Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Real Deal

The Real Deal

Henrik Larsson lay prostrate on the emerald turf of Celtic Park as a hush descended around the packed Stadium. The Swedish striker was never one for lying down without good reason and most of the supporters knew his injury was serious. Gus Bahoken of Livingston had broken Larsson’s jaw in two places after a clumsy and rather brutal attempt at heading the ball. Accidental or not, Celtic fans knew Larsson’s absence in those early months of 2003 was a major blow. Celtic were locked in a tense battle for the league title and would face Stuttgart in the UEFA cup that month.  The fans knew how important Larsson was to the team and some recalled how their season had fallen apart after he had broken his leg in Lyon in 1999. Blood was mopped from his face and he was helped from the field to loud but rather worried applause. He was taken straight to hospital and the fracture confirmed.

Ron Moore, long time sports reporter with the Daily Mirror decided to try and get a scoop and headed north to interview Larsson. The trouble was he didn’t ask in advance and Larsson is a private man who guards his family’s privacy jealously. Moore had the cheek to let himself into Larsson’s front yard and wait for him to return and the Swede was not amused. The interview consisted of the following exchange…

Moore: ‘How are you Henrik?’
Larsson: (Heavily bandaged) ‘Fuck off.’
Moore: ‘How long will you be wearing the bandage?’
Larsson: ‘Fuck off.’
Moore: ‘When will you be able to play again?
Larsson: ‘Fuck off.’

Henrik Larsson was without doubt one of the best strikers ever to grace the Scottish game and his prowess in front of goal is legendary but for all his deft touches, intelligent movement and clinical finishes he was as tough as they come too. Professional football can be brutal at times and Larsson took his fair share of ruthless treatment on the field. He talked in the years after his retirement about the dark side of the game and said…

‘It can get pretty ugly sometimes. I know I’ll get hurt, tackled from behind sometimes but I know that from the outset. Sometimes to cover a defender you grab hold of their shorts and if you happen to grab their package too well you just pull harder.’

Larsson once stated that Craig Moore of Rangers was one of his toughest opponents but praised him by saying that much as the Australian dished out some fairly brutal treatment, he takes it back without complaining.

Of course spending seven years of his career at Celtic brought out the usual arrogant and condescending comments from commentators south of the border that his 242 goals in green and white were more down to the relative weakness of the Scottish League than Larsson’s abilities. Fans of all clubs in Scotland have endured the ‘My Nan’ brigade for as long as football has been played.  Celtic’s record against English opposition in European fixtures has been good over the years as Leeds United, Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers and Manchester United will tell you but there was no doubting our pleasure when Henrik demonstrated at the World Cup, European Championships and Champions League level that he was the real deal. As a striker he scored goals against sides like Juventus, Liverpool, Porto and Valencia but It irked him that the ignorant would deride his achievements in Scotland and he once stated….

“They would say, ‘Yeah he can do it in Scotland, but can he do it in the big leagues?’ It was a bit annoying because if it was that easy, why didn’t everybody score so many goals?”

The man who holds the goal scoring record in European matches while at a UK club demonstrated at Barcelona and Manchester United that he would have been a star in any league.

We Scots have a tendency to talk down our own game but as many who ventured north of Hadrian’s Wall to play in Scotland have found, it is not the stroll in the park they expected. In recent times we have seen a host of prodigies from the English Academy system loaned out to gain experience in Scotland. Few of them have made any impact at all and even experienced professionals like Joey Barton found the need to scrape the bottom of the barrel for excuses after being an abject failure in the much maligned SPFL.

Those of us who enjoyed Henrik Larsson’s seven years at Celtic Park knew what we were watching. He had started his footballing career in his native Sweden before moving to Feyenoord in Holland where even he would admit things weren’t perfect. It was as if he had found his spiritual home at Celtic and the warmth he basked in from the supporters seemed to help him blossom into a top player.  He famously said after Celtic had beaten Blackburn Rovers in the UEFA Cup at Ewood Park, ‘Yeh, we were shit in Glasgow but they should learn a lesson, you never talk until the game is over.’ Blackburn’s ‘Men against boys’ jibe after the first game in Glasgow (Which they lost) was dripping in all the old arrogance we expect from English opposition and it was an utter delight to ram their words down their throats in their own stadium.

Henrik Larsson sits third in the all-time goal scoring charts for Celtic behind the legendary Jimmy McGrory and Bobby Lennox. His career at Celtic saw him win eight major honours, a golden boot as Europe’s top scorer and helped the club to a European final. Beyond the statistics though we have a thousand memories of the deft clips over the goalkeeper, the flashing dreadlocks as he headed for goal, the tongue out in celebration and sheer grit and determination he added to his undoubted skills.

I’ve been fortunate to watch some excellent footballers wearing the green and white over the years but few have been as good as Henrik Larsson. It was an added bonus that he seemed to get what Celtic was all about too and developed a real affection for the club. He said once…

“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.”

It is testimony to the impact he made at Celtic that 14 years after his last competitive game for the club he is still recalled with such affection. We don’t forget our heroes at Celtic and Henrik Larsson was certainly one of them.

Thank you Henrik. Hail Hail