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In Review: Please Don't Go: Big John's Journey Back to Life

Filed: Monday, 1st August 2011
By: Tim Sansom

John Hartson
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"I loved the lack of corny cliché and ‘feel good’ language. If it does not leave you speechless, you have a very cold heart...."

It is not that hard to find a newspaper article that is advising you on which books to pack for your holiday and beat the hand luggage limits, so you can forget about life and the stress of the past football season. Most of the recommended books are for those people who want to lie on wet concrete beside a fake blue marbled pool struggling to gather enough energy to lift another Babysham, while listening to Wham’s Club Tropicana on their poolside stereo.

If you are not interest in Archer or Collins, and want a little bit of British football to enjoy, try this updated account from John Hartson who takes you through some of the most horrific, yet ultimately heart- warming episodes of his life so far. It is not an easy read. It is not a story on the lines of ‘Sharon was dressed in a silky pink dressing gown with a red rose hanging limply from her mouth like a drooped cigarette.’ Hartson’s account is much more important than that, if only because it brings out a medical crisis in such a way that current TV medical dramas could only dream about.

The average TV medical drama will deal with big medical issues and there might be a bit of a crisis during the episode, a bit of relationship tension, and a heart-warming fool like Greengrass off TV’s Hearbeat. However, this book gives you the treatment of Hartson’s testicular cancer in tremendous, compelling, informative and shocking detail. You wonder what would have happened if Hartson had actually had the lump examined following the advice by the West Brom doctor, although you wonder if you had been so diligent if you had been in the player’s position. The status and knowledge about testicular cancer, as well as the average man’s general attitude to hospitals and medical treatment would suggest that too many people would have followed the Hartson approach.

It becomes apparent, when reading this book, that this decision during Hartson’s difficult spell at West Brom was critical and that decision nearly causes Hartson’s life to end in tremendously tragic circumstances. A large amount of people play a Saturday night game of guessing how the unfortunate Casualty guest actor will end up in A and E. I could not take to Biology at school, so my lack of knowledge regarding how cancer spreads around the body, meant that I could not explain what was happening in John Hartson’s body as the disease was spreading from his testicles to his brain. Hartson could not explain either, which made the words seem particularly frightening to me.

We are taken through the various operating theatres and hospitals in South Wales. Hartson’s sister and his future wife contribute to the unfolding story that includes the terrifying moment when the player stopped breathing queuing frantic activity from the doctors and nurses, and the general feeling that Hartson was very close to death. I loved the lack of corny cliché and ‘feel good’ language. Each page provided a very raw story. If it does not leave you speechless, you have a very cold heart. If nothing else, you will gain a better understanding of medical conditions that affect too many men across the UK and the world.

There is football in this book. It is done as a series of flashbacks from Hartson’s hospital bed. You are transported back to happier days of late nineties football with a round robin of Hartson’s career through the big London clubs as well as Wimbledon and Luton FC. You have a brief flash back to one of the earliest bizarre football moments that I can remember i.e. Hartson versus Berkovic in the Chadwell Heath boxing arena circa September 1998. I never knew that a fight between team mates could happen in real life. In these teenage years, I still believed that all team mates were the best of friends bonded over a football shirt. I would have shared the bemusement of Harry Redknapp when he whimpered “what went wrong” to the warring titans in claret and blue.

I loved the West Ham team of the late nineties. The team was full of characters in an era when Premiership (or Premier League) football was starting to become as bland as puce wallpaper. Hartson was part of that team, but you will also read about the post-West Ham years with the happy days and at Celtic and the less happy days at West Brom with a short burst at Norwich City. The book teaches you that not all footballers effortlessly move from the pitch, to the dugout and to the ‘Match of the Day’ studio. Hartson’s gambling problems occasionally appear in the chapters. You feel that Hartson is more human, rather than the automatons that can only be seen through the gossip columns. These chapters are also interesting but also not an easy read. However the words bring back a lot of happy memories.

The book finishes on a happy note with a 2011 postscript, and you feel pleased that the Hartson family can look forward to the future with more hope than they could have done in the past. In conclusion, this book is not one of those celeb filled picture books that resembled nothing more than a furniture catalogue and populated the book shelves around two to three years ago. The messages are much more important and I hope that readers gain a better understanding of the life of a footballer as well as the tragic illnesses that can play havoc with the lives of athletic ‘relatively’ young men.

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