Henrik Larsson: The King of Kings

Even though Henrik Larsson scored 434 goals in 772 games for seven different teams (Sweden included), when reminiscing, it is often his celebration, that was coined and evolved at Celtic, that sticks out in most football fans’ minds.

In an era where Alan Shearer’s one-armed sprint was often as exciting as it got in the British club game at the time (Faustino Asprilla’s sommersault apart), despite the influx of innovative celebrations in the 1990s with Roger Milla’s dancing at the 1990 World Cup and Bebeto’s baby cradle at the 1994 World Cup, Larsson’s inverted aeroplane, complete with loosened tongue, evoked Māori-like connotations yet reminded us all of the ecstasy of goalscoring. For Larsson though, it was his way of answering all those cynics who criticised him for ‘only’ scoring goals in the SPL, for never having the ambition to leave Celtic Park and for only being a bit-part player in Barcelona’s 2006 La Liga and Champions League triumphs. To answer those ‘shortcomings’, it is important to realise that the Swede was of a rare breed in modern football: a loyal club servant, who had the talent and goalscoring pedigree to match.

Larsson was born to Francisco Rocha, a sailor from the Cape Verde, and Eva Larsson, a factory worker who met Francisco when his boat docked in Helsingborg, in north-west Scania in 1971. While his parents never married and split up when Larsson was 12 years of age, they decided that Henrik should take his mother’s maiden name to help him assimilate into a Caucasian-dominated city and nation. However, despite his blonde hair and distinctly Swedish second name, Larsson’s curls stood out among his class mates and he could not escape occasional racist abuse. It resulted in Larsson getting into many scraps at school but his love of football, where he would train three days a week with local Third Division side Högaborgs from the age of 12, served as a welcome distraction from the pain of his parents splitting up.

Despite his obvious talent, Larsson, at 13, did not have a growth spurt until late into his teenage years and from this, he often found himself being left on the bench at Högaborgs by coach Bent Person. However, this motivated Larsson and at 17, he was promoted to the senior team. Despite his encouraging rise, solid performances yielded no offers from scouts and Larsson began to wonder if his dream of becoming a professional footballer, that he had mused about in so many of his English essays at school, would ever come true. Working as a fruit-packer once he finished school at 18, and with so many players of his age already playing top-level football in Sweden, Larsson began to give up on turning pro and realised that “football wasn’t everything.” The Swede carried on with his part-time semi-professional career at Högaborgs, scoring 23 goals in 74 games in his four-year spell with the senior team, and met his future wife, Magdalena, when he was 19.

With the Swedish connection of manager Sven-Göran Eriksson and striker Mats Magnusson, one of Larsson’s heroes who was also from Helsingborg, at Benfica, Larsson was offered a trial. While Eriksson decided against offering the Swede a contract, having just signed João Pinto, the veteran Mats Magnusson returned to play for Helsingborg in 1992 and influenced the Superettan (Second Division) side’s decision to sign Larsson. At 21, the Swede was handed a three-year full-time contract of £75 per week. Larsson, while not particularly prolific with Högaborgs, excelled in the Superettan with his 34 goals helping Helsingborg to promotion to the Allsvenskan (First Division) in just his first season. His change in goalscoring form may have been down to better training facilities and coaching, training every day, forming a brilliant partnership with Magnusson or simply because Larsson realised that the Superettan was the platform, unlike the sparsely followed Third Division, to impress and dazzle the Swedish public and potential scouts.

The 22 year old’s potent form continued in the Allsvenskan, where he netted 16 goals in 25 games, helping Helsingborg to a respectable ninth (out of fourteen teams) finish and alerted the likes of Grasshopper, managed by Christian Gross, and Feyenoord, managed by Wim Jansen, to his signature. Larsson was also handed his international debut by Tommy Svensson against Finland in a 1994 World Cup qualifier and starting alongside Martin Dahlin, Larsson’s 40th minute debut goal helped Sweden to a crucial 3-2 win. Having decided to wait for the Swedish season to end in the autumn to help Helsingborg stay up, and having chosen Feyenoord as his preferred destination, Larsson left Helsingborg for the Rotterdam giants for £295,000 in November 1993, with 50% of the transfer fee going to Larsson’s first club, Högaborg. Adapting to a foreign country, learning a new language and without his family, until his girlfriend Magdalena joined him a year later, Larsson initially found the Eredivisie a major step up – scoring a modest 6 goals in 27 games.

