Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The King of Kings

Sometimes teachers give children good advice and sometimes they are well off the mark. Lise Lotte Johanson was an experienced Primary school teacher who had heard many young children talking about their impossible dreams in school. Among the wannabe astronauts, Film stars and Presidents was a skinny boy with sallow skin and a distinctive mop of hair. She recalls telling this tousle haired nine year old that he should stick at his academic studies as he was unlikely to make a living playing football. The young lad refused to listen and continued to dream of growing up and becoming a professional football player. The lad’s name was, of course, Henrik Edward Larsson and I, for one, am glad he chose to ignore his teacher.

Every once in a while a player comes along and you simply feel in your bones that you are watching one of the true greats to wear those Hoops. I have been blessed in my time following Celtic to see some tremendous players wear those famous shirts with grace and distinction. We have had great club men like McStay, McGrain, McNeil, Lennox and Burns. We have had extraordinary talents like Di Canio, Jinky and Dalglish. However, the contribution Henrik Larsson made to Celtic was simply incredible given he had just 7 short seasons in the green. Not just his 242 goals in 315 games. Not even his current British Club record of 34 goals in European competition. Henrik was an all-round player who brought others into the game and would create as many goals as he scored with his tireless running and team ethic. He would harass defenders even during games in which Celtic had built up a comfortable lead. He was a consummate professional who trained well, looked after himself and lived a fairly quiet life for a professional sports star.  He was a dedicated family man and a dedicated football player. He grew to love Celtic FC and we certainly grew to love him.

We all have our special memories of Henrik. From the perfection of his chip over Klos to the goals in Seville which marked him out as a very special player. His role in stopping the ‘Ten’ in 1998 is legendary as are his 15 goals in 30 Old Firm games; a tally which scarcely describes his all-round contribution to Celtic’s victories in many of those matches. From the Treble and 53 goals in 2001 to the heartbreak and pride of Seville, Henrik carried himself with humility and dignity. He once said of Seville that he would give up much of what he had achieved at Celtic to have won that game. Perhaps in time he’ll see that Seville restored Celtic’s reputation as a proud European Club again as well as showing our fans at their sporting best. Larsson put up with a lot of rough treatment from defenders who simply couldn’t contain him in a fair manner. He fought back from serious injuries such as a broken jaw and one of the worst leg breaks I’ve ever witnessed. He knew he had to go in where it hurt to get his goals and once said…

"Before a game, I always tell myself that it will hurt and it should hurt. I know I am bloody strong, stronger than them."

This steely determination allied to an excellent all-round game built on speed of thought, agility and excellent finishing made Henrik Larsson one of the most prolific strikers in Celtic’s history. His goals to games ratio is only bettered by Jimmy McGrory. He sits third in Celtic all time scorers list behind the great McGrory and the lightning fast Bobby Lennox. Amazingly, Lennox is just 31 goals ahead of Larsson despite playing in 572 matches to Larsson’s 315 for Celtic. But this excellent footballer was also a man who thought about the game too. When he thought Celtic were being disrespected by an arrogant Grahame Souness and Blackburn Rovers who said their UEFA Cup tie was ‘Men against Boys’ Larsson surprised the interviewer on live UK wide TV following Celtic’s triumph in the away tie by saying;

 ‘We were shit in Glasgow but they should learn a lesson, never talk until the game is finished.’

Many tears were shed when Larsson left Celtic. He had a hatful of medals and a head full of memories of seven fantastic years. His final appearance was a typical Larsson performance. Two goals against Dundee United left us with a feeling that he’d be a hard act to follow. Of course, we enjoyed watching him play for Barcelona and finally win a Champions League medal after turning a losing position into a winning one with skill and movement we of the green persuasion had savoured for seven happy seasons.  Losing Arsenal Star Thierry Henry was in no doubt about the vital factor in that Final. He couldn’t hide his admiration for the little Swede after the game and said…

"People always talk about Ronaldinho, Eto'o, Giuly and everything, but I didn't see them today, I saw Henrik Larsson. He came on, he changed the game, that is what killed the game. Sometimes you talk about Ronaldinho and Eto'o and people like that; you need to talk about the proper footballer who made the difference, and that was Henrik Larsson tonight.’’

A long time ago Miss Johanson urged young Henrik to study and forget those fantasies about being a footballer. So many hundreds of thousands of fans from Celtic Park to the Nou Camp are glad he followed his dream.  When asked how he enjoyed his two years at Barcelona he replied in typical style…

"I loved being at Barcelona and will be forever grateful for all the affection and support I was given there. The same goes for Celtic and nobody should have to ask what Celtic means to me." 

Nor should Henrik ever be in doubt about what he means to the Celtic family. Sometimes skill is not enough in professional football but Henrik brought with his undoubted footballing talent, guts, determination and that quiet authority which lets the opposition know he means business. The supporters knew that with Henrik in the team they were in with a chance regardless of the opposition. Goals in Europe, World Cup Finals and European Championship Finals as well as La Liga and the Premiership confirmed what we at Celtic knew from the start; this guy was a world class footballer and an utter professional.

In my memory Larsson hangs eternally in the air waiting to connect with the cross ball and direct it into the goal. He was a truly world class striker and it was both a privilege and an honour to watch this wonderful player grace the beloved Hoops.

Henrik Larsson; When will we see your likes again?


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