One-on-one: Hen­rik Lars­son

DID HE PLAY In SCOT­LAND FOR TOO LONG? HOW GOBBY WAS A 20-YEAR-OLD ZLA­TAN? WOULD HE LET HIS SON PLAY FOR RANGERS?

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view Chris Flana­gan Pho­tog­ra­phy Christof­fer Lom­fors

Four­fourtwo has ar­rived in Nordic Noir ter­ri­tory, just a few miles north of the set­ting for TV crime drama The Bridge, and there is a sense of fore­bod­ing in the air on this au­tumn af­ter­noon in south­ern Swe­den.

Hen­rik Lars­son is in the fi­nal weeks of his sec­ond sea­son as Hels­ing­borgs boss – a cam­paign that will even­tu­ally end in rel­e­ga­tion with fans con­fronting the man­ager and his son Jor­dan at the fi­nal whis­tle. “It hasn’t gone how we wanted it to,” ad­mits the 45-year-old.

But to­day at the Olympia sta­dium, the post out­side his of­fice is far more pos­i­tive – the lat­est in a steady stream of fan mail from all over the world.

Given the ca­reer Lars­son has had, that’s not much of a sur­prise... Who was your big­gest foot­balling in­spi­ra­tion while grow­ing up? Samuel Lawrence-joshua, Lon­don I had a video of Pele and I used to watch it all the time. I’d come home from school, put it on and watch it be­fore I went to prac­tice. I’ve met him a cou­ple of times: in 1998 and also a few years back. I took a pic­ture with him, even though I was 41 or 42!

How close did you come to quit­ting foot­ball when you were strug­gling to get into Ho­gaborgs’ ju­nior teams? An­ders Karls­son, Land­skrona Quit­ting was never really an op­tion. It was a tough time – I was al­ways small, as other kids grew faster than me – but I loved the game too much to quit. A lot of peo­ple just quit be­cause they have some ob­sta­cles, but you need to be per­sis­tent in or­der to suc­ceed. When I was 18 I had a trial at Ben­fica, when Sven-goran Eriks­son was the man­ager, then at 21 I was work­ing for a com­pany load­ing veg­eta­bles onto trucks. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but I got the call that Hels­ing­borgs wanted to sign me. That felt great, and the rest is his­tory.

Did you really throw a jour­nal­ist into a swim­ming pool dur­ing those days? Steve Mcin­tyre, Hamil­ton Yes! [Laughs] That was when you could joke a lit­tle bit with the lo­cal jour­nal­ists. I didn’t do it all by my­self: there were a few other play­ers and we de­cided we were go­ing to throw him in for a laugh. He was fully clothed – oth­er­wise it’s no fun! The jour­nal­ist had crit­i­cised me when I was younger, but that wasn’t the rea­son we did it. He still laughs about it to­day when I speak to him.

Swe­den fin­ished third at your first World Cup, in 1994. Is that re­garded as one of Swe­den’s great­est teams? Carl Jones, Bris­tol In mod­ern his­tory, yes – ev­ery time the World Cup comes around, peo­ple talk about it. I was 22, and get­ting into a World Cup squad is what you dream about as a kid, so fin­ish­ing third was fan­tas­tic. Scor­ing in the third-place play-off was an amaz­ing feel­ing and I took a penalty in our quar­ter-fi­nal shootout against Ro­ma­nia. It was nerve-wrack­ing, but I’d been hit­ting that penalty since I was six years old – al­though it went a lit­tle too close to the post! Sit­u­a­tions like that make or break you. It helped me, be­cause later in my ca­reer I could look back and say, ‘Well, there’s no sit­u­a­tion with more pres­sure than tak­ing that penalty.’

How odd was it, hav­ing to go to court in a suit and tie just to get per­mis­sion to leave Feyeno­ord to sign for Celtic? Lisa Muir, Glasgow It was strange! Feyeno­ord in­ter­preted a clause in my con­tract in one way, but my rep­re­sen­ta­tive and I both knew the right in­ten­tion of the clause. I wasn’t pleased with the club at the time, but it is no prob­lem to­day – I’ve good con­tact with the peo­ple there. Things were not al­ways too great for me on the pitch at Feyeno­ord and I went with sour grapes to Scot­land. But once I’d ar­rived I was happy be­cause Wim Jansen was there. He’d taken to me to Hol­land orig­i­nally and un­der­stood what he had bought.

