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 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.