Despite taking time to adapt to the Eredivise, as was seen in his 1 : 4.5 strike-rate, Larsson was called-up to Sweden’s 1994 World Cup squad. Feeling tired and like “he had lost his first touch”, Larsson began the first match against Cameroon on the bench. Brought on as an inside right forward and with Sweden 2-1 down, a fierce long shot by Larsson hit the crossbar and Dahlin tucked in the rebound to earn Sweden a point. Larsson’s ‘assist’ was rewarded with a start, on the left wing, against Brazil in a 1-1 draw but he was then benched for the 3-1 win over Russia and the 3-1 second round win over Saudi Arabia. Brought on for Dahlin in extra-time of the 2-2 draw with Romania in the quarter-finals, Larsson was asked to take the sixth penalty in the penalty shootout. Despite scoring his penalty, Sweden’s decisive kick before Thomas Ravelli’s save from Miodrag Belodedici, Larsson was overlooked for the semi-final, a 1-0 defeat to Brazil, but he did play in the 4-1 third-place playoff win over Bulgaria. He scored the goal of the tournament in winning Sweden a bronze medal, latching onto a through ball from Thomas Brolin before rounding the advancing goalkeeper Borislav Mikhailov and wrong-footing defender Trifon Ivanov.

At club level, Larsson’s early inconsistency was not helped by the instability at the Feyenoord helm, where Jansen had since been moved upstairs and was replaced by Williem van Hanegem (1992-1995), who in turn was displaced by Arie Haan (1995-1997). Jansen had signed Larsson but had only managed him for two months, while van Hanegem and Haan initially failed to deploy Larsson in his natural position of striker – instead banishing him to the wing. While Haan did begin to play Larsson upfront in 1996/1997, the Dutchman had a host of attacking options: Denilson (Martins Nascimento), Chaly Jones, Tati Montoya, Gaston Taument and Henk Vos. This resulted in Haan employing a squad rotation policy and Larsson, even when he played well, being substituted fifty or sixty minutes into a match.

Tired of being rotated and being played in unfamiliar positions, and exasperated with the media criticism for his lack of goals (42 in 149 appearances), Larsson decided that he wanted to leave the 1996 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup semi-finalists. With a release clause in his contract that stated he could move for £650,000, Larsson told Hahn he wanted to leave in 1997 – leading to a bitter court wrangling between Feyenoord and Larsson in proving the clause’s merits. In the meantime, Larsson met with Helsingborg officials but fearful of being branded a failure for returning home, he decided to hold out for another offer. Fate was clearly on Larsson’s side, with Wim Jansen being appointed manager of Celtic in July 1997. From this, Jansen took the Swede to Celtic Park – the defining moment of Larsson’s career.

Celtic had lost the likes of Paolo Di Canio (Sheffield Wednesday), Pierre van Hooijdonk (Nottingham Forest) and Jorge Cadette (Celta Vigo) that summer so Jansen sought to replace these prolific marksmen with the signings of Harald Brattbakk (£2.3 million from Rosenborg) and Larsson. With a huge transfer fee weighing on his shoulders and having scored an incredible 97 goals in 100 games for Rosenborg, Brattbakk had to cope with intense hype and media scrutiny. This definitely benefited Larsson but considering how the Swede’s career at Celtic panned out, his debut could not have been any different. Brought on in the 59′ against Hibernian at Easter Road, with the score at 1-1, Larsson inadvertently set-up Hibs’s veteran midfielder Chic Charnley – who powered a 25 yard strike past Gordon Marshall to win Hibs the match. However, that was merely a freak occurrence as three weeks later in the UEFA Cup Third Round second-leg qualifier at home to Austrian side Wacker Innsbruck, with Celtic 2-1 down on aggregate, Larsson set-up four goals in Celtic’s 6-3 win – which more than compensated for his 45th minute own goal.

