DURING the 15 years that he spent playing professionally with the likes of Arsenal, West Ham and Celtic, John Hartson grew quite accustomed to the highs and lows of top level football.

Since hanging up his boots and moving into broadcasting, the Welshman has provided expert analysis on countless dramatic matches both in Scotland and further afield.

Yet, he has still found being a co-commentator for ITV at Qatar 2022, a tournament which has thrown up more shock results than any World Cup in living memory, to be an utterly exhilarating, totally nerve-wracking and downright discombobulating experience.

“It has been incredible,” said Hartson from Doha yesterday as he looked back over the past fortnight.

“I did the Germany game against Costa Rica last week. Germany had Serge Gnabry, Thomas Muller, Jamal Musiala, Leroy Sane, Kai Havertz and Ilkay Gundogan playing for them. They could have scored a bucketful of goals with those guys in the team.

“But the courage and spirit that Costa Rica showed was fantastic. At one point, they were leading and were going to qualify. Who would have thought that was possible? it was a game that ebbed and flowed. The table must have changed every five minutes. It must have changed six or seven times.”

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Hartson’s admiration for his colleagues, who he worked alongside last year during the rescheduled Euro 2020 finals, was considerable before he flew over to the Middle East last month.

But his respect for the likes of Jon Champion, Tom Gayle, Seb Hutchinson, Sam Matterface, Clive Tyldesley and Joe Speight has increased further as highly-fancied nations and former winners have suffered inexplicable defeats and made ignominious early exits amid extyraordinary scenes.

“These guys are just masters at their trade,” he said. “The preparation they do going into games is incredible. There have been a lot of matches in quick succession, but it is part of the job. They are so, so professional. They have to get everything absolutely spot on.

“I was speaking to Clive Tyldesley out here the other day. He is doing his seventh World Cup. This is my first. I love working with all of them. It has just been a real privilege to be involved in the role that I have had.”

Hartson has taken his co-commentaries at Qatar 2022 every bit as seriously as his sidekicks.

He appreciates that competition for places in the commentary booth is as ferocious as it was for a berth in the first team starting line-up when he was a player. He is also well aware there is little if any margin for error when he is in front of the microphone.

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 “I have been doing this for 15 years now,” he said. “When I finished playing football I signed a three year contract with Setanta Sports. A gentleman called Colin Davidson gave me my chance. Terry Butcher and I travelled up and down the country covering SPL games. I have done all the big shows since, Football Focus, Match of the Day, BT Sport, Sky Sports.

“But you have got to stay in the game. I don’t know how many footballers retire every year. A couple of thousand maybe? A lot of them want your job, want to go into the media. A lot of them have good looks and are very articulate as well.

“Maybe you have producers and editors who support a certain team and want to give them a chance.  It is so precarious. Every time you do a show it could be your last one. So I try to do every show to the very best of my ability and be the best version of myself.

“Listen, when I played I wasn’t the lightest and I wasn’t the quickest. But I did what I had to do to get to the pinnacle. I played in the Champions League, in the Premier League, in European finals. So I take the same approach now as I did before.”

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As blessed as he feels to be a part of the ITV team at Qatar 2022, there has been a downside to his involvement. Online abuse is an inevitable and often chilling reality of modern life for somebody in the public eye. So it is unsurprising that Hartson has been targeted after covering games which have been watched by millions across the United Kingdom.  

“You can do nine shows and nail every one,” he said. “Then you can do a 10th show and get a word wrong or a phrase wrong. I suppose everybody makes a mistake in life. But the abuse you get from trolls is overwhelming.

“I have got about 400,000 Twitter followers. When I log in after a match I get messages saying ‘I can’t believe ITV employ you’ or ‘by the way, it’s Gnabry not Nabry’. You get all these little pedantic comments.

“These people must be so unhappy, they must be miserable in their own lives. I choose to be on social media. I post pictures to try to give people an insight into what I am doing. But I could quite easily just press a button and come off it.”

Fortunately, the World Cup debutant has found his fellow pundits, no doubt because they understand the pressures and pitfalls of their particular line of work only too well, to be completely supportive in the oil-rich Arab state.

“We have been staying in a beautiful hotel called The Hilton Doha Pearl in an affluent part of Doha,” he said. “Well, I suppose all of Doha is affluent isn’t it? Anyway, there is a room we can all go into to get a coffee, relax and have a chat. I have met up with Gary Neville, Roy Keane, Ian Wright and Lee Dixon since I have been here. Everybody has been great, really encouraging and helpful.”