How did you feel when your stray pass set up Chic Charn­ley to score Hibs’ win­ner on your Celtic de­but? Scott Collins, Ed­in­burgh It wasn’t ex­actly the best start for me at Celtic, but I have to give some stick to Dar­ren Jack­son be­cause he didn’t want the ball to feet and he ran away! It hap­pens. Af­ter the match I said to jour­nal­ists, “It’s all my fault; I hold my hands up”, even though I didn’t really think that was the case. To­day I blame it all on Dar­ren Jack­son – and I’ve told him that, too! But that’s the way things go. I think I man­aged to turn it around…

What is your favourite mem­ory from your time at Celtic? Michael Kear­ney, via Twit­ter There are so many! The day that we stopped Rangers win­ning 10 ti­tles in a row, the day that we se­cured the Tre­ble and the day we reached the UEFA Cup fi­nal. I’ve prob­a­bly missed about 50 oth­ers. I didn’t know much about Celtic when I ar­rived; about seven of us joined at the same time and we didn’t really un­der­stand the pres­sure. We came into a sit­u­a­tion where we had to stop Rangers from win­ning 10 straight ti­tles – they’d have been the first team to do it. We didn’t un­der­stand all of that, which was why we man­aged to keep our heads. If we’d been there longer and known we had to stop Rangers from win­ning 10 in a row, it would have been much more dif­fi­cult.

Who was the best man­ager that you worked un­der in your play­ing ca­reer? Lind­say Hamil­ton, Stir­ling I had many good man­agers: Wim Jansen, Martin O’neill, Frank Ri­jkaard and Alex Fer­gu­son to name just a few. And Martin knew how to get every­body mo­ti­vated. I re­mem­ber when we were about to go onto the field at Liver­pool in the sea­son we reached the UEFA Cup fi­nal – we’d drawn 1-1 at Celtic Park so had to score at An­field. The talk he gave be­fore the game made ev­ery­thing sink in for me. I said to my­self, ‘F**king hell, I will have no re­grets af­ter this game.’ In 1999, an in­fa­mous photo ap­peared of you at Lyon with part of your leg vir­tu­ally dan­gling off. Did that hor­ror in­jury feel just as bad as it looked? Da­mon Main, via Face­book That ru­ined my po­ten­tial ca­reer as a leg model – I’ve been told I’ve got great legs! [Laughs] I’ve still got the ti­ta­nium rod in my leg. Straight af­ter I broke it, I did two things. Firstly, it was a Dutch ref­eree so I said to him in Dutch, “I think I’ve bro­ken my leg”, as when I raised it, it was hang­ing the wrong way. Then, as I was lay­ing on the ground, I counted the months to the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship. This was in the Oc­to­ber and Euro 2000 was that com­ing sum­mer. That was my tar­get, and in the end I man­aged to play in the tour­na­ment. But un­der­stand me on this: I’m glad that I broke my leg in 1999 rather than in ’87 or ’79, as back then I would have been fin­ished.

Af­ter your leg break you came back bet­ter than ever. Why was that? Kevin Cherry, Ed­in­burgh A lot of peo­ple did ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble for me to come back a bet­ter player: Bill Leach the sur­geon, phys­ios Brian Scott and Kenny Mcmil­lan, Gra­ham Quinn the masseur and Jim Hendry the fit­ness guy. I sud­denly strug­gled with the sim­ple things in life that you take for granted, like go­ing to the loo. I don’t think any­one who hasn’t been in that sit­u­a­tion un­der­stands what it’s like. Those things made me want to fight even harder to come back, play foot­ball and give it ev­ery­thing I had.

In your first full sea­son af­ter the in­jury, you won the Euro­pean Golden Boot. How proud are you of that? Ben Shim­min, Manch­ester No other Scan­di­na­vian player has ever done that, and we’ve had some de­cent play­ers. I scored 53 goals, with 35 of them in the league. I’m very proud of it, but I couldn’t have done it with­out my team-mates: Chris Sut­ton, Tom Boyd, Alan Thomp­son, Di­dier Agathe, Regi Blinker, Jackie Mc­na­mara and Lubo Mo­rav­cik. They were all part of it.

