Behold the King of Kings, Arsenal haunter Henrik Larsson

    Who’s this then?
    Henrik Larsson is a 48-year-old Swedish fella who played as a striker for Högaborgs BK, Helsingborgs IF, Feyenoord, Barcelona, Manchester United and Råå. Quite possibly the finest Swedish footballer of all time; quite possibly the finest foreign import to ever play in Scottish football. At 5′ 9″ he wasn’t the tallest but he was staggeringly elegant, light of foot, strong and bloody hard.

    His senior career started aged 17 at lower-league club Högaborgs BK where he spent four years, playing 64 games and bagging 23 goals. This got him a move to his hometown club Helsingborgs IF, who were in the second tier. He hit the ground running, playing 31 games in his first season there and scoring 34 times. This fired the club to promotion for the first time in 24 years. His first two years at the club resulted in 51 goals in 61 games. This took him to Feyenoord for £295,000. His four years in the Netherlands were quite a difficult time for him and his form dipped markedly initially. His 42 strikes in 149 games wasn’t exceptional, so in 1997, by then 26, he asked for a transfer. After some legal wranglings Larsson went to Celtic for £650,000 and it was at this point where he began to really carve out his legend.

    His international career had begun in 1993 and he played a prominent role in the 1994 World Cup team that eventually finished third in the USA. He’d end up earning 106 caps and netting 37 times.

    His first three years at Parkhead saw him playing under Wim Jansen, Jozef Vengloš, John Barnes and Kenny Dalglish. He won the League Cup and more importantly the league title, thus stopping Rangers bagging ten in a row. He was top scorer in his first two seasons and surely would’ve been in his third, but after scoring 12 in 13, he suffered serious snappage and was out for eight months. It was a mixture of his own strength and determination that got him back as quick as that. When he returned to full fitness Martin O’Neill had taken over as manager.

    These were to be his peak years. Larsson was now 29. Maybe it was his experience coming to fruition, maybe it was the manager playing him in the right position, maybe it was having Chris Sutton alongside him to lead the attack, but it was a quite remarkable four seasons which followed. He scored 173 goals in 206 games to take the Bhoys to three league titles, two Scottish Cups, a Scottish League Cup and a UEFA Cup runners-up medal.

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    When he finally left Scotland, he had played 313 games and put the ball in the net an amazing 242 times.

    There followed two injury-hit years at Barcelona where he moved as a free agent. His last game was the Champions League final against Arsenal when he came on as a second-half substitute and almost single-handedly changed the game, making two assists for the Spaniards to win the game from a goal down.

    From there it was back home to Svenska to Helsingborgs for three seasons from 2006 to 2009, featuring a short but memorable loan to Manchester United in the winter of 2007. While Larsson only played 13 games and scored three times, his contribution at 35 was huge. Playing in the Premier League held no fears for him and he looked as at home as he had in Scotland. After the loan was over and he had refused an extension, Sir Alex Ferguson said: “He’s been fantastic for us, his professionalism, his attitude, everything he’s done has been excellent. We would love him to stay but, obviously, he has made his promise to his family and Helsingborg and I think we should respect that – but I would have done anything to keep him.”

    His last game on English soil was against Middlesbrough at the Riverside. Back to Helsingborgs he went and that was that. A game at Råå and two at Högaborgs, back where he started, wrapped his playing career up: 769 games and 434 goals was to be his final impressive tally.

    A handful of short-lived managerial jobs in Sweden haven’t really gone brilliantly and he was at one point being lined up to manage Southend United. So far, it looks like he’ll join the ranks of the brilliant player, not so brilliant manager.

    His son Jordan is an Swedish international and plays for Spartak Moscow. A Swedish legend, Larsson will never be forgotten in Scotland as The King of Kings.


    Why the love?
    Because it is such a good summation of Henrik’s ability and character, I’ll start this section with something his Celtic strike partner Chris Sutton sent in:

    ‘Henrik… legend. His outstanding career speaks for itself. An artist who could do things other players could only dream about. A brilliant finisher, wonderful athleticism, adaptable, with great vision – as we saw when he transformed the 2006 Champions League final. Mentally as tough as they come. But his greatest two qualities are not ones you’d normally associate with a superstar: loyalty and unselfishness. They are what made him so special.’

    Some players arrive fully formed on the world stage and burn out by the time they’re 25 but Henrik hit his peak in the last third of his career. He seemed to get faster and more powerful as he aged. By the time he turned out at Old Trafford, he didn’t seem to have lost any pace at all in his mid-30s. With a running style that seemed to send him gliding across the turf with the minimum effort, he was a player that time seemed very reluctant to slow down.

