You Are My Larsson
Has it really been ten years since Henrik played his last competitive game at home for Celtic?
Well, yes it has.
On the 16th of May 2004, Celtic played Dundee United in the 38th and final league game of a tremendously successful season. Having been crowned champions at Rugby Park four weeks earlier, all that was really left to do was keep the team on their toes ahead of the Scottish Cup final the following week. The unbeaten record in the league had finally tumbled in a midweek game at home to Aberdeen just days after victory in Kilmarnock, and the midweek draw at Motherwell four days prior to the final match had ended Celtic’s quest to reach the 100 points total for the second time in three seasons. The 100th league goal of the season had already come from a young Aiden McGeady at Tynecastle in the first game after the split so the Dundee United match really only served one purpose: saying goodbye.
The funny thing was, this wasn’t technically goodbye. Henrik would play in the Scottish Cup final at Hampden, and even those fans who didn’t have a ticket for the showpiece event would have another chance to say goodbye at Henrik’s farewell match against Sevilla a few days after the final. But as much as it wasn’t technically goodbye, everyone knew that emotionally it would be. A friendly can never match a competitive game, and Hampden just isn’t home no matter how often Celtic may go there to play.
And so, on that sunny May day in Glasgow, Celtic Park filled for the final time in the hope that not only could Celtic sign off with a win but that Larsson would get on the scoresheet one last time.
For the longest time, it didn’t quite go to plan. Paul Gallacher in the Dundee United goal had a save or two to make from Larsson, but at times Henrik almost seemed to be trying too hard as he uncharacteristically missed some chances you’d almost put your mortgage on him scoring in the previous seven years. But anyone who had the privilege to watch Henrik play for Celtic knew that it was never over. So with just nine minutes remaining of the game, Alan Thompson sent a dangerous free kick into the box. For some reason, Gallacher reckoned he could get to it and came rushing off his line. He never did. Henrik’s head sent the ball beyond the rushing goalkeeper and into the empty net.
With “The Magnificent Seven” playing over the PA system and the crowd going wild despite the meaninglessness of the game itself, everyone had the fitting end they wanted. But, this is Henrik Larsson. So rather than just scoring once he scored again five minutes later. This time a Didier Agathe cross found Larsson beating his defender to the ball to guide it into the top corner of the net before rushing off with his arms outstretched.
Both goals came at the Jock Stein stand end of the ground. I was in the Lisbon Lions stand at the opposite end of the ground so what I didn’t know at the time was that as Henrik ran off in celebration of his second goal he had tears in his eyes. As he hugged Agathe and was surrounded by the rest of his teammates, he wasn’t the only one in the ground that did. The game was won and we all knew it, and once again it had been Larsson that had made the vital difference. Oh how we’d miss him when he left.
Of course, the game wasn’t quite won. There was still time for Stanislav Varga to concede a penalty for a foul on Jason Scotland! But that just added to the story as Mark Wilson – a future Celtic player himself – put away the penalty and added himself as an interest footnote to a big day in the memories of all who were there. It was only a consolation and, as the full time whistle blew with Celtic winning 2-1, we all stayed behind. The team disappeared inside for a bit before most of them come back out to salute the fans. After a few more moments, Larsson himself emerged once again.
As we and many of his teammates waited, Henrik gave this interview to the BBC along side manager Martin O’Neill. Unsurprisingly, he was man of the match.
When he came back out, there were more tears. From Henrik, from the fans in the stand, and from myself. I was quite glad I had my sunglasses on that day – not that I had to worry about being emotional. Even though I had tickets for the two remaining games, I knew this was the emotional goodbye and I felt every minute of it.
As a kid, I had my Celtic heroes like everyone else. Paul Elliott, John Collins and Pierre Van Hooijdonk were the guys I looked up to from the days I took an interest in football through to the end of my school days. It took a while, but Henrik soon joined them – never more so than when he opened the scoring on the day Celtic finally won the league again in 1998. I couldn’t remember the centenary season so this was my first real taste of being champions and he had played such a huge part.
Over the years that followed I watched him score an impossible goal at Fir Park having been surrounded by four defenders at the same time, I watched in horror as he broke his leg in Lyon and then I watched in delight as he returned just in time for Euro 2000. After that, he went from being a football hero to a living legend and my all time favourite as he helped Celtic win the treble for the first times since the 60s and scored 53 goals himself in the process.
