PO Box 306, Glasgow, G21 2AE, Scotland

so farewell then...

henrik larsson

'Before a game, I always tell myself that it will hurt and that it should hurt. I know I am bloody strong, that I am stronger than them. Even if it hurts, it is going to hurt them even more,' - Henrik Larsson describing how he prepares for a match in Offside football magazine.

'The best signing I ever made.' - Wim Jansen.

'Henrik Larsson? That the wee guy who played for Sweden in the States? He looked alright I suppose.' That would probably be the reaction of most people when it was announced that we were signing Larsson. The most noteworthy thing he had done in most people's eyes was score in the penalty shoot-out against Romania that took Sweden to the semi-final of the 1994 World Cup.

Summer 1997 was definitely a time of transition for Celtic; Tommy Burns hadn't had his contract renewed, the team he had built had fallen apart with the departure of Pierre, Cadette and Di Canio, Peter Grant was leaving after 14 years at the club and, worst of all, McStay hanging up his boots at the age of just 31. So all we really needed was the small matter of a manager and the guts of the first team replaced.

The new manager was Wim Jansen, a man who looked as though he'd come straight from an audition for the Hair Bear Bunch. He wasted no time in rebuilding the team and within his first two months no fewer than six new players arrived. That number would increase to nine before the New Year. Burley and Lambert arrived in midfield, Rieper and Mahe shored up the defence, Blinker arrived (enough said) and up front we had new bhoys Larsson and, later on, Brattbakk.

As if building a new team wasn't enough, the new men then had to perform the minor task of preventing the end of the world - 10 in a row as it was euphemistically referred to at the time - by winning the league. It's difficult now to actually remember how stressful that time was. The tension surrounding some of the games was incredible.

Our season, and Henrik's Celtic career didn't exactly get off to a flying start. His misplaced pass to Charnley is well documented. Less well remembered is the fact that he followed that with a home debut defeat to Dunfermline and a European home debut that saw him score a potentially disastrous own goal on the stroke of half time. But that same month against Innsbruck also provided us with our first glimpse of what was to come. In the second half we scored four goals to go through and although he didn't score Larsson ran the show.

His first season was pretty impressive, although he was overlooked in the Player of the Year category in favour of team mates Burley and McNamara; he struck up decent partnerships with both Donnelly and Harald and finished the season with 19 goals. Two of them in particular had great resonance and, oddly enough, both were against St. Johnstone: the first was a diving header at McDairmid Park to set us on our way to our first league win; the other was of course the stunning opener on the last day of the season that saw us clinch the league.

In spite of all that he has since achieved at the club, Henrik puts that triumph at the top of the pile purely because of the pressure involved. Immediately following that Jansen walked, having fallen out with just about everyone except the players, to be replaced by Dr Jo.

This was the season when Henrik really began firing on all cylinders. Despite having his strike partner changed on an almost weekly basis (Harald couldn't buy a goal and Donnelly would often be played wide) Larsson would always conjour up a goal.

In December Jo bought Viduka who promptly announced he was terribly stressed and walked off. It would three months before we got to see the new strike pairing but when it eventually got going it looked good. Viduka had a good touch, could score and wasn't too greedy. It looked like the perfect partnership. A few weeks later we had the perfect announcement to go with it - Henrik Larsson had signed a new contract. Fergus McCann was on the verge of leaving after his five years in charge and this was his present to the fans, although it was incoming CEO Alan McDonald who took the press plaudits.

This action, more than almost any other, is what singles Henrik out from amongst the other imported players. He had the chance to leave - Manchester United had made an inquiry about him - but he realised he was on to a good thing. His game had flourished at Celtic, he was playing to an adoring audience of 60,000 people every other week and his family was settled here. Why risk any of that? Henrik stayed when all the others had left and that's probably why we all love that wee bit more.

Season 98-99 finished trophyless thanks partly to a cup final defeat by the huns but at least the future looked not too terrible. Then Alan McDonald had a bad idea. Jo Venglos had decided to throw in the towel so for the third summer in a row we were looking for a manager. Enter stage left Kenny Dalglish followed by former left wing genius John Barnes. Kenny had apparently let Barnes take some training sessions while the two were at Newcastle and on that slim pretext he chose Barnes to manage Celtic. Backing them up was a CEO with an open chequebook and a vision of Celtic domination. Captain Calamity welcomed us into his world.