With Rangers targeting an incredible ten titles in a row in 1997/1998, Larsson played a huge role in Celtic winning their first title since 1988. The Swede finished as the Hoops’ top scorer with 19 goals from 46 matches as Celtic won the title and Scottish League Cup. With Wim Jansen resigning as Celtic manager just 48 hours after Celtic’s title win, following an unstable partnership with General Manager Jock Brown, there were strong rumours of Larsson leaving the club. Czech Jozef Vengloš, who had become the first foreign manager of a British team when he took over at Aston Villa in 1991 but ultimately had a mixed club managerial record in comparison to his successes with the Czech Republic national team, replaced Jansen. Vengloš convinced Larsson to stay and under the Czech, who brought out the best in the Swede by pairing him with the trequartista Lubomír Moravčík, the then 27 year old Larsson had the best season of his career up to that point: scoring 38 goals in 49 games and winning a host of awards, including the Players’ Player of the Year, the Scottish Writers’ Player of the Year and Sweden’s Player of the Year. However, Rangers, under the newly-appointed Dick Advocaat, who had spent £36 million that summer and had brought in the likes of Stefan Klos, Colin Hendry, Craig Moore, Arthur Numan, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Claudio Reyna, Andrei Kanchelskis and Rod Wallace, proved too strong and won a Scottish treble in 1998/1999.

From this, Vengloš and General Manager Brown were sacked but rather than learning from their mistakes, the Celtic board instead kept a similar template – but with much more high-profile names: Celtic legend, Kenny Dalglish, was appointed as Director of Football while rookie manager, John Barnes, was installed as head coach. Reported interest in Larsson from Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United never materialised but Larsson started the season in inspired form, netting 9 goals in his first 8 games. However, Larsson’s and Celtic’s season were rocked on 21 October. In a UEFA Cup tie against Lyon, Larsson suffered a freak injury when chasing a loose ball with Lyon defender Serge Blanc. The Swede broke his left leg in two places when it got caught under Blanc’s run and initially, there were fears for Larsson’s career due to the possibility of a compound fracture.

However, Larsson fought back, recovered within 8 months and came on in the last game of the season against Dundee United. In his absence, Celtic, despite Marc Viduka’s emergence and their League Cup victory over Aberdeen, had a horrific season and were infamously knocked out of the Scottish Cup by lowly Inverness, finished 21 points off Rangers at the top (failing to beat Rangers in any of the four Old Firm matches) and replaced Barnes with Dalglish as manager in February 2000. Despite Larsson’s injury-ravaged season, he made Tommy Söderberg’s and Lars Lagerbäck’s Euro 2000 squad. Although Sweden struggled in the tournament, claiming just one point in their group and scoring a modest two goals, Larsson scored his first competitive goal for nine months when he netted in the 2-1 defeat to Italy. Larsson’s goal on 77′, which equalised Luigi Di Biagio’s 37′ opener, showed he had not lost his signature off-the ball movement, pace and finishing and was very similar to his 1994 goal against Bulgaria in the third-place playoff, with Larsson racing onto a through ball from Kennet Andersson before dummying and rounding Francesco Toldo.

Just like Jansen’s arrival at Celtic in 1997, when he saved Larsson from a dire and strained situation at Feyenoord, Martin O’Neill’s appointment in June 2000 proved a crucial moment in Larsson’s career. Larsson had scored an impressive 69 goals in 107 games for the Hoops before O’Neill’s arrival but remarkably, Larsson became even more prolific under the Northern Irishman’s management. Even though Celtic had lost Marc Viduka to Leeds for £6 million, the likes of Rab Douglas, Joos Valgaeren, Didier Agathe, Neil Lennon, Alan Thompson and Chris Sutton arrived and proved great successes for Celtic. With Rangers having invested greatly again, with the signings of names such as Bert Konterman, Ronald de Boer, Fernando Ricksen, Kenny Miller and Tore Andre Flo, the 2000/2001 season proved to be one of the most exciting and high goalscoring campaigns in years.