    Larsson was two-footed, played in the sort of fearsome, direct manner that students of the game might now call aggressively vertical. Running at defenders held no fear for him. He was hard, brave and knew how to hold his own even with the biggest and roughest boys.

    He could leave a defender for dead with a burst of speed and married innate chutzpah and confidence with a magician’s skill-set. This meant he could score every type of goal: from dead-ball kicks; to diving headers; to dinks and chips; to long-distance thwackerty-thwacks.

    Strikers who are deadly in front of goal but equally adept in the No 10 role, linking midfield to strikers, are very rare indeed. It requires two quite different visions: the ability to find space, to pass incisively and to strike the ball unerringly. In the 2003/2004 season he and Sutton netted a mighty 69 times; the season previous, it had been an amazing 63. One of Scottish football’s most prolific partnerships, they simply clicked into one of those almost telepathic strikeforces.

    The superior goalscorer is often a selfish beast, focused only on their personal tally but Larsson was absolutely a team player, as Chris points out. In this peak period there is no doubt that he was one of the best players in world football in his position.

    When playing in Glasgow, he was such a distinctive figure with the bleached dreadlocks and headband. He didn’t look unlike anyone else and added, if not flamboyance exactly, an aura.

    It’s also important to note that at his peak he had the chance to join other clubs and earn way more money, but he chose to stay where he was happy. A lesson for many there. When you’ve got enough, more is pointless.

    Larsson was also a man of his word. He could easily have stayed at Old Trafford and was much loved there even within the few short weeks, but he’d given his word that he’d return home and that’s just what he did. They gave him a Premier League winner’s medal all the same.

    This all adds to the many reasons why no-one has a bad word to say about him and why, when we watch his goals again now, the warm glow of remembrance is enduring. His was a win for the good guys in a business which often seems to vaunt the greedy and the selfish.

    It must also be said that Scotland loved Larsson for his refusal to go south of the border, even though some of the less well-informed down there thought he was playing in an inferior league. Indeed, critics of Scottish football often seemed puzzled why the lure of the Premier League was so easy for him to resist, but those in the know up here understood all too well. And we still do.


    What the people love
    With Celtic being one of the biggest clubs on earth, with a huge fanbase, it was no surprise that my post bag was bulging with love letters to Larsson. He brought so much joy and so often and has gone down in folklore as pretty much their perfect striker. Some even feel he is the best Celtic player ever. And that is really saying something.

    ‘I was in a pub in Glasgow several years ago. Celtic were on the telly and losing, watched by an increasingly agitated old chap. At the end the fan – and crestfallen doesn’t even go near it – got up, drained his pint, and said: “Right – time for the Henrik videos again”‘ – Phil McNulty, BBC.

    ‘World-class player, could have walked into any team in Europe. Stayed with Celtic when he could’ve doubled or tripled his salary. Was loyal and always gave 100% especially through the lean years was loved for his talent, but more so the fact he cared and the fans loved him for it.’

    ‘The peerless talent and footballing ability is one thing but the sheer charisma of the man doesn’t get highlighted enough. His fundamental decency shone through in every interview, and he really seemed to live every second of his Celtic career in emotional symbiosis with the fans.’

    ‘World-class striker who we had the privilege of watching week in and week out at CP.’

    ‘Celtic had a really strong team then but he won us games almost single-handedly at times. No disrespect to other players. Not just his finishing. His link-up and all-round play was a joy to watch.’

    ‘Unfairly tarnished with the “wasted his career in Scotland” brush, by so many that I have come across. But the upshot is that he was a complete forward. Pace, strength, skill, finishing and aerial ability and hold up play all ticked. A wonderful player, all in.’

    ‘A man who, at his peak, could have played in just about any team in the world but chose Celtic. Something we’ll likely never see again. He averaged 35 goals a season with us. Unbelievable considering he was played as a winger 1st season + missed most of another with a leg break.’

    ‘Would have destroyed the Premiership if he’d moved to England at the height of his powers, chap had it all.’

    ‘World class, his work at Celtic is laughably underplayed, just look at the 2006 CL final. He’s hero worshipped at Celtic. Look at what the guys he played with at Barca thought of him!’

    ‘Put simply the best modern day player to play for and stay at Celtic, a pleasure to watch him world class, in years to come the undoubted statue will be made totally iconic.’

