30 Day Challenges… Day 4
Day 4 of the football challenge – “A Match That Makes You Sad”. Again, I could cop out and talk about Black Sunday but there’s another game I think of that makes me sad. And oddly, we won it 2-1.
It’s May 2004. The final day of the SPL season. The league had been won weeks previous and even the trophy presentation was two weeks before it. We’d completed the whitewash of Rangers the week before by beating them for the fifth time out of five and the Scottish Cup final was still to come the following week. So under normal circumstances the home game against Dundee United should have been completely irrelevant on the fixture calendar.
But this was no ordinary season end. This was the last time Henrik Larsson would play a competitive match for Celtic in front of the 60,000 faithful in Paradise.
For seven years we’d watched one of Europe’s finest players entertain, score goals aplenty, setup others for goals aplenty, win many trophies and become Celtic’s third top scorer of all time. Seven years of memories were coming to an end.
For much of the game you wondered if the fairytale would end properly. In fact, several decent chances in the game fell to Henrik and he didn’t take them. As the game entered the final ten minutes it was still 0-0 and some – not me – thought it might be an anti-climax.
But then came a free kick. Thompson whipped it in, Henrik got in front of the United goalkeeper and headed it into the waiting net. Cue bedlam. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a relatively meaningless goal cheered so much in my life. That thought lasted three minutes before an Agathe cross was turned into the net by Henrik as well. Cue more bedlam. That was it, game won, Henrik had done it again. But there was more with this one. Now that we knew the result was secure and it was Henrik that had once more won the day, the tears started. Grown men holding them back, and even Henrik himself looked emotional celebrating the second goal with his teammates.
It wouldn’t be Celtic if we didn’t make it hard for ourselves and sure enough the last few minutes were made more tense by Varga conceding a penalty. Mark Wilson – a Celtic fan at the time and a current day Celtic player – stepped up and sent Marshall in goal the wrong way. 2-1. Fortunately this penalty didn’t spoil the day and merely served as something for Mark to one day tell the grand-kids (at least until his more recent Glasgow derby winner in the Scottish Cup) and we finished on a high.
Then it was over. Henrik’s time at Celtic Park was at an end. After the team took their end of season plaudits, they all disappeared up the tunnel. No one left. We weren’t going anywhere until Henrik came back out to say goodbye. What we didn’t know at the time was he was giving an emotional tv interview admitting how he’d miss us as much as we would miss him. But eventually the interviewer let him go and Henrik returned to say goodbye.
I think I was quite glad that day was bright and sunny. I had my sunglasses on to hide the tears. Legends don’t come round every day, but there was no doubt Henrik was one. It’s a word that gets banded about all too often, but no one argues Henrik’s status. Besides, Henrik was in tears himself so it was fine that we were!
It’s odd that this was the game that got to me. I had tickets for the Scottish Cup final, so I’d see him again. But it was at Hampden and that isn’t home. He still scored twice to help us in that final of course! He even had another game for us at Celtic Park, but it was a friendly in his name so it wasn’t the same. Although a video played that night means I still think of him any time I hear the U2 song “Bad” which they used in it with footage of how great he was for us.
I’ve even seen him three times since. He was back with Barcelona a few moths later in the Champions League and just as we thought we’d pulled the game back he came on and buried us – setting up one and scoring another. Typical Henrik. I saw him when he went back to Sweden too. I was over there for a long weekend and took in a Helsingborg game. The last time I saw him play was a testimonial for Phil O’Donnell who had sadly passed away. Phil was part of the team that “stopped the ten” – the early part of Henrik’s legend at Celtic as we won the first league title for ten years.
Henrik is no doubt the best player I’ve seen play for Celtic. The day he played his last real game at Celtic Park was the end of an era. It still makes me sad to think it’s over – it was epic.