Having failed to beat Rangers in any of the four Old Firm league games the previous season, Celtic’s victory over Rangers on 27 August was a huge psychological boost. A 6-2 victory, which became known as the ‘Demolition Derby’, saw Larsson score the greatest goal of his career. Having started the season in great form, scoring 3 goals in 5 games, Larsson burst into his unplayable best in the Old Firm game with the first of his two goals on 50′. Larsson picked the ball up 35 yards from goal, after a trademark knockdown from Chris Sutton, ran beyond three Rangers defenders, including a brilliant shimmy past Numan, before a glorious chip from 10 yards over the advancing Klos. The goal firmly placed Larsson in Celtic folklore and as the Swede’s performances got even better as the season went on, ‘triggered’ by the Swede shaving off his dreadlocks on 2 October, it was obvious Larsson’s horrific injury had made him an even hungrier player and that O’Neill’s man management certainly had an effect too. Larsson, forming a brilliant partnership with Sutton, went on to score an astonishing 50 goals in 53 games (including his 50th of the season against Rangers on 29 April, a hattrick in the 3-0 win over Kilmarnock in the Scottish League Cup final and a brace in the 2-0 Scottish Cup final win over Hibernian). Although Rangers did gain revenge for the 6-2 loss with a 5-1 win over the Hoops at Ibrox on 26 November, Celtic cruised to a Scottish treble – their first since Jock Stein’s in 1969.

Larsson won the Scottish Players’ Player of the Year, the Scottish Football Writers’ Player of the Year and the European Golden Shoe (52.5 points) ahead of the likes of Hernán Crespo (52 points) and Andriy Shevchenko (48 points). It is rare that compliments are ever paid to Celtic players from their bitter rivals, but Dick Advocaat could not help but pay tribute to Larsson’s magnificent season, saying in 2001:

Larsson is one of the best strikers in Europe, maybe the world. If you watch Batistuta, he is sometimes not seen for 90 minutes but he scores two goals. Larsson has even more, because, besides being a good player and goalscorer, he has a tremendous work rate.

Advocaat’s words were not met by huge criticism from Rangers’ fans as Larsson never lowered himself by getting involved in the intensity and non-football side of Old Firm matches. Instead, Larsson declared :

I stay out of religion because I don’t think it has anything to do with football. For me, it is football, that is why I was there and that is why I am here.

From this, Larsson always let his feet do the talking in the Old Firm matches, unlike the controversy the likes of Paul Gascoigne and Artur Boruc have stirred-up over the years.

Incredibly, Larsson returned to pre-season with O’Neill being the first manager to last two pre-seasons in the Swede’s four-year spell at Celtic. Rewarded with a new three-year contract, on a club record £40,000 per week, Larsson credited the fans’ support as one of the reasons for staying. With O’Neill targeting Champions League qualification in the 2001/2002 season, which Celtic had yet to achieve, Momo Sylla, Dianbobo Balde, Steve Guppy and John Hartson arrived to boost a strong squad. Ajax were beaten 3-2 on aggregate in the third qualifying round, which led to Celtic being placed in a tough Group E alongside Juventus, Porto and Rosenborg. Celtic performed admirably, winning three games (including an infamous 4-3 win over Juventus) but missed out on the second round by just one point. Larsson finished as Celtic’ top scorer in Europe with 4 goals after Celtic went out on penalties in the third round of the UEFA Cup to a strong Valencia side, who had contested back-to-back Champions League finals in the previous two seasons. Larsson missed the decisive penalty in the defeat, but his 29 goals in 33 league games went a long way to Celtic retaining the title with an incredible points total of 103 points – after losing just one league game (to Aberdeen) all season.

