The Cult: Henrik Larsson
Henrik Larsson became a hero at each of his clubs, but nowhere is he more revered than at Celtic Park. The brilliant Swede was the last truly world-class talent to grace the top tier of Scottish football.
Illustration by Dan Evans
Our first Cult entry of 2016 became a hero at all of his clubs, but nowhere is he more revered than at Celtic Park. You can (in fact you must) read our previous entries here.
Cult Grade: The Deity
Be honest, reader: what do you think of when you hear the words 'Scottish Football'? Are you of the belief that it's an oxymoronic phrase? Or do you think of bigotry, muddy pitches, and wayward passes? A nation hanging on to its glories of the 1960s (Jim Baxter doing keep-ups against England, etc), or marauding men in See You Jimmy hats crushing the goalposts at Wembley?
It's often forgotten that the game up here was very different in the '90s and early 2000s. The dominant Glasgow Rangers were a genuinely great team (aided by massive tax avoidance, admittedly) and it wasn't unusual for them to sign big-name players – internationals like air-flute toting, chicken and fishing rod aficionado Gazza, the Dutch contingent of brick-shithouses like Arthur Numan, or flair players like Ronald de Boer and Giovanni van Bronckhorst.
Celtic were way behind, shaking off years of mismanagement at board level and flirting with administration in the mid-1990s. Total punts were taken on unknown quantities like Lubomir Moravcik (incredible) and Andreas Thom (quite good). So when Scandi maestro Henrik Larsson signed, there wasn't much fanfare or expectation.
When the young, dreadlocked forward gave away a stray pass to Hibernian's Chic Charnley, who pounced on the opportunity to score the winner against Wim Jansen's Celtic, no one thought that seven years later the Bhoys would be saying goodbye to their last truly world-class player. Drafted in after a slew of continental forwards like Pierre van Hooijdonk and Paolo Di Canio had swanned off to the more lucrative Premier League, it was difficult to envision what would become of Larsson.
But when he got going – fucking hell. There was nothing, nothing like watching him in full-flow. Take, for example, this goal:
And that's the kind of stuff he did on the reg, particularly in the sepia-tinted Martin O'Neill years, when Larsson was unstoppable. Hat-tricks in cup finals, big goals in European games, horsing the likes of Dunfermline, whatever. You can even watch all of his goals set to Mogwai, if that's your thing. He was really putting in the work between 2000 and 2003.
It was those Martin O'Neill years that put Celtic back at the forefront of Scottish football. Eventually, Larsson would be joined by Chris Sutton – who was once Britain's most expensive player – as well as the rock-solid Johan Mjallby, the lightning-fast Didier Agathe (signed for a measly £35,000), Big John Hartson, and England international winger Steve Guppy (look it up, I swear). Celtic were regularly challenging in Europe, beating the likes of Juventus in the Champions League, while Rangers were holding it down in their own way, led by the impossibly Italian Lorenzo Amoruso. It was an exciting time. Other clubs existed, too!
Point of Entry: High
To my biased mind, there are few, if any, who can play like Henrik Larsson did. The sheer variety of goals, the way he opened his body up to shoot, his ability with free-kicks and penalties, long-rangers and tap-ins. He was colossal. How often does a player break their leg and come back better? Answer: never.
Let's talk trophies: Champions League, English Premier League, two La Liga titles, World Cup Bronze in '94, four SPL titles with Celtic and several cup wins in Holland, Sweden and Scotland, as well as the European Golden Shoe, before it was Messi and Ronaldo's plaything. It gets more impressive when you talk stats: 50 goals in 56 games for Helsingborgs, 180 in 221 competitive games for Celtic, 13 in 40 for Barcelona (where he was competing with Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto'o, and a very young Messi) and 37 international goals for Sweden. The guy did Adele numbers.
At Celtic Park and beyond, there was more to his game than accolades and trophies. The East End of Glasgow hadn't seen his kind of movement since Jinky Johnson, or a goal tally like his since Jimmy McGrory or Kenny Dalglish. It was also his fierce loyalty to the club that endeared him to so many, even more than the dreadlocks and the wild-eyed, tongue-out celebrations. Reportedly turning down big guns in England and Europe, including Manchester United, his was a lasting rapport with a support that rewards players who'll sweat spinal fluid for the fans and a show a penchant for flair.
Everyone knew he could have gone and done better somewhere else, but he didn't leave until he'd given us his best years. He felt like a cosmopolitan goal machine you could go to the pub with, even though he eschewed the nightlife of Glasgow, a footballing goldfish bowl where the nation's media are waiting for a mistake. He was an everyman who happened to be a world-class footballer, someone who'd be very polite in turning down your birthday party invitation, even though he was an important guy, sharing a dressing room with the likes of Bobby Petta and Jonathan Gould.
Because of this loyalty, grounded nature and exquisite talent, his name is still sung at every Celtic match. We tried to replace him – Robbie Keane, Maciej Zurawski, Gary Hooper, Morten Rasmussen, Henri Camara, Leigh Griffiths and a host of others have tried to with varying degrees of success, but there is only one Henrik Larsson, that little genius.
Larsson represented something more to me, though. His seven years at Celtic spanned from my first ever football matches to reaching adolescence. He was a constant, his play a reassuring glimmer of exquisite quality that I could rely on. He always seemed to know when to hit the back of the net, too. I genuinely thought he was doing it for me, in the way that your idols, if you're lucky, have their best moments when you're at your worst.
The Moment: vs. Boavista, April 2003
Celtic fans talk about the amazing UEFA Cup run in terms of the final. Jose Mourinho's Porto edged out Martin O'Neill's Bhoys 3-2 in extra time, after a football match spoiled by the Portuguese side's play-acting and time-wasting, but lit up by goals from ya boy Henrik, who twice brought Celtic back into the game. He was incredible that night and it's one of the all-time greatest performances in Green and White hoops. I get that.
But Henrik's career at Celtic – before the brilliant substitute appearance for Barcelona in 2005's Champions League Final (against an exceptional Arsenal team), before lifting Fergie's United out of a slump and teaching Ronaldo to score goals in 2007 – should be defined by greatness as opposed to glorious failure. This was exemplified by the goal that got us into that Seville final: receiving the ball just beyond the 16-yard line, he takes a deft touch to regain balance, followed by a side-footed effort that sneaks agonisingly past the flapping Ricardo in the Boavista goal. Until Tony Watt's winner against Barcelona in 2012, I had never comprehensively lost my shit watching football like that before. It's a beautiful, crystallised moment in time, the ball seemingly hanging in the air forever before it finally reaches the net, and when it does, it all comes back: beating Liverpool, Graeme Souness' fury when we comprehensively took care of Blackburn Rovers, the Celta Vigo games we really should've lost, everything. It had to be Larsson to score.
Final Words on Henrik
"People talk about Ronaldinho but I didn't see him today – I saw Henrik Larsson. He changed the game, killed it."
Thierry Henry, after Barcelona beat Arsenal in the 2006 Champions League Final.