He took us into the Champions League group stages for the first time and we had some amazing nights there. After we dropped into the UEFA Cup I saw him score an amazing goal against my favourite goalkeeper of the time – Santiago Canizares – to take us all the way to a dramatic penalty shootout… where he missed! But the following season he was phenomenal as the “Celtic to win, Larsson to score” bet my dad kept putting on practically paid for us to go to Seville as it kept coming in. He may have missed the round against Stuttgart after a cheekbone injury but he was a massive influence in the other rounds. I almost punched the ceiling of my parents’ house when I jumped up in delight as he scored the winner against Boavista!
Despite the result, Seville is an experience will live with me forever. To think I saw my team in a major European final and I celebrated not once but twice as Larsson pulled us level is still a little surreal even eleven years on. And I still haven’t worked out how anyone can swerve a header like Henrik did for the first goal!
But his final season with us was my favourite of the seven. To win the league without defeat until after it was clinched was terrific. Another exciting, if ultimately disappointing, Champions League group stage campaign was enjoyable… but not half as much as actually knocking Barcelona out of the UEFA Cup. We had beaten some good teams the previous season but nothing came close to that. And then there was the whitewash of Rangers – five games, five victories. Even in the dark days of the 90s, Rangers hadn’t quite managed to do that to us.
When Larsson left, it was the end of an era. An end to a wonderful period of Celtic history and one that I just hadn’t seen anything like prior to it. The great players in Europe don’t come to Scotland any more, nor do we grow them. I wish that were different. Not just for me or for Celtic, but for Henrik as well. Many think he was wasted playing in Scotland. Others suggest he wasn’t as good as we made out because he played in Scotland. Fortunately, although his performances for Celtic in Europe should have been more than enough to knock that nonsense on the head, I think he did a good job of changing that opinion even after he left us.
If being man of the match in the UEFA Cup final and knocking Barcelona out the following season wasn’t enough, Henrik went to Barcelona and won them a second European Cup. Make no mistake, Barcelona were going nowhere in that 2006 final against Arsenal – despite having an extra man – until he came off the bench. 1-0 down became 2-1 in front as Henrik set up both goals for Eto’o and Belletti. I think most of the Celtic fan base had a smile that night when Henrik got his hands on the cup with the big ears, and certainly when Thierry Henry’s interview picked him out as the man who made the difference. He didn’t see Ronaldinho or Eto’o – names that were ranked among the world’s best at the time – he saw Larsson.
After that, Henrik went home to Helsingborg. I even went to see him over there once, and although he didn’t score that day it was still wonderful to see him in action one last time. He’s even been back at Celtic Park for the odd charity match and although I’m now in my 30s I still get excited at the prospect of seeing him. If he’s playing, I’m like a kid again.
It might have been ten years since he played a competitive game for Celtic, but thinking back to that day still makes me emotional even now. He was always going to go at some point, but it didn’t make it any easier when that day finally came. Ten years on, “The Magnificent Seven” is still his theme tune. I haven’t connected with another Celtic player like it since and I probably never will. Henrik came along as my love of football was peaking. The older I get, the more my priorities shift away from the game. Not only that, Celtic haven’t had a player of his talent since, and as the bigger leagues grow every bigger and more lurative, so too the chances of seeing truly world class players playing for Celtic diminish. Something has to change there – be it the way football is set up or the attitude of the best footballers to the game – for another Henrik Larsson to pass through Parkhead’s gates.
Sadly, Henrik is a dying breed. He could have moved away from Celtic for more money, but he didn’t want to. He stayed where he was happy and where he was adored and where he could win trophies and medals. When he did finally decide to move on, he still managed to go to a big club and win football’s biggest prize!
That’s not to say I haven’t had new footballing heroes since Larsson left. Shunsuke Nakamura was terrific but as good as he was he was no Larsson. More recently Joe Ledley and Gary Hooper have both disappointed me when they left for England. Even then, neither of them come anywhere near close to Henrik. I have no doubt that the future will see yet more Celtic players that I’ll become emotionally attached to, but you suspect the better ones won’t stay at Celtic for long. Nevertheless, I’d like to think some will stick around long enough to draw the attention of my son in the way my early heroes did – although Paul Elliott managed it with me in just two years, so I’m still hopeful of that much.
I’d love to think that some day my son will have his own version of Henrik Larsson, the way my dad had Kenny Dalglish. Maybe this as yet unknown Celtic legend will even do what Larsson did for my dad – make him change his mind about the best Celtic player he ever saw. That would be something to behold!
But it will work both ways. Just as my dad told me stories of Kenny Dalglish, I’ll tell my son stories of Henrik Larsson. And among all of those stories, knowing full well how football works, I’ll try to convey one simple truth.
Celtic players come and go, but Celtic legends like Henrik Larsson live in your heart forever.