Larsson’s attention then turned towards the World Cup in Japan and South Korea with Sweden drawn in Group F, the group of death, alongside England, Argentina and Nigeria. Sweden’s unbeaten haul of five points in the group was a great achievement, with Larsson scoring two of their four goals in the group, both coming in the crucial 2-1 win over Nigeria, before they bowed out 2-1 to Senegal in the second round – despite Larsson putting them ahead on on 11′. Larsson, then 30, decided it would be his last international match and he retired from international football.

The 2002/2003 season is often looked back on as one of the greatest in Celtic’s recent history yet bizarrely, they did not win a trophy. Having disappointingly lost out on away goals to Basel in the Champions League qualifiers, Celtic entered the UEFA Cup and game-by-game, improved and beat seemingly superior opposition. Weak Lithuanian side Suduva apart, Celtic defeated strong teams like Blackburn, Celta Vigo, VfB Stuttgart, Liverpool and Boavista before facing José Mourinho’s Porto in Celtic’s first European final since 1970. Larsson had scored a brilliant 10 goals in 10 games as Celtic made the final and he was integral to their hopes of defeating a strong Porto outfit in Seville, who had assembled a quality side that would win the Champions League in just twelve months, with players such Victor Baia, Paulo Ferreira, Nuno Valente, Jorge Costa, Ricardo Carvalho, Costinha, Maniche, Deco and Derlei.

It was a battle of the UEFA Cup’s top scorers as Larsson (10) was up against the equally prolific Derlei (10), with both men playing a huge role in their side’s progression and the final: Larsson scored two bullet-like headers as Celtic battled back from 1-0 down on 47’ and then from 2-1 down on 56’, while Derlei, feeding off an inspired Deco performance, netted two goals to put Porto 1-0 up on 45’ and 3-2 up against ten-man Celtic (Balde was sent-off on 95′) on 115’. Larsson called the night in Seville the most painful moment of his career – even dwarfing that of his horrific leg break in 1999. Adding to Celtic’s Seville heartbreak, the Scottish League was won on goal difference as Rangers had +73 in comparison to Celtic’s +72, with both teams finishing on 97 points. So incredibly, Celtic, despite having an inspired season with Larsson scoring 44 goals in 52 games, finished trophyless.

After beating MTK Budapest in the 2003/2004 qualifiers, Celtic made the Champions League group stages for the second time under O’Neill. Drawn in a tough Group A alongside Bayern Munich, Lyon and Anderlecht, Celtic managed a respectable seven points – which sent them into the UEFA Cup third round. Before the Hoops began their UEFA Cup campaign, Larsson was voted as Sweden’s Greatest Player of the Last 50 Years in November – beating the likes of Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Niels Liedholm to the title. Celtic made the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup after defeating FK Teplice of the Czech Republic and then achieving a memorable 1-0 aggregate win over a Barcelona side, managed by Frank Rijkaard, that featured names such as Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Xavi, Ronaldinho, Ricardo Quaresma and Javier Saviola. Despite the brilliant win over Barcelona, Villarreal in the quarters proved a bridge too far for Celtic and they lost 3-1 on aggregate. However, the Hoops did manage to reclaim the Scottish Premier League, with a total of 98 points, and beat Rangers in all four of the Old Firm league matches. They also won the Scottish Cup against Dunfermline, with Larsson netting two goals in a 3-1 win.

Scoring a brilliant 40 goals in 58 games, the 33 year old Larsson proved he was still one of the greatest finishers in world football but with his contract due to expire in June 2004, and the Swede explicitly saying that this would be his last season at Celtic Park, a tearful Larsson waved goodbye at the final league game of the season against Dundee United. A testimonial match followed against Sevilla, with O’Neill claiming Larsson was “the best he had ever worked with”, but even though the Celtic fans lost their hero and the SPL’s record goalscorer at the time (158 goals), they saw Larsson leave on a high and the majority of fans did not begrudge the Swede the chance to win a major trophy at Barcelona. After all, Larsson had spent his seven peak years at Celtic and had rejected numerous overtures from clubs in England and abroad to repay the Celtic fans, who had given him the ‘foreign home’ he had craved for so long.

