Remembering when John Hartson booted Eyal Berkovic in the face
They say that in football, goals change games.
Yet for John Hartson, it was an altogether different kind of strike, using his unfavoured left foot, that ended up changing the course of two careers and one club in the Premier League.
Back in September 1998, Hartson could do no wrong in the eyes of most West Ham fans. Signed from Arsenal for a record £3.2million in February 1997, Hartson had hit the ground running, scoring five goals in the league to help the Hammers steer clear of relegation.
Even better was to come in his first full campaign, with the Welshman finishing the 1997-98 season with 24 goals in 42 games across all competitions – a tally not bettered by a West Ham striker since.
Having failed to live up to the hype at Arsenal following his £2.5million arrival from Luton as a 19-year-old in January 1995, in what was a British record fee for a teenager, Hartson was once more attracting admiring glances from the Premier League’s elite.
Manchester United were among those linked to Hartson with assistant manager Brian Kidd and chairman Martin Edwards said to be especially fond of the forward such had his stock risen.
But it would soon come crashing down. West Ham manager Harry Redknapp had high hopes for the 1998-99 campaign. Hartson had been retained alongside promising youngsters like Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard.
There was another reason for Redknapp to be optimistic too: Eyal Berkovic.
The Israeli playmaker had already made a big impression in the Premier League during a season-long loan at Southampton over the 1996-97 campaign, starring in a 6-3 demolition of eventual champions Manchester United in which he scored twice and claimed three assists.
Redknapp pulled off something of a coup the following summer to sign the diminutive attacking midfielder for £1.75 million from parent club Maccabi Haifa with Berkovic making scoring the winner on his debut in a 2-1 victory over Tottenham at Upton Park.
While Hartson dominated the headlines over the course of the 1997-98 campaign, Berkovic was arguably the team’s most influential player with eight goals and 14 assists to his name.
Together, Hartson and Berkovic appeared to enjoy a telepathic understanding on the pitch, with the highlight coming in a 2-1 win over Liverpool in September 1997 in which both players scored and assisted each other.
Just under a year later, the two teams met again with a near-identical outcome; West Ham won 2-1 with Hartson and Berkovic again on the scoresheet. But while everything was going well on the pitch, within a week all hell had broken loose at the training ground.
Worse still, Sky Sports had been there to capture it all.
In his autobiography, ‘Please Don’t Go: Big John’s Journey Back to Life’ Hartson claimed the catalyst for what unfolded that fateful day was a midweek cup defeat and some ill-advised advice from the Welshman to Redknapp.
“We were beaten 2-0 by Northampton in our last League Cup game,” he wrote. “Harry Redknapp asks what went wrong. I respect Harry and we are friends… I give it to him from the heart. I am trying to help Harry help us win. I say: ‘I wouldn’t play Eyal away from home.’”
According to Hartson, Berkovic was in earshot and did not take too kindly to his team-mate’s suggestion that he be dropped. “It infuriates Eyal, his dark eyes blaze like coals, he accuses me of not running for the ball away from home or any other time,” Hartson writes. “He is mad as hell.”
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With tensions running high, Berkovic decided to do his talking on the pitch during a training game. Pitted against each other for what was supposed to be a good-natured practice game, the Israeli decided to prove a point.
“We were playing a game in training, it was 5-0 or something,” team-mate Ferdinand told BT Sport. “Eyal Berkovic was always on the best team and his team invariably won.”
The flashpoint came when John Moncur rolled the ball to Hartson. Sensing an opportunity to squash any suggestion he didn’t pull his weight defensively and silence his biggest critic, Berkovic closed in.
According to Ferdinand, Berkovic “nicked the ball off Johnny, and was running with it, laughing.” By then, he recalled several players had begun urging the coaches to stop the game because “it could end in tears.”
It was even worse than they could have imagined.
As the damning pictures and video footage later showed, Hartson immediately saw red, chasing after Berkovic before scything the midfielder down with a horrendous tackle from behind.
The challenge left Berkovic sprawled out on the pitch, evidently in pain. Hartson was apparently unconvinced though and went over to try and help the Israeli to his feet with Ferdinand claiming the forward told Berkovic to “stop being silly.”
Berkovic evidently did not take well to this intervention with Ferdinand recalling the midfielder shouting “Get, off, what are you doing?” while on his knees, before thumping Hartson on the leg.