It didn't start too bad. In certain games (such as a 4:0 win at home to Hearts) Celtic looked like world-beaters, but a good look at what we had revealed that the team was built on foundations of sand. There was no plan B, we had all our cards on the table from minute one and if one of the elements of the team was removed then the whole thing might fall to bits. So it proved.

I imagine it would be hard for most Celtic fans to describe how they felt watching Henrik lying there on the pich in Lyon, his leg, and maybe even career, apparently in ruins. There wasn't even anyone to blame. Certainly not the Lyon player - he was completely oblivious to what had happened. It was just one of those freak injuries. Basically we knew the season was over for Henrik. At best he would be out for months, while the worst-case scenario didn't even bear thinking about.

The remainder of that season has carved its own special place in the history of the club. The injury just weeks later that forced Lambert out of the picture for several months just put the seal on it. Aside from the cold comfort of the League Cup win the only bright spot was the remarkable recovery of Larsson. Determined not to miss out on that summer's European Championships he returned for the last game of that campaign, a substitute appearance in a 2:0 win against Dundee United, notable for the number of young players that Dalglish played (Mjallby, Lambert and Berkovic were the only real recognised first team players). Lambert and Mjallby made a point of coming to the touchline to welcome him on to the park as he replaced Berkovic. He didn't score, but he was back, and that was good enough.

During that summer we all got what we had wanted. Martin O'Neil arrived - an established manager on the way up - and Larsson played in the European Championships (Sweden were poor but Henrik still bagged a goal against Italy). Odd to think now, but at the time there were plenty of people doubting whether Larsson could return to the same effect. They didn't have to wait long for their answer.

Tannadice was our venue on opening day, the same ground where things had started to become unstuck the previous season. After 30 minutes new front man Chris Sutton attempted to power his way into the box. He was tackled and the ball broke to Larsson, who curled the perfect shot round the keeper and into the net. All was well with the world. After the game OFM could barely contain himself when discussing his number 7.

Of course the big test would be the Old Firm game and the 6:2 Demolition Derby has gone down in legend, but if your memory serves you well then you might remember a few things about that game that don't quite tie in with the myth. At half time in that match the huns were still supremely confident of getting a result, even though they trailed 3:1, and their optimism wasn't entirely unjustified. After the opener Dodds had missed an absolute sitter and after Stan made it two Jackie had to clear one off the line. Not only that, but after they scored they also had what seemed like a perfectly good goal disallowed for offside. The Huns were in good spirits at half time. Added to that was the impression that maybe Larsson wasn't as sharp as he could be. After all, at 3:0 down Lubo had put him clean through on Klos, but he'd blown it. The 'keeper had saved at his feet and Rangers had come back into the game. Maybe he wasn't as ready as we'd all hoped he'd be.

The second half took care of all those doubts. After a shaky end to the first half (Lambert had gone off injured to be replaced by Myallby) the Hoops came out re-energised and certainly not in the mood to let them back in the game. A few minutes after the restart Gould gathered a cross and punted the ball down field. What followed was almost like a dream sequence. Sutton knocked the ball back in to the path of Larsson, he controlled it, held off Tugay and ran in on Konterman, Rangers' expensive new centre half. A wee feint to go right, a flick of boot and the ball was through the legs of the floundering defender. Henrik was one-on-one with Klos and before the goalie had time to close the striker down the ball was sailing in a beautiful arc over his head and nestling snugly in the back off the net.

It's a goal you simply never tire of seeing over and over again and it provided the springboard for the season that followed.

With the support of the finest Celtic squad in decades Larsson scored a record breaking total of 53 goals (including five in two cup finals and another chip over Klos) and produced stunning performances on a weekly basis (despite an alleged 'scoring crisis' for him in November).

Nor was it just his goals but the quality of his all round play. The Man of the Match competition became something of a joke; basically it was the Man of the Match (if you don't include Henrik) competition. This was a remarkable season at any point in a career, but in a comeback season after the type injury he had sustained it was nothing short of miraculous.

