defenders with no little enthusiasm, occasionally combining muscle and violence to great effect. His relationship with Wright was efficient enough, with the two providing a genuine threat to defences when their collective levels of testosterone hit Defcon 1. But despite reaching a European final, this generation of Arsenal players were, overall, a pretty modest lot, and finished the 1994-95 season in 12th position.
Graham’s replacement as manager, Bruce Rioch, could never be described as a world beater, and things didn’t improve much in 1995-96, though the team did scrape into fifth-place largely thanks to the inspired signings of David Platt and Dennis Bergkamp. The touch of class added to proceedings by these two was noticeable, and as a result Hartson occasionally looked impressive while playing alongside them. Every so often, the velvet glove needed an iron fist slipped inside it, and the Welshman was more than willing to oblige.
More often than not, however, Hartson found his “excitable” character hard to temper. He was a man of elbows to the chin, knees to the back and studs to the ankle, a product of the old school. He didn’t seem to enjoy violence, merely to channel it into his play, but there will certainly be those who remember Hartson as a thuggish footballer. Such a notion would be harsh, but there’s little doubt that his levels of chill were rather low: during the 1996-97 season, he gained the distinction of collecting nine yellow cards by October.
John Ley, writing in the Telegraph in December 1996, described him as “one of the Premiership’s freshest young prospects”, but also one of its most irascible. In an interview with the Swansean as part of an article titled “Hartson pins hopes on Adams the ‘agony uncle’”, Ley documented Hartson’s – self-acknowledged – problems with discipline on and off the field, while Hartson, for his part, professed a determination to find the path of righteousness and stabilise both his temper and his career. Within two months of the piece, Hartson was gone, shipped off to West Ham, where he displayed his newfound self-control by kicking a team-mate in the head shortly after Arsenal won the double in 1998.
It had become clear when Wenger took control of the club that things were going to change rapidly. Hartson, despite his youth, was a relic and a reminder of the club’s inglorious recent past. For the manager, he was outdated in a way that other pre-Wengerites like Wright, Adams, Dixon and Winterburn were able to circumvent. Those players had the gravitas and the quality to adjust to a regime-change, but Hartson just didn’t fit the mould, and the Frenchman had little use for him – though it has been claimed that Wenger asked Hartson to sign a new contract. Few were surprised when Big John was allowed to go, all the more so given an equally combustible but rather more agile young tearaway named Nicolas Anelka was just beginning to make his name.
For Arsenal, the Hartson Years were over, and a new era was underway.