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Five Aside: Di Maria a skillful crosser

Five Aside 16 hours ago
Read
Nov 19, 2006

Bhoy-hood dreams resting on home comforts

John Hartson believes his former Celtic team-mates are entering the last chance saloon as they prepare to take on Manchester United in the Champions League on Tuesday night.

Hartson swapped the glamour of the Champions League in Scotland for a promotion battle in England with Championship outfit West Browmich Albion during the summer, yet he is returning to Parkhead to cheer on his old pals as Sir Alex Ferguson and United attempt to shatter their dreams of a place in last-16 of Europe's marquee event for the first time.

Home wins against FC Copenhagen and Benfica appeared to pave the way for what would be an notable success for Gordon Strachan's side in Group F, but a resounding defeat at the hands of Benfica in the last batch of fixtures leaves them looking for points from their final games against United and the Danes.

Celtic may have been kings of Europe way back in 1967, but their record in the revamped Champions League has been anything but impressive and Hartson fears their alarming inability to perform away from home may see their promising start come to nothing this time around.

'If they are going to get through, I fancy them to cause and upset and get something out of the Manchester United game,' he begins. 'It didn't surprise me to see them lose against Benfica and I wouldn't be shocked to see them beaten in the last game against FC Copenhagen as well because our away form has been dreadful for many years now.

'So, to my mind, it all comes down to this United game and I wouldn't rule out the prospect of Celtic getting the result they need. European nights are very, very special at Parkhead and United won't enjoy going there, even if they have players who are used to massive ties like that.

'It will be an amazing occasion. Alex Ferguson going to Celtic with all his Rangers connections, a full-house and a United side that will respond to the challenge.

'As far as I remember, only a top-class Barcelona outfit beat us at Parkhead and there was no shame in that, so United are in for a tough evening. I still fancy my old team to go through and I wouldn't be surprised if they get the result they need in this final home game.'

Hartson reflects with some pain on the series of away day failures in his time as Celtic's No.10 as he reveals the lengths to which former Parkhead boss, Martin O'Neill, went to solving the problem.

'We didn't managed to pick up a solitary point away from home in the Champions League during my time at the club and I could never understand why,' he continues. 'We came close on several occasions. We nearly got something from AC Milan, Lyon and Bayern Munich, but lost to late goals every time.

'We just don't travel well. Even this season, Celtic should have got a result against Man United at Old Trafford, but lost by the odd goal in five.

'It's hard to question the tactics of Martin O'Neill and Gordon Strachan because they have had incredible success at domestic level and have done well in European games at Parkhead, but it just hasn't happened away from home.

'Under Martin, we tried staying a couple of nights away in preparation for games, went out on the Monday for a Wednesday game, and it still didn't work. So everything was set up right, we even played well in some of the games, but the final result always went against us.

'Funnily enough, the UEFA Cup was a different story as we picked up a memorable win at Liverpool and great results at Boavista and Barcelona, so I can't put my finger of what the problem is. Whether it is a mental block at this stage I don't know, but there is something wrong.'

While Hartson is among a glut of footballers to have released an autobiography of late, he breaks the mould by offering up a compelling and honest tale that makes fascinating reading. All too often, footballers write books that are barely worth the paper they are written on, but this straight-talking former Luton, Arsenal, West Ham, Wimbledon and Wales forward does not fall into that category.

When we caught up with the Welshman, he was only too willing to talk about a variety of topics many shy away from, with his views on life as a Celtic player in Scotland being both shocking an revealing.

'The hassle you have to put up with day in, day out in Glasgow is crazy,' begins Hartson. 'Call me naive if you want, but the aggravation you get up there shocked me from day one and I never really got used to it.

'You can't fill your car up in a petrol station without someone shouting abuse at you. The religious side of it was never something I wanted to be involved with because at the end of the day, I come from a working-class background in Wales and was not brought up as either a catholic or a protestant. I hardly know the difference between the two religions and I couldn't care less.

'Don't get me wrong, I had some great times at Celtic, but I don't miss being there now because I had enough of all the rubbish that goes with it a long time ago.'

He also offered some interesting views on a debate that often divides supporters, with his suggestion that players wages are out of control bound to capture a few headlines.

'I have earned the £20,000 and £30,000's during my career and that is incredible weekly wage for a boy from a working class background in Swansea,' he adds. 'But when you read that some people are picking up £150,000 in one week, it's crazy, scandalous.

'I had to go into hospital a couple of weeks back for a minor problem and when you look at a nurse doing things for injured or sick people in the middle of the night, it seems crazy that some footballer wrapped up at home in bed is picking up her annual wages ten times over in a week.

'If it wasn't for football, I'd probably be earning £600-a-week, working in a factory and be driving around in a small car. I'd be struggling to raise a family and wouldn't be able to go on expensive holidays, but I hope I'd still be the same fella.

'The vast money swirling around changes people and I have seen players who have let it all go to their head. Also, the perception your friends have of you changes, but I have always tried to stay loyal to who I am and where I come from.'

In an era dominated by footballers who have mastered he art of selling their story and giving nothing away, half an hour in the company of John Hartson was something of a revelation.

• John Hartson, The Autobiography, is available in all good book shops.

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