Hartson offered his own version of events during a frank discussion on talkSPORT.
“Eyal Berkovic nicked it off me, I gave it away as my touch was poor, I gave it away and he’s ran 15-20 yards and I’ve chased him back and to try and win the ball,” he said.
“I tackled him from behind and as you can see from the pictures I tried to pick him up and he has sort of thrown a punch that hit me in the hip, didn’t hurt and I never felt it, and I just lashed out.”
What followed became headline news with Hartson instinctively swivelling around before unleashing a powerful left-footed kick that connected squarely with Berkovic’s jaw.
“I kick him hard, like I’m trying to score a goal with his head,” Hartson wrote in his book. Berkovic, who has rarely spoken about the incident, did at least agree with the Welshman in that respect, telling reporters: “If my head had been a ball, it would have been in the top corner of the net.”
“He was lucky it was his left foot and not his right,” Ferdinand said. “The noise was unbelievable, he was screaming.”
John Hartson vs Eyal Berkovic. pic.twitter.com/Cpklhy9v7O
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) December 22, 2020
What followed was chaos, with team-mates intervening to move Hartson away from Berkovic while the midfielder clutched at his jaw in obvious agony and lucky not to have suffered a more severe injury.
Joe Cole, still a youngster yet to break through at the club, was training with the youth team nearby. “’I was on the pitch next to it and I just heard the noise,” he told BT Sport.
West Ham’s captain and resident hardman Julian Dicks, meanwhile, had decided that day of all days to bring his young daughters to the training ground. According to Ferdinand, they witnessed the whole thing with one of the two heard shouting “Daddy he’s crying.”
That was bad enough but the fact that Sky Sports had been invited to film and take pictures at the training session took the story to a whole other level.
Hartson’s kick made front-page headlines and featured on the 10 o’clock news with Trevor McDonald. The Mirror interviewed several fans at the time to gauge the feeling among supporters. It wasn’t good.
“I never want to see Hartson wear the claret and blue again,” one season ticket holder told the tabloid. “I am ashamed to support West Ham at the moment,” another declared, describing the kick as ABH or “Assault on Berkovic by Hartson.”
Redknapp went into damage limitation mode, fining Hartson £10,000 with the fee donated to a children’s leukaemia charity. TV cameras were also banned from the training ground, with Redknapp evidently angered at Sky’s decision to publicize the footage.
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“I am disappointed with Sky, because we let them in to take some training pictures,” he said. “That is what happens when you try to do people favours. They stitch you up.”
Redknapp insisted there was no major issue with the two players though with the pair eventually posing for a picture together on the West Ham training ground to prove all was happy among the Hammers.
However, within four months Berkovic had left the club, joining Celtic for £5.75 million.
Hartson, meanwhile, endured a torrent of bad press that saw him dispatched to France at one point to train away from the media glare.
When he did take to the pitch he failed to hit the same heights as before, scoring just four more times in the Premier League for West Ham before joining Wimbledon in a £7.5 million deal in January 1999.
Just a few weeks after joining the Dons, Hartson was fined a further £20,000 and hit with a three-game ban over the incident, despite Berkovic sending the FA a letter of support for his former team-mate.
Reflecting on the incident a few years later, Hartson singled the kick out as the “biggest regret” of his life.
“The Eyal Berkovic incident really blighted my career. It’s something I deeply regret,” he told MailSport in 2010. “People just thought, ‘John Hartson – that big bleeding hard nut from Swansea.’ But I let myself down.
“Eyal is a terrific fella and he made a lot of my goals at West Ham. I get asked about it all the time. But when you do something that thuggish you rightly get a reputation.”
The kick certainly changed the lives of all those involved.
In Hartson’s absence, West Ham turned to another mercurial talent, Paolo Di Canio, with similarly combustible results. Hartson was eventually relegated with Wimbledon before joining Coventry where he repeated the feat. He eventually rediscovered his prolific form during a trophy-laden stint at Celtic.
Berkovic, meanwhile, returned to England in time after a disappointing spell in Scotland, first with Manchester City and later at Portsmouth, where he reunited with Harry Redknapp.
Hartson and Berkovic eventually came face to face in 2015, following a chance encounter in a cafe in Israel where they shared a drink. Thankfully, this time it was a much happier affair.