Just months after the eulogy of his career by the Swedish FA, Larsson was convinced to make a u-turn on his four-year decision to retire from international football by coach Lars Lagerbäck for the Euro 2004 tournament. This was Larsson’s fifth competitive tournament with Sweden and his three goals in Group C (Italy, Denmark, Bulgaria) helped Sweden top the group with five points. His goal against Bulgaria, the same side he scored the best goal of World Cup 1994 against, was voted the goal of the tournament: Larsson met Erik Edman’s cross with a brilliant ten-yard bullet diving header. It proved the highlight of Sweden’s tournament as they went out on penalties, after a 0-0 draw with the Netherlands, in the quarter-finals. Encouraged, Larsson decided to continue his international career, in the hope of firing Sweden to their fifth successive World Cup in 2006.

Larsson signed a one-year deal with Barça and with the brilliance of Samuel Eto’o, Ronaldinho and Ludovic Giuly ahead of him in the pecking order, Larsson was used as a twelfth man, that is, a game-breaker from the bench. It would become a familiar role for Barcelona’s number seven but the Swede had no complaints and thrived in the role. Perhaps the most memorable moment of Larsson’s 2004/2005 campaign was his fate-like return to Celtic Park in the Group F match on 15 September. With the game at 1-1, Larsson came on in the 62’ for Ronaldinho and while a small section of the Celtic fans booed the Swede as he readied himself to come on, it was drowned out by a resounding crescendo of “Henrik! Henrik! Henrik!” as Ronaldinho’s number ten went up on the substitutes board. Larsson repaid the tribute, after latching onto a poor back-pass header from Alan Thompson before dinking the ball over goalkeeper Alan Marshall, by not celebrating his goal on 82’ that made it 3-1. Commenting after the game, Larsson spoke of “how difficult it was for me to celebrate because I had so many good times here.”

After tearing the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his left knee against Real Madrid on 20 November, Larsson missed the rest of the season. Having scored a reasonable 4 goals in 16 games (considering most of his appearances were from the bench), Barça took up the option to extend his contract for another year. Barcelona won the 2004/2005 La Liga and from this, Larsson won his first ever title outside of Scotland. Upon his return from injury at the start of the 2005/2006 season, Larsson would have a much greater impact and influence, just like when he was re-energised from his leg break in 1999, and scored an impressive 15 goals in 42 games (again many of these coming from the bench).

The greatest cameo of his career duly occurred in the biggest match of his career: the 2006 Champions League Final against Arsenal. With ten-man Arsenal 1-0 up thanks to Sol Campbell’s header on 37’, Larsson came on for Mark van Bommel on 61’ and rather than being the finisher who scored two goals, as he had been for so much of his career, the 35 year old Larsson instead provided the cutting edge – setting up Samuel Eto’o and Juliano Belletti on 76’ and 81’ respectively. The Swede’s deft lay off for Eto’o allowed the Cameroonian to brilliantly break the offside trap, while Larsson’s one-two pullback for Belletti showcased Larsson’s often underrated vision. Larsson was lauded, with the then Arsenal forward Thierry Henry summing it up after the match:

People always talk about Ronaldinho, Eto’o, 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.

Ronaldinho was also quick to pay tribute, saying: “He’s not merely a player. He’s a legend, a hero and my idol.” The Brazilian magician, officially the world’s best player from 2004-2006, was the first to admit that he knew little of the prolific Larsson before the Swede joined Barcelona in the summer of 2004 but in just two seasons at the Camp Nou, the then 36 year old Larsson was hailed in his own exclusive pantheon, ahead of the likes of Garrincha, Pelé, Rivelino, Jairzinho, Sócrates, Zico, Romário, Rivaldo and Ronaldo, by Ronaldinho. With Larsson’s contract due to expire in June, Barcelona President Joan Laporta offered the Swede another year-long extension but Larsson politely turned it down in favour of finishing his career at hometown club Helsingborg.

