Sunday, 17 May 2015

The club for me

The club for me
His old man handed him the video tape on the career of the wonderful Pele, ‘Look at this guy, he’s the best player ever.’ Like all football mad youngsters young Henrik watched it over and over and saw one of the greats in action. He would say later that he expected to see a great goal scorer in action but saw immediately what Pele brought to the team as well as his finishing. It was a lesson he’d take into his own career. Thoughts of being a footballer were never far from his young mind but as his parents split up he had to deal with the fall-out from that as well as the low level racism he occasionally faced. He said of those years…

“I am not that dark but obviously I had my curly hair when I was young and you’d get people, who don’t understand, who will say something. I used to win the most fights as well, so it soon stopped. I can’t recollect feeling that different. I only had to look at my dad and I knew I wasn’t 100% Swedish, but when you are a kid you don’t have those worries. You just go on with it and that depends how the other kids are as well. There were times when people called you something. You always have the odd ones who will say something. You have bad people everywhere in the world and that includes Sweden.  The older I get the more I say it is stupid people that are racists or whatever, and mostly it is because they are afraid. I don’t understand someone who hates someone else when they don’t know the person, just because he’s black, yellow or whatever colour you want to mention. For me, that’s just not comprehensible.”

Those formative years helped Larsson become a tougher competitor on the field and for a man of modest stature he competed with great success in the physically demanding world of professional football. His early career in Sweden and Holland showed promise but even he would admit that his arrival at Celtic in 1997 was the turning point in his career. His contract with Feyenoord had a £650,000 buy-out clause which Wim Jansen took advantage of to secure perhaps the biggest bargain in Celtic’s recent history. His inauspicious start at Easter Road and then the following week at home to Dunfermline saw Celtic shed six points in a vital season which saw Rangers seeking to win 10 in a row but a turning point of sorts was reached at Perth when Celtic at last began to click and Larsson found the net for his first SPL goal.  Larsson’s appreciation of the supporters desire to ‘Stop the Ten’ soon hit home as he took on board more of Celtic’s history. He said…

"On my first day at Celtic, Clarky took me out into the hallway and pointed at one of the pictures of when they won the European Cup. He said: 'That's me wee man.' I was there for such a long time that you get to know the history, what it means to people.’’

Thankfully Larsson and his team mates did win the title in 1998 to end Rangers domination of Scottish football. In the 17 years since then Celtic has established itself as the preeminent force in the Scottish game and that looks set to continue for a while yet.

Those of us lucky enough to watch Henrik Larsson play for Celtic saw the genuine article. Here was a goal scorer of great ability but also, like his hero Pele, a team player who fought hard in every area of the pitch. His 242 goals in 315 appearances remains the third highest total in Celtic’s history with only Jimmy McGrory and Bobby Lennox ahead of him. Those who say goals are easier to come by in the Scottish game cannot dismiss his 35 goals in Europe which remains a record for a player at a British club.  But there was so much more to Henrik Larsson than putting the ball in the net. His ability to harass defenders, to work for the team was exemplary. For Celtic fans it was important too that he came to an understanding of what the club was all about and he certainly did that. There were times when the lure of the English Premiership and its riches were sent to tempt him but he said no and told the fans that he’d honour his contract at Celtic Park.

Watching video footage of him hanging in the air to meet a cross or dinking the ball over an advancing keeper is to relive great times. We knew when we were watching him that we were seeing one of the greats. It is now 11 years since he said his emotional farewell to the fans who adored him and his own reaction to that parting said it all. He said…

This is the club for me. This is where I made myself as a player, this is where everybody got to know me and this is the club that I will be eternally grateful to for giving me that opportunity when maybe other clubs didn’t believe in me. This is where I got back into the Swedish national team and went on to play in European Championships and World Cups for Sweden. I couldn’t have done that without Celtic.”

As the years go on and we look back at those years watching Larsson play there are so many moments to cherish. His two goals in Seville on that bitter sweet night in 2003, his wonderful chip over Stefan Klos in the 6-2 game or his dinked goal at Blackburn Rovers on a night Celtic shut a few arrogant mouths.  For me his trademark tongue out, arms stretched goal celebration will live in the memory. The joy on his face when he scored was plain to see and I’m sure he saw it mirrored in the faces of thousands of Celtic supporters. I’ve been privileged to see some fine players in the Hoops but Henrik Larsson is among the finest. A great player who left us with some great memories. When he was asked if he was starting his career over again which of the clubs he had played for would he like to play for, he replied…

"Celtic, it’s where I made my name and played for seven years.’

Thank you for everything Henrik. They were great times which will live with all who witnessed them forever.



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