    ‘Loved him at Feyenoord, after that he never played for teams I liked but, my god, he was a goal machine. His leg break while at Celtic was horrific and his comeback was amazing.’

    ‘He was the best striker in the world for a period of time at Celtic due to his consistency & scored at every level of football he played in. Out scored some of the greatest the year he hit 53 to claim Europe’s golden boot. He was simply elite world class.’

    ‘His return from a broken jaw to score v Liverpool in Uefa cup was immense. Also people claiming he lost his edge when he shaved his head was funny. Little did they know…’

    ‘There was no hype or ego about him. He just did all of his talking on the park when it mattered most. Flawless record in a flawless career. Huge admiration for Larsson sticking with us at Celtic at his peak when he could have left for 2 or 3 times his salary.’

    ‘Cost them only £650k, and I reckon he could still do a job for a team now! When he broke his leg it healed so well it was stronger than before it broke.’

    ‘Didn’t know what all the fuss was about north of the border, thought he was overrated. Saw him live during his brief spell at United, what a player. Touch, balance, timing, never rushed but always made time and space, sign of a truly great player… gutted he didn’t stay longer.’

    ‘Breaks a leg, chasing back to help the full back,and comes back with a fifty goal season. Stayed at Celtic despite some massive interest. And of course..’THAT IS SENSATIONAL’

    ‘I love that man. He could do everything. Quick, intelligent, brilliant link up, great finisher, even better in the air. He is the greatest Celtic player of all time. Better than Johnstone. Some fans will feel that’s hyperbolic but they wouldn’t argue too much..

    ‘You know when you have a world class player who scores goals & makes assists at all levels you have something special. Add a selfless grafting brave positive attitude to the mix & you have extra special. An amazing player. The best I’ve ever seen.’

    ‘Was a part of the team that stopped the 10 would make him a hero on it’s own. But despite his brilliance, the thing that sets him aside is that he could have gone anywhere in his peak and he chose us. He chose Celtic, he gave his peak, and he should have a stand named after him.’

    ‘I moved to London from Glasgow in 2002 when I was 12. The ensuing few years were constant arguments about whether Celtic/ Larsson could do it in England and he had my back. Definitely without him and his goals the move would have been even harder for me.’

    ‘I want to write you a million words to try and explain how i feel and what joy he bought me but twitter doesn’t have enough characters. If I was here for an hour I couldn’t write enough tweets.’

    ‘So many. The chip over Stefan Klos in Celtic’s 6-2 win over Rangers was a beautiful and symbolic goal. Much scrappier- Uefa Cup QF first leg round one against Liverpool. First game back after injury (broken wrist possibly?) and scores with his shin after 90 seconds.’

    ‘Signed for Celtic when I was 10 and just on the cusp of really getting into football. Still a hero to this day. Happy I got to see him play but I doubt I’ll ever see anyone better at Celtic unfortunately.’

    ‘That he is regarded as one of the greatest celts of all time says it all. Could score goals, set them up. His disciplinary record was excellent. Scored at the highest level. And was hard as nails as Richard gough attested to in his autobiography. King of Kings.’

    ‘Funnily enough I thought he was a bit useless at the start of his career.’

    ‘Saw him play for Celtic only once…..a hat-trick in a 7 nil win over Aberdeen.’

    ‘Imperious. Would have been a United legend had he gone there sooner.’

    ‘On a similar note: I always thought it spoke volumes that despite his one-year deal ending after an injury-ravaged first season, Barça extended his contract into that second, CL-winning year. Larsson had only played 17 games and scored four goals but they saw the value of his influence.’

    ‘One of the greatest Celts of all time! His record speaks for itself, performed brilliantly at every level for every club but he will always be remembered for being The King of Kings at Celtic. A true legend.’


    Three great moments
    A 40-yard run ending with a nutmeg and a chip over the goalie in an Old Firm game? Yeah, he could do that. (Great assist, Chris!):

    Come on with 29 minutes to go in a Champions League final and transform the game? Yup, he could do that too:

    Flying horizontal through the air to score a diving header for your country? Uh huh. That’s not a problem:


    What now?
    Maybe his managerial career will take off later, in the way his playing days did, or maybe it won’t. Being the boss isn’t for everyone. One thing is for sure: he’d never have to buy a drink in Scotland, or at least not within the environs of Celtic Park.

    I’ll leave you with the words of Thierry Henry after that famous 2006 Champions League final.

    “People always talk about Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, Ludovic 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.”

    Long may the King of Kings reign.

    John Nicholson


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