I read once that Chris Sut­ton was your favourite strike part­ner, ahead of some bril­liant con­tenders. Is it true? Shawn Arm­strong, North Shields Yes, that’s right. Chris and I were a really good strike part­ner­ship, as he could be the shield for me. We un­der­stood each other and had a great rap­port, as did our fam­i­lies. We still have that now.

What’s the weird­est thing you ever got tan­gled up in your dread­locks? James Moore, Lon­don De­fend­ers! They were al­ways try­ing to grab them! The dread­locks were easy to main­tain: I got up in the morn­ing and flicked my head. If they got too big, I’d pull them apart ev­ery now and again. In the end I got too old for them. Why the tongue cel­e­bra­tion? Ameen Rab­bani, Glasgow It just hap­pened. I saw a pic­ture of it af­ter a game when I had done it and thought, ‘Why not stick with it?’ But I started get­ting let­ters from par­ents, up­set that their kids were run­ning around with their tongues out, and I couldn’t be both­ered with those let­ters any more. So I stopped it.

At the 2002 World Cup you played along­side a 20-year-old Zla­tan Ibrahi­movic. Did he have the swag­ger even at his first ma­jor tour­na­ment? Jimmy Fair­bairn, Uxbridge He was more naïve at the time, but still a great per­son­al­ity. He had the skills but he didn’t have all the bits in place. Back then I was asked how good he could be and I said it was up to him, as he had ev­ery­thing. Now he’s one of the world’s best strik­ers, and has been for years.

Was the 2003 UEFA Cup Fi­nal loss to Porto the worst day of your ca­reer? An­dre Fre­itas, Guimaraes Yes. We had Porto on the fork – I’d scored two, but we still couldn’t win. That was very hard to take. Win­ning a Euro­pean tro­phy with Celtic would have meant so much to us and the fans. There were so many peo­ple who trav­elled with­out a ticket – they just wanted to be there in Seville to see us win... [pauses with emo­tion in his voice] but we didn’t man­age to do it. I still get goose­bumps talk­ing about it now. That Porto team went on to win the Cham­pi­ons League. That’s tes­ta­ment to how good a team we had that year.

How dif­fi­cult was the de­ci­sion to leave Celtic and join Barcelona? John Boyd, Dum­fries It was hard but I felt that if I didn’t score for a cou­ple of games, the me­dia would say, “He’s not the same Lars­son any more” and I wanted to quit while I was

“I STARTED GET­TING LET­TERS FROM PAR­ENTS, UP­SET THAT THEIR KIDS WERE RUN­NING AROUND WITH THEIR TONGUES OUT, SO I STOPPED DO­ING IT”

ahead. I had one year left on my con­tract and, in or­der to stop all the spec­u­la­tion, I wanted to de­clare as early as pos­si­ble that I wouldn’t sign an ex­ten­sion at Celtic – I didn’t want any mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tions. There were more than 30 clubs in­ter­ested, and I was look­ing to Spain be­cause my dream was to play some­where warm. I didn’t want to be fight­ing rel­e­ga­tion, so I thought I would be pleased if it was a team in the mid­dle. But then Barça came in and I said, “Yes!”

Af­ter los­ing the Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal with Ar­se­nal in 2006, Thierry Henry said: “Peo­ple will talk about [Samuel] Eto’o and Ronald­inho a lot, but they should be talk­ing about the play­ers who made the dif­fer­ence like Hen­rik Lars­son with his two as­sists.” How did his words make you feel? Jonny Ritchie, Fraser­burgh It was great to hear that from a player like him. Com­ing on and con­tribut­ing to turn­ing the game was fan­tas­tic. When Eto’o and [Ju­liano] Bel­letti scored, I just felt, ‘Yes!’ As a kid you dream about the Cham­pi­ons League. That was the best mo­ment of my ca­reer, with­out a doubt.

Ronald­inho de­scribed you as his idol. How was your re­la­tion­ship with him? Andy Evans, Here­ford He used to joke ev­ery morn­ing, “Hey, idolo, idolo!” That was great! It wasn’t just about what he did on the pitch; you have to re­alise the pres­sure he was un­der at a club like Barcelona. I take my hat off to him for still be­ing able to come in ev­ery morn­ing with a big smile on his face. He’s a great hu­man be­ing.

