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Former Celtic striker John Hartson puts the game in perspective

By Frank Brownlow

John Hartson smiles when reminded of Bill Shankly’s famous quote about football being more important than life or death.

A year ago the former Celtic and Arsenal striker was battling testicular cancer which had spread to his brain.

But the 35-year-old, in Belfast yesterday to officially open a Cheque Centre store, has made a remarkable recovery and is enjoying a highly successful media career.

“Life is more important than any football match and my life is good at the moment,” said Hartson.

And he summed up how serious his situation was 12 months ago when he revealed: “At one point during my illness the doctors informed my family that they were just doing their best to give me a bit more time. So I am very lucky to be here talking about it.”

Hartson sounds a note of common sense when he compares the mega bucks top footballers earn to the pay packets of our health professionals.

“When you consider what doctors and nurses earn, certainly compared to some footballers, there’s little in the way of parity.

“All the doctors and nurses pulled out all the stops for me.

“I have no problem talking about my illness because if it provides inspiration for other other people, that’s great. If it helps save people’s lives by raising awareness, that’s fantastic.

“I had great support from all my old clubs during my illness.

“I had incredible support from outside football as well.

“When you are in a hospital bed, just about staying alive, that sort of support gives you a really big boost.

“At one stage Lance Armstrong took time out from the Tour de France to ask people to pray for me and I would love to get over to the United States some day to meet Lance and thank him.

“In terms of my health, everything is normal. All my scans are clear. Your health is the most important thing you have and you realise that when you are hit by a serious illness.”

Although he has seen former team mates — including Neil Lennon at Celtic — having a crack at management, Hartson has no plans to follow suit in the immediate future, although the proud Welshman admits taking charge of his national team would be an honour.

“I have lots of media work and I also now have my coaching badges.

“ But I have no plans at the moment to go into management, although anyone would be proud to manage their country. Club management is 24/7 and I am getting plenty of enjoyment out of talking about the game — I really enjoy my media work and am lucky enough to have various media contracts.

“I recently got married, so it’s all good,” he added.

Hartson would love to see his former clubs Celtic and Arsenal win their respective leagues, and although he feels the Hoops have a big chance under Lennon, he admits the Gunners might not yet have what it takes.

“They are massive, well supported clubs and I received a great reception from both sets of fans when I covered the recent Emirates Cup for television,” he recalled.

“I was lucky enough to have two great years at Arsenal and five at Celtic. Two great clubs and it was a pleasure to play for both of them.

“Arsenal are the biggest club in London — not the richest, but the biggest.

“Celtic have one of the biggest fan bases in the world, maybe along with Rangers and Manchester United. It means a lot to come to Belfast and meet Celtic fans, some wearing shirts with my name on them.

“I have a great rapport with the Celtic fans, I suppose because when I played I always gave everything I had and managed to score a few goals. It’s nice that they haven’t forgotten that.

“It will be difficult for Celtic to win the title because it’s Walter Smith’s last year as Rangers manager. That just might make Rangers give that extra bit more.

“Celtic have made the better signings but if Rangers get new ownership then I’m sure Walter will be able to strengthen so the title race could go right down to the wire.

“Arsenal are still two or three players short of being a title winning team. They need a goalscorer, a centre half and a keeper.

“They don’t have a goalkeeper in the same class as (former keeper) David Seaman. All the

title challengers have top notch keepers.

“I would love to see them win it but Arsene Wenger needs to go out and get those two or three players.

“Arsenal are a good side but just not quite as strong as Manchester United and Chelsea.”

A Celtic and Arsenal title double would be so special for John Hartson. But not a matter of life and death.

Hartson on...

CRAIG BELLAMY

I’m a little bit surprised Craig Bellamy has gone to Cardiff, although I know his love for Cardiff is very similar to mine for Swansea.

He’s been away from Cardiff a long time and his family live in the city.

It will be a great challenge for him, trying to help Cardiff into the top flight. You will see teams in the Championship doubling up on him and he won’t be given the same time on the ball that he is in the Premier League.

He won’t have it all his own way because when players come up against him they will raise their game. Craig’s a quality player, a class above most players at that level. And there will be one or two who are determined to stop him playing.

Every Cardiff game will be a sell-out and there will be a great atmosphere — it will be a great place to go, the Championship equivalent of going to Manchester United or Chelsea.

MARTIN O’NEILL

It was a surprise to most people that Martin O’Neill left Aston Villa so suddenly.

I’m sure if he wants to get back into the game he won’t be short of offers. He’s a great manager — he’s proved that everywhere he has been.

He took Aston Villa to the Carling Cup final last season and also finished above Liverpool in the league. He also had success with Leicester and Celtic so there won’t be any shortage of takers. Maybe he’ll want to take a break before returning to the game.

As a manager, he treats you like a man and just lets you get on with it. He’s not there every day at training.

He signs good players. He wants his players to do things right, not over-do it, good passing, likes to see the ball being moved. He likes big central defenders who head the ball well, a big centre forward who holds the ball up, midfielders who can run all day and close the ball down. He likes players to go and express themselves.

He is terrific as a manager. I bumped into him a while back and he was asking me all about my recovery as his wife has been through it as well.

NEIL LENNON

Martin took a lot from his time under Brian Clough and I’m sure Neil Lennon will take a lot from Martin.

He worked with Martin for many years and I’m sure a lot of his methods will be like Martin’s. But it’s important that Neil puts his own stamp on the job and on the team.

I know Neil has loads of respect for Martin and I’m sure Neil has been on the phone to him for bits and bobs of advice.

Neil has been given the reins and I would just like to see him being allowed to get on with the job now without a director of football being brought in. I certainly don’t see Martin going there in that role.

I think Neil has what it takes to go on and win trophies and be successful at Celtic. Niall McGinn is a good young player, while Paddy McCourt is getting a bit of a run in the side at the moment which is great for him and he scored a superb goal at the weekend. Both are very talented players and I’m sure they are going to be at Celtic for a long time.

KYLE LAFFERTY

Kyle Lafferty has started off a bit slowly in his Rangers career. Towards the end of last season he seemed to be maturing and seemed to realise his responsibilities at a big club.

He was previously involved in one or two silly incidents on the pitch and he was slaughtered for that by the media.

But he seems to have picked up as a player, realised where he is at and what his responsibilities are. He has been given a run in the side and has done very well.

I’m pleased for him because I was one of the ones who criticised him last season but he has gone on and done really well.

I like Steven Davis as a player and he was done really well for Rangers.

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