Having signed for Celtic in 1997 for a measly £650,000, HENRIK LARSSON has proved his weight in goals. Finding Scottish football in mourning, Brian Donaldson wipes the tears away long for enough to see if anyone
can fill the Parkhead talisman’s shoes.
iverpool legend Bill Shankly once infamoust
cracked that football wasn‘t a matter of life and
death: it was much more important than that. Certain events which touched his own club in later years (the man-made disasters at Hillsborough and Heysel) may have buried that cliche six feet under forever. but try telling that to the Celtic fans currently grieving for the Parkhead career of Henrik Larsson. ()f course. he’s not quite passed away yet. with one more league game. a Scottish Cup Final and a farewell wake against Seville to come. In the outside footballing world. observers are wondering whether the Scottish league will ever see a better player grace its divot-ridden pitches. Down Parkhead way. they‘re wondering if it would make sense to simply retire the ;\'o 7 shirt.
As Old Firm beginnings go. Henrik Larsson’s was hardly a foretaste of things to come. ()n Sunday 3 August 1997. after ()3 minutes of Celtic‘s opening league match at liaster Road. a dreadlocked figure. signed in the close season for a paltry £650,000 from I‘eyenoord. trotted on to the bemusement of many. ()ne of his first acts was to lay on the winning goal: for llibs. Another waste of precious cash on a ‘foreign dud‘. it seemed. During his first month he scored just two goals (against Berwick Rangers and St Johnstone). marked his home debut losing to Dunferrnline and received his first yellow card (while not qrrite reaching Lineker-like on-field goody-goodiness.l8 bookings in seven years amid the roughhouse of Scottish football is positively angelic).
After that rubbish start. not even Hoopy the Hound could have conceived that two serious injuries. four managers. seven years and 238 goals later. Henrik Larsson. aka the King of Kings. otherwise known as the Magnificent Seven and the goalscorer formerly known as the Tongue. would become the most lauded Celtic player of the last 20 years. The website www.thankyouhenrik.com has been acting as an online book of condolence as grieving Celts fiood on to mark the man's imminent passing from the ranks.
‘A deep sadness has been creeping up on me for what seems like an age since he announced his intentions to leave.~ notes (ilasgow artist Roddy Buchanan. ‘I never meant football to mean this much to me. I feel like I‘ve been chucked and I'm not ready to be left behind. When Jordan. Henke‘s wee boy. was pumping them past Rab Douglas‘ wee boy who was between the sticks during the post-match Championship celebrations. Then in an all too Freudian moment. Henrik came over. swept up his wee boy and took him away. I was nearly greetin‘.‘
liven hard-bitten crime writers can come over all misty—eyed about Larsson. ‘Henrik brought so much to Scottish football. it‘s hard to know where to start.‘ says Ian Rankin. 'He's had broken bones and recovered with superhuman efficiency and he does more than just poach the odd goal in the six-yard box. making him a lot more versatile than many other super-strikers. ()ff the pitch. he has lived for the past few years in a fairly modest house. and hasn‘t been associated with strippers and cocaine.
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‘I FEEL LIKE I'VE BEEN CHUCKED AND I'M NOT READY TO BE LEFT BEHIND’
He’s been a player that kids can look up to. When celebs were asked to take a photo of something which inspired them. Henrik snapped his bare feet. They carried the scars of every battle he‘s ever been in..
While Larsson‘s appeal has certainly transcended club and country barriers. naturally not everyone is going to love the man. Some Rangers fans continue to insist that his talents should be underplayed. that he's an average player performing highly in a duff division; they somewhat conveniently forget that he helped Sweden to third place in the World Cup three years before arriving here and this stance ignores claims made by their own
managers such as Dick Advocaat and Alex McLeish of
Larsson‘s world—class abilities. More bizarrely. though. he gained a place on the substitutes‘ bench for the European side on www.uglyfootballers.com. And despite hailing his ability to find space in packed defences. sports pundit Stuart Cosgrove lambasts him for ‘the hanging tongue era which made him look like a village idiot‘.
Like every great player. the threat of career-threatening injury looms large. Larsson has been a broken man twice but retumed to inflict ever greater damage on opponents. In the l lth minute of a l999 LITA Cup encounter at Lyon‘s Stade Gerland. an accidental clash with Serge Blanco left Larsson screaming in agony on the turf and had TV viewers gasping at the sight of a splintered bone pushing the flesh outwards (it turned out to be his shin pad. but the horror seemed all too real at the time). With the double fracture confirmed. his season was over. practically taking John Barnes‘ ill-fated tenure as manager into the ambulance with him. And at Parkhead in 2003. a clash of heads with Livingston‘s Gus Bahoken left the Swede with a fractured jaw. The less lucid blamed referee Mike McCurry and he ended up having to phone the window repair people.
So. is there anyone to fill old Golden Shoes? Those indulging in speculation fall into three categories. The dreamers. who wake up whispering ‘Thierry Henry" or ‘Ruud van Nistelrooy": the ambitious who look to Robbie Keane (Sprrrs player. lifelong Celt and the owner of British football's most ﬂamboyant goal celebration) or Robbie Iiarnshaw (the Cardiff hotshot who recently blasted a hat-trick against Scotland. good pal with Celtic striker John Hartson and. from certain angles. Nosferatu lookalike); and the realists who know that Martin O‘Neill has less funds to play with than Sierra Leone. who point to Dundee's Nacho Novo. Hibs‘ Derek Riordan and Motherwell’s David Clarkson or young Celts such as Aiden McGeady. Craig Beattie and Shaun Maloney.
Whoever comes in to pull on the seven shirt (if it‘s not enshrined in bullet-proof casing in the Parkhead vaults) is indulging in a mission impossible. Yet. maybe there‘s one small chink of hope for those fans still in denial. With news that it was his son Jordan who convinced Larsson to make a If-turn on playing for Sweden. plans are surely in place for Martin ()‘Neill to request a one-to-one with the seven-year-old named after a basketball legend. 01‘ perhaps everyone should just get used to it: Henrik’s off.
A septet of magic moments from Larsson’s locker
I 9 May 1998 v St Johnstone Henrik marked the final match of his first season by scoring the opening goal in the match that won the league preventing Rangers‘ ten championships in a row.
I 21 November 1998 v Rangers His first Old Firm goals (a pair of them) as Dr Jo Venglos' boyshorsed the lbrox side 5-1. Henrik's PlayStation partner Gio van Bronckhorst got the Gers consolation.
I 16 October 1999 v Aberdeen Another scintillating Henrik hat-trick in a 7—0 destruction. Little did we know that Larsson (and Celtic's) season would soon be over with a double leg fracture.
I 28 August 2000 v Rangers In what became known as the Demolition Derby. Celtic ran out as 6—2 winners in Martin O‘Neill's first Old Firm game in charge. Larsson scored two goals — one of which is felt to be his best ever. I 1 October 2000 v Aberdeen Henrik freaked everyone out by appearing in public for the first time minus his dreadlocks. The Samson effect hadn't kicked in as he bulleted home a header.
I 13 March 2003 v Liverpool One month after breaking his jaw. Lazarus returned to score in the UEFA Cup O-F. He knocked it in with his shin, but hey. they all count. I 21 May 2003 v Porto Every player dreams of scoring in a European final, but Larsson’s double wasn't enough to bring the UEFA Cup to Glasgow.