A player knows when he’s hurt and Henrik Larsson knew something was very wrong as he lay on the emerald turf of the Parc Olympique Lyonaise that misty October night in 1999. Dutch referee Rene Temmink was on the spot very quickly and Larsson, who played in Holland with Feyenoord, said to him in Dutch, ‘I think I’ve broken my leg.’ As he lay on the grass, the sickening realisation that his season may well be over didn’t stop the Swede calculating how many months it would be to the following summer’s European Championships and whether he would be able to recover in time to play in them. His positivity and professionalism were never in doubt but as Celtic supporters in the stadium and at home watched Larsson being stretchered off, the big question of how John Barnes’ side would manage without him troubled many. The team had gone 17 games without loss before that tie in Lyon. After it they lost 4 of the next 6 matches.
Barnes tenure struggled on and the Scottish weather had a say in his final demise as Celtic Manager. A storm had loosened a piece of guttering on one of the Celtic Park stands leading to a cup tie against Inverness Caledonian Thistle being postponed until early February 2000. The midweek tie produced perhaps one of the poorest results in Celtic’s history. The team looked lost as the lower league visitors deservedly won 3-1. Eric Black, Barnes assistant, tried to rouse them at half time but his tongue lashing led to a violent altercation with Mark Viduka who then refused to play in the second half. It was a shambles and symptomatic that Barnes early promise as Celtic Manager was melting away.
Larsson was months from returning to fitness as the side stuttered along. A League cup win against an Aberdeen side which Celtic had hammered 5-0, 7-0, 5-1 and 6-0 in their four SPL encounters that season, couldn’t disguise the fact that Celtic were a good way behind Rangers Indeed they finished the season 21 points behind the Ibrox side who had spent big and in retrospect spent recklessly to build their side. Change was coming though and in came in the form of a confident, well-spoken Irishman called Martin O’Neil. That warm summer of 2000 was one of huge hope and expectation for Celtic supporters. Rangers had won 11 league titles in the previous 12 seasons and Celtic’s 1998 title win had stopped the ‘Ten’ but wasn’t the springboard to further success the fans had hoped for.
A fit again Larsson lined up with debut boys Chris Sutton and Joos Valgaeren at Tannadice in July 2000 as the Celtic support watched with keen anticipation. Both strikers scored and it was obvious that the Larsson-Sutton partnership would be a potent one. Dick Advocaat’s Rangers was again spending big to try to continue their domination of Scottish football and Torre Andre Flo would arrive for the astonishing sum of £12m. Celtic were spending in a more measured way and O’Neil made sure the players he brought in were up to the rigours of Scottish football. His side was fast, skillful and potent up front but there was now a physicality too. The first real test would come on a hot August day when they met Advocaat’s side at Celtic Park. Sutton had spoken of the need to ‘put Rangers in their place’ and it took him around 60 seconds to begin that process. In 12 incredible minutes Celtic ripped Rangers apart and were 3-0 ahead. It could have been more but for the heroics of Klos in goal.
The moment most Celtic fans remember about that game came in the second half. Sutton fed Larsson with the ball and the Swede nutmegged the hapless Bert Konterman and raced towards Klos as the Celtic support held its breath. What followed was one of those beautiful moments which football produces now and then. Larsson saw the keeper advance towards him an in an instant clipped the ball exquisitely over his head. It arced over the German goalkeeper in the bright August sunshine and nestled in the net. It was a goal of poetic beauty as well as a signal to those watching of the resurgent confidence and audacity of Larsson and O’Neil’s Celtic. The King was back and so was Celtic. There were exciting times ahead. Larsson said of that goal…
‘That was special for me because of the nutmeg on Bert Konterman first. Then Stefan Klos was coming out of his goal, but the ball was going in as soon as it left my right boot. People still talk about that goal a lot!’
Larsson went on to score 53 goals that season and win the Golden Boot as Europe’s top striker. His achievement is all the more remarkable because the goals scored in the so called ‘big leagues’ of Europe were awarded 1.5 points compared to just 1 point per goal scored in Scotland. It is not being disrespectful to that fine penalty box striker, Ally McCoist to point out that his two golden shoes were awarded when every league in Europe was judged the same with one point for one goal awarded. Goals though were only part of what Larsson brought to Celtic. His all-round team play was excellent and he became something of a talisman. When he played the fans knew they had a chance against any opposition.
The years which followed saw Celtic dominate Scottish football and Larsson cement his reputation as one of the best strikers in Europe. He moved on eventually to Barcelona where he turned the Champions League Final on its head to earn the Catalans a famous victory against Arsenal in Paris. Thierry Henry said after that game…
"People always talk about Ronaldinho, and everything but I didn't see him today - I saw Henrik Larsson. Two times 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. "
His team mate at Barcelona, the brilliant Ronaldinho, came to call him ‘Idolo’ (my idol) recognising Larsson’s contribution and professionalism on and off the pitch. For Celtic fans, watching him raise the European Cup above his head gave immense satisfaction. Here was a fitting reward and recognition for a fine player who had graced the Hoops for seven wonderful years. It is perhaps tinged with regret that the loss against Porto in Seville stopped him sharing such a moment with them. His 242 goals in 315 games for Celtic marks him as one of the most prolific scorers in the club’s history with only the legendary Jimmy McGrory and Bobby Lennox ahead of him.
I’ve seen many fine players play for Celtic in my many years following the club. Very few match Henrik Larsson in terms of attitude, ability and professionalism. We fans came to love him and I like to think he came to love Celtic as we do. For many he was their ‘Idolo’ and few players deserved that accolade as much as Henrik Larsson.
Thanks for all you did for Celtic. We who saw you play will always remember the times we shared.
You made us happy when skies were grey.