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I avoided Northern Ireland after Old Firm abuse says Hartson

Former Celtic star became disillusioned on social media, but now he's feeling great and relishing his return to Belfast later this year

By Steven Beacom

Celtic great John Hartson is ready to return to Belfast in October after revealing he stopped visiting the city for several years, having become disillusioned with social media abuse he received connected to Old Firm rivalry.

In a candid interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the 42-year-old Welshman talked about off-field issues surrounding footballers, overcoming cancer plus his friendships with former Celtic managers and Northern Ireland stars Martin O'Neill and Neil Lennon.

Hartson was speaking to mark tickets going on sale for a special show on October 13 at the Devenish Hotel in Belfast, organised by the Experience Epic events company, where he and fellow Parkhead favourite Stiliyan Petrov will entertain hundreds of guests.

Honest, thoughtful and far from the fiery character he could be on the pitch, Hartson explained that a trip to Newry last year got the ball rolling again in terms of coming to Northern Ireland and now he can't wait for the event in the capital city in five months' time.

"I wasn't over for four or five years," said the ex-Arsenal and West Ham striker.

"When I retired I came over quite a lot and then I got a little bit disillusioned with it in terms of what people were saying about Celtic and Rangers.

"There were some bad reactions on social media, so I thought you know what I'll stay away from Belfast and then a year ago I was invited to come over to Newry by Brian Adair (Experience Epic) and I had an unbelievable welcome.

"Everyone was so warm and friendly and now I'm coming back again to Northern Ireland and to Belfast this time. I'm going to be with an old ex-Celtic team-mate and fellow cancer survivor Stiliyan Petrov and I'm sure we will have a great time.

"I don't like bringing up the negativity but that was the reason I stayed away. Yes, I played for Celtic, but I played for seven other football teams as well. I had retired, and coming over I felt I didn't need it.

"I do understand the implications of Celtic and Rangers in Northern Ireland. I got a little bit of it in Glasgow where you walk down one street and you are hailed and in another people are looking at you like they want to spit in your face. I am aware of the rivalry and the history but I don't want to get involved in that."

Hartson makes fascinating observations about how footballers are perceived by the public in the modern world.

He said: "A lot of people judge footballers by the colours they wear and what they are like on the pitch. I was proud to play for Celtic and Arsenal, but if you are Tottenham or Rangers, you are going to have something against me.

"The sad thing about football is that you are judged by what people see on the field. Unless you meet people they don't know what you are like.

"People don't know that I raise lots of money for charity or that I'm a wonderful father. If you play for a team that people don't like you are automatically not a good person. It is a very judgemental society."

As a footballer, Hartson was fearless. He would put his head in where others would be frightened to put their feet. He was a popular player at Luton, Arsenal, West Ham, Wimbledon and Coventry before in 2001 joining Celtic, where the Hoops fans adored his style. At Parkhead he won multiple league titles and Scottish Cups and had a happy knack of scoring in big games.

For five years in Glasgow he enjoyed fabulous relationships with two of Northern Ireland's best known sportsmen and still sees O'Neill and Lennon as friends today.

"I love Martin and loved playing with him. He was magnificent for me. He took a chance on me and I feel I paid him back at Celtic," said Hartson.

"One of my team-mates back then was Neil Lennon, another great man. They have always been very supportive."

Hartson needed all the help he could get in 2009 when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer which spread to his brain and then lungs. Treatment was successful and today he is the figurehead of the John Hartson Foundation, which focuses on testicular cancer awareness and support and has raised over £700,000.

Swansea born and now living in Edinburgh, this inspirational figure thanks his family for seeing him through.

"My family have been amazing. They have gone over and above in support for me," said John, who has three daughters, Lena, Stephanie and Paige, with wife Sarah. He also has two girls, Rebecca and Joni, with ex-wife Lowri.

"I had a wonderful upbringing from my mum and dad. They couldn't understand why I was a lunatic on the pitch because I was always brought up mild mannered which I am.

"I have tried to bring up my children with morals and integrity, all the things I was taught when I was growing up.

"We've just moved up to Edinburgh with my wife who is Scottish, the kids are settling into their new surroundings and I have lots of TV work on and I'm in a fantastic place."

And the health?

"It's great thank you," he replied with a beaming smile.

"I am doing a lot of spin classes. I'm keeping myself fit that way. I love my boxing and going into the gym. Life is good."

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