APR 01] THE STUART LINNELL
Not Just A One-Man Band
Quite properly, the football
world is buzzing about John Hartson. Quite properly, John
Hartson is talking about the team he is now part of.
Welsh striker's run of form is not only vital to Coventry City's
chances of avoiding relegation, it is also quite remarkable when
you consider what little football he played this season, prior
to the eventual completion of his prolonged transfer from
As a freelance in the media
world, my range of activities extends to working at conferences,
and I was doing just that a couple of weeks ago in Swansea. The
conference was called 'Fire 2001', organised by the Fire
Executive of the Local Government Association. Representatives
from fire and rescue services throughout the UK were present and
the main guest at the gala dinner was the Lord Mayor of Swansea.
Why am I telling you this?
Because over dinner our conversation turned, inevitably perhaps,
to football and as soon as I revealed my support for Coventry
City FC, his Worship instantly beamed with delight and proceeded
to enthuse over John Hartson and Craig Bellamy.
The latter, he insisted, was as
good a young player as he had seen and would become a huge star,
if not with Coventry City then with another club in due course.
As for Hartson, the Lord Mayor of
Swansea told me that he had followed the striker's career since
he was a young boy.
"No one has yet worked out
how to keep him fit for very long," he told me,"but
the club that does will benefit from as good a goal-scorer as
you'll find. He will always score goals whoever he plays for.
Always has, always will. And don't be misled by all that
nonsense about his weight. He can play football, make no
mistake about that."
Even as I write this, an old
friend with Welsh connections, has just sent a text message to
my mobile phone to tell me that he is visiting family right now.
Guess where? Yes - you're ahead of me, aren't you? - Swansea.
Part of the message reads: "Mr
Hartson is currently the top sports story here in Swansea."
So the impact our free-scoring
Welsh hero has made has been more than significant and has put
his name and that of Coventry City into the headlines throughout
Add to that the apparent change
of temperament and attitude that many have noticed in John's
eight appearances so far for the Sky Blues. Whereas he had won
himself a reputation as something of a hard man on and off the
pitch, he has conducted himself to perfection since his arrival
at Highfield Road.
If he was ever a really bad lad
on the pitch, he now has the approach of a man who knows that he
simply has to be there to be a physical presence that opponents
are not allowed to ignore.
Off the pitch, he comes across as
an absolutely polite, perfect gentleman. The term 'gentle giant'
is an old cliché of course, but it certainly fits the image
that John Hartson has established in his new surroundings.
But, as he quickly acknowledged
after scoring his sixth goal in those eight games - the winner
against Sunderland - City's late revival is not just about him,
crucial though his contribution has been.
He generously, but quite rightly,
acknowledged the "great set of lads" that were here
before he arrived. He made the point that although he has scored
the goals, which is his job after all, the chances have been
made for him by a team that has also found renewed confidence at
the back, largely through the consistency of Gary Breen and
teenage 'keeper Chris Kirkland.
In fact, throughout the side,
there really is so much to applaud right now. Marcus Hall's
return to fitness and form is welcome, not only because he is a
Coventry kid. I believe that Marcus is playing some of the best
football of his career to date.
Young Barry Quinn, though out of
position at right back, is more than worthy of his place in the
side and the Irish international squad. Paul Telfer, though
prone to the odd howler, has made a huge difference since his
return, and it can surely be no coincidence that since Telfer's
recall, Lee Carsley is showing why Gordon Strachan was so keen
to sign him.
John Eustace - not born in
Coventry, but a West Midlander none the less - must consider
himself very unlucky not to have been called up for England
Under-21 duty, while Craig Bellamy's pace and ability are now
blossoming since Hartson's presence has given him the chance to
show what he can do. Young Jay Bothroyd also gave us a glimpse
of his precocious talent against Sunderland, and we know that
David Thompson can turn a game on his day.
One man I haven't mentioned is
Richard Shaw. The oldest member of the current squad, he has not
had the best of seasons, but is now hitting form at this
critical time and made a match-winning tackle in his own penalty
area in the dying minutes against Sunderland that was as worthy
of celebration as the Hartson header which rounded off a superb
move for City's goal.
So - welcome Hartson the Hero. He
is already on the way to winning his place alongside Coventry
legends like Hudson, Mason, Gibson, Hutchinson and Curtis, but
let's also salute the team that, like so many before, finds
itself in a late, late battle for survival.