Feature

'My time at Highbury was amazing'

In Defining Moments former Arsenal stars select the situations that defined their career with the Gunners. Ex-Wales striker John Hartson is the first to recall his favourites. 

1. BRITAIN'S MOST EXPENSIVE TEENAGER 

When I signed for Arsenal the price was £2.5m – the same fee the club had paid for Ian Wright a few years earlier, so no pressure, then!  

That price tag also made me the most expensive teenager in British football at the time. That is sometimes forgotten. But not by me! It brought big pressure.

I had a lot of growing up to do very quickly, as a young man as well as a footballer. Sometimes I didn’t make the right decisions, sometimes I made good decisions, just like anyone else.

You have to understand I had left my hometown of Swansea at 16 when I went to Luton Town before Arsenal came in for me. It was a whirlwind.

 

John Hartson

John Hartson

 

 

Then came the big price tag and before I knew it, the manager who brought me – George Graham – had gone within a matter of weeks. In fact, for three successive transfers I broke records. When I went to West Ham I cost £3.2m – a new club record. Then Wimbledon paid £7.5m for me in 1999. Another club record.

You don’t think about money when you are 19, 20, 21. Well, we didn’t back then. You do more so when you’re 40!

The set up was fantastic when I first came to Arsenal. We drew 1-1 against Everton on my debut – I played against my old mate Neville Southall in the Everton goal. I also remember it because Duncan Ferguson got sent off. I got off the mark pretty quickly, which took some of the pressure off, scoring in only my second game – a 1-0 win at Coventry – and then hit another against Southampton. I loved being at Arsenal from the off.

2. EUROPE

The European Cup Winners’ Cup run in 1994/95 was very special. I have wonderful memories of that competition and learned so much. I really felt I progressed as a player – you know, went in as a boy, came out a man.

I arrived halfway through that season and, you may remember, I scored in the final against Real Zaragoza, equalising after Juan Esnaider scored a fantastic goal to put them in front.

What I remember most about scoring was Ian Wright running away as if he had scored it. He ran to the crowd arms aloft – he had scored in every round up to that point – an incredible run.

John Hartson

John Hartson

 

That said, I have run to the crowd before like I have scored even though I haven’t. Sometimes it is a natural thing to do. But that does stick out. I have never asked him why he did that.

Maybe at the time it didn’t mean so much to me, but now I am retired and I march towards being a grandfather it is definitely something to tell the grandkids; grandad scored in a major European final for Arsenal! Sounds good, doesn’t it. An honour.

That run was amazing. Can you remember Ian Wright’s winner at Auxerre? Extraordinary – only he could have scored a goal like that. Having said that, another defining moment for me – in so many ways – was my penalty in the semi final shootout at Sampdoria.

John Hartson

John Hartson

 

We won the first leg 3-2 and lost the second by the same scoreline. To be one of the nominated penalty takers – aged 19 – in such a high pressure game was something else. Sven-Goran Eriksson was manager for Sampdoria and they had a hell of a team; Lombardo, Mancini and the rest ... But I did my bit and we got to the final. What a shame we lost to THAT Nayim goal.

3. EAST END-BOUND 

I had a very decent career at Arsenal even though I was only there for two years. Basically I had to handle a lot very quickly and was at a fantastic, supportive club to do it. You are spiralled into the spotlight, a teenager, playing with Dennis Bergkamp, Ian Wright, David Seaman, Tony Adams.

"Funnily enough, one of my greatest memories was scoring the winner for Arsenal at Upton Park in a 1-0 win"

John Hartson

Also, in that time, I worked under three managers: George Graham, Bruce Rioch and Arsène Wenger.

I had three years’ left on my contract when I left. I was young and headstrong. Arsène was desperate to keep me, he really tried to persuade me that I would play and he felt I would improve learning from Bergkamp and Wrighty. At the time, let’s not forget, I was getting time up front alongside Wright, with Bergkamp playing behind us. It was something else working with these guys every day.

Of course, I left and the following year Arsenal won the ‘double’ with the likes of Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira in the team.

Why did I go to West Ham? Harry Redknapp was very persuasive. He’d be on to me all the time, saying how he was going to build the team around me and how he’d give me the No. 10 shirt – a great honour. Harry’s very good at making players feel special. It wasn’t money – I just wanted to play all the time. I think I went from £4,000 a week to £7,000 a week but, as I say, money was not the motivating factor. I left a great club but I also went to one in West Ham.

Funnily enough, one of my greatest memories was scoring the winner for Arsenal at Upton Park in a 1-0 win – I think it was on Boxing Day. Then I was off to play there. This may sound disrespectful but I never played in the greatest Arsenal team – but I was close. I didn’t win anything at Arsenal but if I had hung around I could have. I could have been a part of the revolution under Arsène Wenger, winning trophies and playing with those wonderful players.

Do I regret it? Tough one. Regret is a strong word. Sometimes I do wish that I had stayed at the Arsenal, but as I say, I was headstrong. Anyway, I went on to Celtic a few years later and had a fantastic time there – I still can’t walk through Glasgow without being stopped all the time for a picture or an autograph. People can be so lovely.

The reality is my time at Highbury was amazing – I really do love Arsenal Football Club. Everybody has had a pop at Arsenal in recent years but with a couple of FA Cup wins and an improving squad they are on the up – and I am truly delighted. The feel good factor is coming back.

When I go back to the club there are still so many old faces there, like the lovely girls in the office who still go out of their way to say hello and chat – it is that kind of club. I am delighted to have just agreed a new two-year deal with the BBC so no doubt I will be coming to the Emirates a few times in the coming season. I’m looking forward to it.

John Hartson

John Hartson

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