PO Box 306, Glasgow, G21 2AE, Scotland

so farewell then...

john hartson

It is August 2000 and Celtic fans everywhere are basking in the thoroughly unexpected glory of an almighty 6:2 win against Rangers.

The reaction of the then not-so-cash-strapped Ibrox club was typical - spend, spend, spend. Ronald De Boer is signed from Barcelona reserves and John Hartson is flown up from Coventry.

Now you'll just have to trust me when I say that personally I wasn't that worried about De Boer; our midfield was pretty solid, and he was the less talented of the De Boer twins. But the arrival of Hartson alarmed me.

At that stage our defence was McNamara, Mahe, Boyd and Stubbs (Johann Mjallby was still to convince Martin O'Neill he could do a job). The thought of what Hartson would do to that back line was enough to have me almost leaping in the air when I heard that he had failed the Ibrox medical.

Instead they bought Flo for 12m. A decent player to be sure, but never a star man in the Larsson mould, able to pull your team out of tough spots or provide that extra something when you need it.

Just to put it into some context, 12m is 2/3rds of what Rangers have just sold all their merchandise outlets for, and it was double what they would have paid for Hartson.

Hartson spent the remainder of that season banging in goals for Coventry for Gordon Strachan, but was unable to prevent them from being relegated. Following the relegation of Coventry it was inevitable that he would leave Highfield Road. Initially it looked as though he would go to Middlesborough, but Strachan told Hartson 'I'll get you a better club' and remembering an inquiry he'd had towards the end of the season phoned Martin O'Neill.

He had actually played at Celtic Park before with Arsenal under Bruce Rioch in 1996, setting up their goal before losing 2:1. On his arrival at Celtic Park he was met by Martin O'Neill with the famous line, 'Unless you have hole in your heart I'm signing you.'

Such a welcome was a huge boost to the Welshman with the memory of his last visit to Glasgow still fresh in his mind. He needn't have worried. A fee of 6m was agreed with Coventry and Hartson was introduced to the press alongside two other new signings - Momo Sylla and Steve Guppy.

Hartson was awarded the number 10 jersey, the previous owner having left - the much loved Eyal Berk. He of course had irked big John while they were team mates at West Ham in 1998, Hartson catching the Israeli with a well aimed boot to the jaw during training, an incident caught in glorious Technicolour by a fan filming that day's training. Some suspected that this might have been an attempt to wind up our erstwhile playmaker - but that would imply the Berk actually gave a toss.

The task faced by Hartson was arguably one of the toughest in British football - break up the Larsson/Sutton partnership - and he had announced that his goal target for the season was 20. That brought a cacophony of derision from the media - Who did this guy think he was? 20 goals in a season.

He never failed to reach it in any season for Celtic, despite having two seasons truncated due to injuries.

His first couple of games were as a sub (he was lucky to stay on the pitch after only a couple of minutes at Kilmarnock following a particularly , er, robust challenge) and after about a month he was still awaiting his first goal. The media were grateful to have something negative to say about the club, given that the Hoops were strolling away with the league and more than holding our own in the Champions League. There had to be some negativity.

Then he got a start against Dundee United. After 15 minutes Lubo looked up and played a through ball on to Hartson's toe as he ran in to the box from the right. One look up and the ball was sent fizzing into the far corner of the net. The pressure was off and he proceeded to help himself to a hat-trick as United crumbled 5:1.

Although Celtic finished the season as champions the end had been something of a let down, losing in both cups to an inferior Rangers side, gifting them two trophies in the process.

The next season was the classic best of times/worst of times as we made our way to Seville but also gave Rangers all three trophies at the same time. It was during this season that big John scored his most important goal for the club; in Spain against Vigo, a vital away goal that allowed Celtic to compete in Europe after Christmas for the first time in 23 years. And it was a trade mark Hartson goal at that -Holding off a physical challenge from his defender before shooting powerfully into the corner of the net.

Following on from that he scored a couple of goals that will live long in the memory; his first winner against Rangers (he had already scored twice against them but we had lost both games) when Sutton knocked the ball down and Hartson controlled it on his chest before crashing it through Stephan Klos.

He managed to better that with his effort that finally eliminated Liverpool from the UEFA Cup. His absence from the final was a definite boost to Porto, all we were left with was what if - Ditto the last day of the league season.

With Hartson playing you would fancy us for a couple more goals but again it was all what if?

The 2003/4 season was another productive one for the whole team. The league and cup were regained and even though luck was against us in the Champions League we were still good enough to reach the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup.

The Champions League home game against Anderlecht was possibly John Hartson's finest game for the club. Strange, given that he was such a noted goal scorer, but that night we clicked, Anderlecht were blown away and Hartson created all three goals: showing his strength to hold off his marker and playing in Agathe to cross for the first; providing the perfect knock down to Liam Miller for number two; racing to the front post to flick on a corner for Sutton to head the third. Classic supporting forward play. The only down side was that again he missed the end of the season due to a back problem.

The last two seasons have been up and down. While he bagged 30 (including one in the Nou Camp) to claim the Player of the Year award during 2004/5 he was certainly one of the culprits on that day at Fir Park, one glaring opportunity right in front of the goal springs painfully to mind.

But last season he certainly stood up and was counted early on when things were in danger of going completely off the rails. Without his experience and his goals things wouldn't have gone nearly as well. It was a shame that a needless booking deprived him of the domestic medal he never won; the league cup.

When we first signed him we were warned that his temper would result in us losing him to suspension on a regular basis. Happily this turned out to be rubbish mostly; the only time he really lost it was during a cup tie at Aberdeen when he kicked out while lying in a tangle on the ground. Even then he was almost apologising for it before he'd kicked the guy 'I know I'm going to do this I just can't stop myself!' But that was about it.

Some would say that his accomplishments have been only just as good as we should expect from a Celtic centre forward given the kind of service he was getting. His critics point out that often times it was as though moss had actually grown round his boots he was that immobile. Both of these points can be considered valid, but Hartson is worth remembering as a great goal scorer because more often than not he was there when we needed him in the big games; 8 goals against Rangers, some standout performances in Europe and a couple of goals in the games that clinched the league (2001/2 and 2005/6). With the notable exception of Fir Park Hartson was a good man to have around in a tight spot (insert own weight joke here).

He leaves for West Brom and the promotion fight that he left in 2001 to join us. We wish him all the best for the future.

AB MURDOCH