FORMER CELTIC striker John Hartson will tell next week how his love of the Highlands helped him overcome testicular cancer and how he also beat a gambling addiction that almost cost him his marriage.
Five years after life saving surgery, Hartson will reveal in a new BBC Alba documentary, how he set himself a target of climbing 4409-feet high Ben Nevis - Britain’s highest mountain - as part of his recovery during a visit to his parents in-law in nearby Fort William.
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The Ben Nevis climb is now an annual event with friends and supporters raising funds for a charity founded by Hartson, but his wife Sarah reveals her husband initially wasn’t fully aware of the scale of the challenge he had committed himself to.
“The Highlands hold a special place in my heart in terms of my recovery and just me as a person,” Hartson, 39, tells narrator Alex O’Henley.
“My in-laws live here and they’re a big part of my life. They are wonderful grandparents to my children. The children love coming up here, I love coming up here and we call this place The Cave because I can come here and just turn my phone off, switch off and just have a nice chill out time here. If I just want to relax and take myself away from the limelight this is a unique place for me. I love the Highlands.”
His wife added:”I don’t know if it was the Highland air but sitting in the garden out the back he looked at me and said, ‘I am going to climb that mountain when I get better; I am going to climb Ben Nevis.
“But it wasn’t actually Ben Nevis! It was a high mountain but it wasn’t Ben Nevis. But I just left him with that thought and almost eight months later that’s exactly what he did.
“John especially, more so than me, wants to come up here. He gets on very well with my mum and they have a lot of banter together. But he loves the area and loves to get away from it all up here. He can relax and always gets a good reception from the people of Lochaber and he really, really enjoys it.”
Hartson, who also played for Arsenal and West Ham, also talks openly about his gambling addiction which has troubled the Welshman since his days as a young professional at Luton Town. Three years have passed since he last placed a bet but Hartson still attends Gamblers Anonymous in his native Swansea twice a week and admits he almost lost his wife Sarah over his continued gambling as he recovered from cancer.
“One morning Sarah got up quite early and said that she was leaving me if I carried on gambling,” said the former Welsh international.
“She could no longer sit back and watch me put myself through what I was putting myself through. She told me in no uncertain terms, ‘I am going this afternoon and I am leaving you and I’m taking these girls with me’. That was just an incredible moment for me, a sad moment and a very serious moment in my life.
“They say you have to hit rock bottom if you’re an addict, whether it’s drinking, whether it’s drugs, whether it’s any sort of addiction, and it was the same with myself with the gambling. That was rock bottom for me. I would just as well not be here because what am I without my family? I am nothing.
“Three years is a long time but I’m a baby compared to some of the other guys in the fellowship who have been twenty years clean and I want to get to that mark if I can. I’ll be going to meetings until I’m 70 years of age, if I’m lucky enough to live till I’m 70 because what is two hours out of my week. It’s nothing if it’s keeping me clean. I just see it as picking up my medicine once or twice a week and I will continue to go.”
Sarah added:”I am as proud of him for recovering from being a gambling addict as I am of him recovering from cancer.
“The gambling was always there. I never realised how bad it was until John became very ill because then I had to take charge of the finances and he hid a lot from me. So when I did start to look and delve in and take charge I realised how bad the problem was.”
In the documentary ‘Big John’ on Thursday, Hartson, his family and doctors describe the emergency operations and the night he almost died, with contributions also from former team-mates and managers including Neil Lennon, Martin O’Neill, Alan Shearer and Robbie Savage.
•‘Big John’ was produced by Avanti Media for BBC ALBA and is narrated by football broadcaster and commentator Alex O’Henley. It will be shown on BBC ALBA on Thursday at 9.00pm with a repeat showing two nights later on Saturday December 20 at 11.00pm.
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