The cherry on top was of course that he scored his 50th goal in front of the Broomloan stand to round off a superb 3:0 win. To add to the feel good factor Henrik signed an extension to his contract thereby ending the media furore that he might suddenly, out of the blue become a Cadette/ Di Canio clone and walk just as things were going right.

Henrik was now accompanied by the ideal centre forward, Chris Sutton. He took the physical pressure off Henrik and also helped to create a fair number of chances for him. They would be joined for the next season by John Hartson, thereby giving us some genuine competition for the forward spots.

Season 2001/2 brought another 35 goals and a league winners badge but it hadn't been as successful as the previous season. Both cups were surrendered to the Huns and in the Scottish Cup final Henrik and his teammates all had complete nightmares.

That season had also provided some moments that Henrik would rather forget, mainly from the penalty spot. During the 53 goal season he'd missed a couple, but they hadn't been that important. The ones he was missing now were: 1-0 up at Ibrox he hit his shot straight at Klos, but worse than that was the shoot out in the UEFA cup against Valencia. Having scored a goal in a million to level to aggregate score Henrik then missed some, for him, easy chances and Valencia held on for penalties. Celtic kicked first and with the score at 2:1 Rab Douglas saved the Spanish effort. Henrik had the chance to put us 3:1 up but he missed, and with Petrov and Joos also missing we went out. Nightmare.

Last season of course saw the great European odyssey. Fantastic though most of it was, the final defeat in Seville still hurts. The Stuttgart tie also gave us a chance to try something we'll have to get very used to - Celtic without Henrik. During a league game against Livi he sustained a broken cheekbone which ruled him out for about six weeks. The press were rubbing their hands; 'Now we'll see just how much of a one man team they are' was the gist of it. Indeed. During the time he was out we didn't drop a point, eliminated Stuttgart thanks largely to the forward play of top trio Sutton, Hartson, Maloney and even beat Rangers 1:0.

In all likelihood we'll never replace Larsson just as we've never replaced Jinky, or Dalgish, or Danny, or McStay, but Celtic will go on and the team proved they were up to it. On his return he took only five minutes to score against Liverpool before giving the Reds defence a torrid time at Anfield. In the semi-final he bagged our goal in the 1:1 draw with Boavista but again he missed a crucial penalty (he had also missed against Basel, a miss that eventually cost us a Champions league spot). Yet no one held these misses against him for a number of reasons, most crucially because he nearly always made up for them, as he did in Portugal two weeks later when his left foot shot put us in the UEFA cup final.

His two goals in Seville should be in every football training video as examples of perfect headers; the first a superbly cushioned effort that floated in to the far corner, the second a Smith and Weston bullet that nearly took the net out. But sadly it wasn't enough.

Since the start of this season the press have constantly been at him about changing his mind, not because they want him to stay (heaven help us NO) but because it was an easy headline and I suppose it might unsettle him. And let's face it, the Huns needed all the help they could get.

No joy. Not only has he stuck by his decision but also his form has remained good. He hasn't taken any of our penalties recently - Sutton took that job on with great assurance - but his goal tally remains high.

That said, his game has tailed off slightly in recent months. He's not quite as speedy as he used to be and it was alarming how easily he was caught by Puyol in the Nou Camp (that didn't impress the Catalans) and you definitely get the impression that we've seen the best of him. It's maybe a good thing for him to go now while he's still a force. It would be awful to see him being put out of games by defenders you know wouldn't have stood a chance against him in his prime (McAvennie's return in 1993 was like that - he was a shadow of the centenary year lion who terrorised defences).

So what now? Well, Sutton and Hartson are still there and that's not a bad pairing. Hopefully Maloney will return to his old self - that's not a bad deputy - and of course Sutton has been through this kind of thing before (How do Blackburn replace Shearer? Easy, with me. Was his reply.)

Celtic will go on. The team might not have the same look to it and for sure it won't be the same for a long time, but it will still be Celtic.

Who knows, having watched his son shooting in after the league trophy was lifted we could be cheering another Larsson in some years time. Well who else is he going to play for?

We wish Henrik all the very best for the future and thank him most sincerely for the memories he has left us.

AB MURDOCH