Did you know how special Lionel Messi was go­ing to be when he was breaking into Barcelona’s first team? Jim Sav­age, via Twit­ter I re­mem­ber say­ing to Gio­vanni van Bron­ck­horst when we were in Asia on a pre-sea­son tour: “Who’s that guy?” When I saw him in prac­tice there, I thought, ‘Wow’. The close con­trol, the bal­ance – it was all there, even back then. He was good then, but now he’s great. At that time he didn’t have all the skills to do ev­ery­thing he’s do­ing now, but some­times in prac­tice you’d still think, ‘Woah, cluck­ing hell.’

Why did you de­cide to leave Barcelona? Xavier Tort, Tar­rag­ona I didn’t want to be on the bench any more. I felt that I still had a few good years left in me and I wanted to play. That’s why I came home to play in Swe­den, plus my son was 10 and I wanted to give him the op­por­tu­nity to call some­where home. I made the right de­ci­sion. I won the Swedish Cup with Hels­ing­borgs but more im­por­tantly, if I look at my son, this is his home town, he has met his friends and he’s en­joy­ing his life here.

Your son, Jor­dan, is at Hels­ing­borgs and was linked with Rangers. Would you dis­own him if he signed for them? Steven O’kane, Dublin He would never do that! [FFT: What about Celtic?] It’s up to him what he wants to do. If he’s good enough, he will get the chance. He’s promis­ing, for sure, but there’s more pres­sure on him than on any other 19-year-old here in Swe­den. In the first part of this sea­son he was fan­tas­tic, but when things don’t go so well, he gets a lit­tle too much stick as he’s my son. But he’s strong enough to han­dle things.

Do you re­gret spend­ing only two months at Manch­ester United in 2007? Paul Kay, Frod­sham Yes, that’s the only re­gret I have in my ca­reer. I should’ve stayed, as it would have meant I got a Premier League win­ner’s medal, and I would have stayed for one more sea­son. But I still had a con­tract with Hels­ing­borgs and I feel that when you sign a con­tract, you have to see it out. Ev­ery­thing was pro­fes­sional at United. When I had to at­tend a chris­ten­ing for my brother’s chil­dren, the club or­dered a plane to take me there af­ter a match. United really

take care of all their play­ers.

What was the best goal you ever scored? Anthony Moore, Lon­don I would say it was the lit­tle dink in the derby at home to Rangers. That was special for me be­cause of the nut­meg on Bert Kon­ter­man first. Then Ste­fan Klos was com­ing out of his goal, but the ball was go­ing in as soon as it left my right boot. Peo­ple still talk about that goal a lot! Do you think that you spent too many sea­sons in Scot­land, even with all of your fan­tas­tic achieve­ments there? Tom, via Face­book No, I don’t. I got to play in the big­gest tour­na­ments – the Cham­pi­ons League and UEFA Cup, the Euros, World Cups – scor­ing goals wher­ever I was. Then, at 35, I showed that I could still do a job at Man United, even if I wasn’t at the peak of my pow­ers. [FFT: Was go­ing to Barcelona and Man United about you prov­ing any­thing?] No, as I showed it in 2002 by scor­ing three times at the World Cup, and I think I was one of the bet­ter strik­ers at Euro 2004. I signed for Barcelona and all of a sud­den peo­ple said, “Maybe he’s not bad af­ter all.” If you un­der­stand the game then you un­der­stand that I was quite a de­cent striker.

You’ve played in the most fiercely con­tested games in world foot­ball: Ajax-feyeno­ord, Celtic-rangers, Barcelona-real Madrid. Which is the big­gest in terms of pas­sion? Jun Kalous­tian, via Face­book The Old Firm, with­out doubt. The noise was in­cred­i­ble. If we were a cou­ple of yards apart on the pitch, I’d have trou­ble reach­ing you with my voice. [FFT: Big­ger than the Cla­sico?] Yes. The Old Firm is hec­tic, but it feels great when you win and I won more than I lost. I think I scored 15 goals in 30 games – a pretty good record!

Would you man­age Celtic, or are you scared it could ruin your sta­tus there? Anthony, via Twit­ter As long as I’m do­ing this work I am go­ing to be con­nected to Celtic, but they have got a great man­ager now. They spoke to me about the job two years ago, but the tim­ing wasn’t right. Here at Hels­ing­borgs there have been ups and downs, but that is all part of man­age­ment. You need to learn how to han­dle it. My man­age­rial am­bi­tions are the same as I had as a player: to be­come as good as pos­si­ble and to join the big teams in the big leagues.

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