Sky Sports Vault
They didn't call him 'big' John Hartson for nothing! As Arsenal host Manchester City at Emirates Stadium on Saturday Night Football, Sky Sports Vault rewinds to the day the teenager tore into the Premier League strugglers back in March 1996...
By Razwan Mirza - Tweet me: @RazMirza
Last Updated: 28/03/14 3:13pm
Arsenal appointed Bruce Rioch as successor to George Graham for the start of the 1995/96 season and one of the highlights from the latter Scotsman's season-long tenure in charge at Highbury was this 3-1 victory against relegation-threatened Manchester City.
The visitors were a club in transition after Peter Swales was replaced as chairman by former City striker Francis Lee. Lee wanted to bring in his own man, and in the close season he replaced Brian Horton with his former England team-mate, Alan Ball, who he managed to prise away from Southampton.
With Manchester United and Newcastle United going hammer and tongs at each other for the title in one of the most iconic seasons in Premier League history, the new Gunners' boss was still getting to grips with life in North London after arriving from Bolton Wanderers.
Arsenal were looking to improve on the previous season's disappointment of finishing in 12th position and vice-chairman David Dean handed Rioch the funds to bring in David Platt from Sampdoria and Dennis Bergkamp from Inter Milan as they looked to re-establish themselves as title contenders.
They started the season with just one defeat from their opening 10 league fixtures, including a 1-0 victory at Maine Road thanks to a stoppage-time winner from Ian Wright. Following defeat in the North London derby to Tottenham Hotspur in November, the Gunners struggled for form over Christmas and New Year, losing four of their next six fixtures. They also blew their best chance of silverware in February when they went out of the League Cup at the semi-final stage to eventual winners Aston Villa.
Arsenal did go into the match against City at Highbury undefeated in three games, though, having secured back-to-back wins over Nottingham Forest and West Ham United as well as a hard-earned draw against Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road.
Missing that Tuesday evening was their main source of goals, Ian Wright. The England striker had scored 30 goals in all competitions the previous season. But the home team were proving to be a dominant force at Highbury during the course of their league campaign and even without the services of Wright they hoped everything would work out just fine on the night.
Rioch was forced to call upon the most expensive teenager in British football to support Bergkamp in attack as the Londoners looked to keep alive their hopes of clinching an automatic spot in Europe after going out of the League Cup.
Hartson joined the club in a £2.5million deal from Luton Town and was one of Graham's last signings before his sacking in February 1995. The 6ft 1in ginger-haired Welsh hulk was still a growing boy and one of the players who started alongside him that afternoon was Arsenal playmaker turned Sky Sports pundit Paul Merson.
Merson could instantly recognise that Hartson was a talent that needed nurturing and made sure he settled into life at Arsenal without too much trouble. Merson joked: "He was very big - and I mean very big. I used to think, 'he can't be that young', because he was an absolute mountain of a man. Someone like Peter Crouch is tall but thin, whereas John Hartson was built like a rugby player. He was a good player, who put himself about and could always score a goal. He was as brave as anything and I loved playing with him. I was good friends with John off the pitch, too. I was a lot older than him and while I would not say I helped him exactly, I was there to get him to settle in and we would hang around together."
Hartson made a dream start to the game against the blue half of Manchester, scoring the opening goal after 29 minutes. The striker killed Lee Dixon's long-pass stone dead before cleverly dipping his audacious 25-yard attempt over the advanced Eike Immel. The goalkeeper was only a yard off his line but it was enough for Hartson to send it floating over him and into the back of the net.
"I remember that," Merson recalled. "It was a great goal. It dipped over the goalkeeper's head, which is what I remember most about it."
Four minutes before the break, it was 2-0 and it came from a most unlikely source. Dixon rarely scored in Arsenal colours, but with the 3-5-2 formation in fashion at the time, the full-back was given licence to bomb forward, especially at Highbury. Even still, this goal happened to be a real collector's item.
After picking up Bergkamp's sumptuous crossfield pass, the defender strode forward and rifled his prodigious shot beyond Immel's left-hand post. The home faithful were amazed by the strike, as was a stunned Merson, who was occupying the wide left midfield role at the time.
"That is right," said Merson. "He certainly did not score many! I remember one of his goals - and it was an own goal. He managed to score one from the half-way line in the first five minutes - and even though we thought we would go on and win, we were not able to do it. Dicko' never really got a lot of goals, so this game against City will be remembered for that!"
Nine minutes after half-time, City pulled a goal back through Gerry Creaney, who had joined the club in a part-exchange deal from Portsmouth. Paul Walsh was the man who went the other way.
The Scottish striker could not miss in front of goal after excellent work to set him up from cultured midfielder Nigel Clough. It proved to be a rare goal for Creaney, who went on to score just four goals for the club that season.
There was little time for celebrations, though, because Arsenal restored their two-goal cushion immediately from the re-start as Merson steamrollered his way down the left before landing his cross on Harton's big toe in the six-yard box.
The 34,519 in attendance at Highbury that night witnessed a glimpse of the mercurial talent that was John Hartson.
The Swansea-born striker ended up scoring four goals in his 19 League appearances that term. Victory took the Gunners from seventh position up to fifth and that is where they stayed for the rest of the season, earning a place in the UEFA Cup.
It was not what the Arsenal supporters had been dreaming about at the start of the Rioch era and although he tried to instil his philosophy of playing the beautiful game, a lack of understanding and conflict ultimately cost him his job, according to Merson.
"He was different," said the former England man. "I do not think he understood the size of the club and - this might sound weird - I do not think he understood the size of London. He came from Bolton and said all the players would drive in together in the same car - but that did not happen at Arsenal. Ian Wright lived in Crystal Palace and I was in St Albans so we were an hour-and-a-half away from each other! He did not understand that everybody lived all over the place.
"One thing he did do is sign the greatest Arsenal player of all time - Dennis Bergkamp. You can never take that away from him and people forget that. He also brought in David Platt, another top drawer player, so it was not all wrong!
"He [Rioch] was a lovely bloke and wanted to play total football. I will always remember when we were losing a game and lumped the ball forward in the last 15 minutes and he went mad in the dressing room at full-time. He wanted us to keep on passing.
"I remember in training once, Martin Keown was playing in midfield in a practice match and the ball bounced and Martin helped it on. Bruce stopped the game and went mad. He wanted him to get the ball down and play - he was brilliant like that.
"However, he tried to take Wrighty on and it did not work. They had a bit of conflict and there was only going to be one winner. We got in the UEFA Cup at the end of that season, but it was not great."
As for City, well, they drew 2-2 with Liverpool on the final day of the season, but the other relegation-threatened teams fared better, and they went down on goal difference after seven successive seasons in the top flight.