Larsson’s career had come full circle, but many believed he still had at least a season left at the highest level. Nonetheless, having helped Sweden qualify for the 2006 World Cup, scoring four goals during the qualification campaign, Larsson took part in the third World Cup of his career. Sweden were drawn in Group B with England, Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago and after Larsson netted a last-minute equaliser in the final group game against England to make it 2-2, Sweden were drawn with home-favourites Germany in the second round. Having become one of only six players in World Cup history to score in three tournaments, Larssson’s decent World Cup was tainted by a penalty miss in the game against Germany. After Lukas Podolski had put Germany 2-0 up on 4’ and 8′, Larsson had the chance to score from the spot on 53’ after winning a penalty but the Swede blazed over. After the match, Larsson announced his second retirement from international football to focus on his family life and club career with Helsingborg.

The 36 year old Larsson scored an impressive 12 goals in 20 games as Helsingborg won the Swedish Cup and finished 4th in the Allsvenskan – earning them a place in 2007/2008’s UEFA Cup. With the Allsvenskan’s off-season occurring between the end of November and the beginning of March, there was a window for a loan move for Larsson. With Sir Alex Ferguson a long-time admirer, who once compared Larsson to Eric Cantona, and with United having a shortage of strikers, with Louis Saha and Ole Gunnar Solskjær suffering a series of niggles, the timing of Larsson’s arrival was welcomed. Larsson’s spell of 3 goals in 13 games is fondly remembered by United fans, with the Swede scoring on his debut in the 2-1 FA Cup 3rd Round against Aston Villa, in the 4-0 Premier League rout over Watford and in the 2-0 win over Lille in the Champions League. Ferguson desperately wanted to retain the Swede but Larsson made a promise to Helsingborg and although he would later reveal that the biggest regret of his career was “not staying at United longer”, Larsson stayed true to his word. The English FA gave him and the injury-hit Alan Smith special dispensation for Premier League winner’s medals, as Larsson played 7 league games and Smith appeared in 9 league matches (both short of the Premier League’s quota of 10), after United finished six points clear of Chelsea with 89 points.

The evergreen Larsson spent three more seasons with Helsingborg, scoring 42 goals in 84 games, and even returned to play for Sweden for Euro 2008 – the sixth competitive international tournament of his career. It was ultimately a disappointing tournament for Sweden, winning just one group game against Greece, and Russia and Spain progressed from Group D. Larsson took over from Freddie Ljungberg as captain in 2009, but retired from international football for the last time on 11 October and then from football altogether on 29 October 2009. Although Larsson had promised to play the last year of his professional career at Högaborgs, the club who had developed his talents, this was not fulfilled until Larsson joined their veterans team in August 2009, scoring 16 goals in 5 games.

Henrik Larsson became manager of Superettan side Landskrona BoIS in December 2009 and having led BoIS to a respectable 5th place finish in 2010, the 39 year old’s Larsson’s managerial career could yet mirror his playing career – a patient start with a Superettan side, before spells at his beloved Helsingborg and Celtic and then a climax at one of the world’s biggest clubs. Regardless, wherever Larsson has gone, his ability, gentleman-like class, commitment and resilience have always been evident and that is why it is not just at Celtic that he is known as the King of Kings.

The Author

Ciaran Kelly

Sports writer and author of José Mourinho: The Rise of the Translator, featuring exclusive interviews with key figures not synonymous with the traditional Mourinho narrative and Johan Cruyff: The Total Voetballer, an ebook which peaked in the Top 40 of Amazon's top 100 Sports Books' chart. I have also written for Britain best selling football magazine, FourFourTwo and other British publications. I am a fully qualified reporter with an NCTJ Diploma in Journalism and a Masters degree in Sports Journalism from St. Mary's University, London.

One thought on “Henrik Larsson: The King of Kings

  1. Hi Ciaran – just a quike note to say – well done on the article – very impressed with the research and a fitting tribute to the absolute Ghod that is Mr. Larsson!

    well done again.


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