Hartson has savoured seeing Croatia, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Tunisia and the United States in action over in Qatar. Watching his beloved Wales take part in their first World Cup since 1958 and only their second ever, though, has not given him so much pleasure.  

Gareth Bale and his team mates proved unable to scale the heights they had at Euro 2016, when they went all the way to the semi-finals, or even Euro 2020, when they made it through to the knockout rounds. They finished bottom of Group B after failing to win any of their fixtures.  

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“I can tell you the one game I didn’t enjoy working at,” he said. “Wales against England! I didn’t enjoy that one bit. I was in amongst a lot of England fans and didn’t enjoy it at all. Ach, it was all banter.

“Wales were fantastic in terms of their supporters. But they were quite miserable on the field. Too many of their players, for whatever reason, didn’t get to the levels which you would expect of them.

“My old Celtic gaffer Martin O’Neill used to say that you can maybe carry two or possibly three players if the others are at it. But when there are six, seven, eight not at their level then you are going to struggle.

“That is what happened to Wales. They didn’t produce the level of performance that they did when they beat Austria or Ukraine or drew with Belgium. If you have got seven, eight or nine guys not on it you are not going to win. It is such a hard tournament.

“But in a way I can understand it. Gareth Bale wasn’t fully fit, Aaron Ramsey has only started in a handful of games this season and Joe Allen had been out for two months. These guys have been so good for Wales for so many years.”

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Hartson continued: “We had players like Ryan Giggs, Craig Bellamy, Ian Rush, Mark Hughes and Neville Southall in the past and never qualified. It is really incredible to think that none of those guys ever got to a major tournament.

“We have had a wonderful 10 years under Chris Coleman and Rob Page. We did brilliantly to get to our first World Cup in 64 years.”

So does Hartson think that England, who booked a quarter-final date with holders France thanks to an emphatic 3-0 triumph over Senegal in Al Khor on Sunday evening, can go all of the way in Qatar having watched them in action at close quarters?  

“England have always got a chance,” he said. “That was the difference between England and Wales for me. One team was there to try and win the World Cup, the other team was just happy to be at the World Cup.

“They are strong in every area. They have been to the semi-finals and final of the last two tournaments they have played in, Russia 2018 and Euro 2020. They could go all the way. But I don’t think they will win it.

“I think France, Argentina, Brazil have just got something different. They have got superstars. They have Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi, Vinicius Jnr, Neymar. They have got the X Factor which I think England don’t have.”  

Celtic are never far from the thoughts of a man who has the Parkhead club’s crest and the words “You’ll Never Walk Alone” tattooed to his arm. He has been pleased to see Cameron Carter-Vickers (United States), Josip Juranovic (Croatia), Daizen Maeda (Japan) and Aaron Mooy (Australia) help their countries make it through to the last 16.

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“It was incredible to think that Kyogo Furuhashi and Reo Hatate didn’t make the Japan squad given how good they have been for Celtic this season,” he said. “But I suppose that shows you how strong they are and why they topped their group. And Daizen Maeda was there and involved which was great to see.

“My daughter Rebecca has been living over in Sydney for a few years now. She shares an apartment with three of her friends and works in recruitment. I am so proud of her. She told me all about the scenes over there when Australia got through to the last 16. There were celebrations in the streets.

“Aaron Mooy was pivotal to it all. I always thought he was a good player. I saw him play for Huddersfield and Brighton before he came to Celtic so I knew what he was capable of. He has had a big role for Australia, has really been strutting his stuff. They did well in their last 16 match against Argentina even though they lost.”

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Hartson is unconcerned about the Celtic quartet’s extended spells over in Qatar taking a toll on them mentally and physically and having a detrimental impact on the Scottish champions’ bid to land domestic silverware when club football resumes later this month. He is confident the opposite will be the case.

“I won 50 odd caps for my country,” he said. “It was always nice to have that little bit of time away from your club.

“These guys are fit. It is not like 15 years ago. They have sports scientists monitoring them now. They won’t do much training in between games, they will have ice baths and what they are eating will be watched closely.

“If anything, going to the World Cup and getting through the group stages will give them a boost when they go back to their clubs. I am sure the other Celtic players will be proud of what they achieved and congratulate them.”