In July 1997, the then Celtic manager, Wim Jansen pounced when Feyenoord fell into a contract dispute with their star striker. In four years with the Rotterdam-based club, he had notched 26 league goals in 101 games, but a move now seemed inevitable. Jansen convinced his board to part with £650,000 to complete the transfer, and the Hoops welcomed Henrik Larsson to Glasgow. The rest, as they say, is history.
Although things didn’t begin so well for the player – in his first appearance for the club, a misplaced pass led to a goal being conceded and Celtic lost 2-1 to Hibernian – such minor inconveniences would soon be forgotten. Larsson would go on to deliver a plethora of goals, 242 goals in just 313 appearances across seven seasons, and share in some of Celtic’s greatest triumphs of the modern era. Feyenoord had Celtic’s money to keep them warm on a cold night, but the value of what had they had lost in exchange would make that seem a paltry sum.
Under Janssen, in his first season with the club, Larsson was deployed as the ‘second striker’ but once he found his feet in the new environment, the goals began to flow and he netted 18 times to end as the club’s top scorer, and it took just a few months for him to land his first trophy. In November, Celtic lifted the Scottish League Cup with Larsson scoring the second of three unanswered goals against Dundee United. The big prize was still to come though.
When Larsson arrived, Rangers were undisputed top dogs in the ’Old Firm’ duopoly, winning nine consecutive league titles as The Bhoys struggled to compete with their arch rival’s wealth and player acquisitions. If they had secured the title again, it would break Celtic’s all-time record, underscoring their dominance. On the last day of the season however, Larsson scored the opening goal in a 2-0 victory over St Johnstone that clinched the title by two points from Rangers, and the pendulum of power in Scottish football swung back in favour of the East End of Glasgow.
The following season was both fruitful for Larsson and conversely disappointing for Celtic. Inevitably, promoted to the main striker role by new manager Jozef Vengloš, Larsson would score 38 times across all competitions to finish as both the club’s and Scotland’s top striker; a brace in the 5-1 home victory over Rangers being the highlight. He would collect both the SFWA Footballer of the Year and SPFA Players’ Player of the Year awards, and his goal success was recognised with the Guldbollen as Footballer of the Year back in his native Sweden, but Celtic would lose out to Rangers in both the League and Cup.
The following season would prove to be a low point. In October, after starting brightly with eight league goals in just nine games, Larsson suffered a double compound fracture of the leg during a UEFA Cup tie against Lyon. It was the sort of injury that could end a career, or at least diminish a player’s ability to perform at the level previously achieved. It meant eight months on the sidelines, before an emotional return to the colours on the final day of the season. The question now was how successful had his recovery been?
Across the next four seasons, Larsson would answer that query emphatically. Martin O’Neill took over in the hot seat from the sacked John Barnes and together with Larsson’s goals, sparked the sort of glory run that the Celtic fans had dreamt of during the long years of Rangers’ domination.
In the 2000-01 season, they won the League, Scottish Cup and League Cup domestic treble, and Larsson’s 35 goals, assisted by new signing Chris Sutton, led the march to glory. The tally made him Europe’s top marksman giving him the prestigious Golden Boot. The inevitable awards of SFWA Footballer of the Year and, SPFA Players’ Player of the Year duly followed.
The title was retained the following year, and a further 29 goals saw him top the Scottish scoring charts again. It was a feat he repeated in 2002-03, although his 28 league strikes couldn’t prevent Rangers snatching back the title after a last day shootout of who could win by the most goals meant the Ibrox club were Scottish champions, literally by the margin a single goal. Celtic consoled themselves with a European adventure that saw notable victories over Blackburn Rovers, Stuttgart – despite Larsson’s injury-enforced absence – and Liverpool, taking them to a final against José Mourinho’s Porto. After falling behind, Larsson would twice bring the Celts level – including his 200th strike for the club – but an extra-time goal for the Portuguese team did for O’Neill’s team.
The following season saw domestic dominance regained with a League and Scottish Cup double, but to the great Chagrin of the club’s fans, it would be Larsson’s last term with the club before a completed contract saw him move on a free transfer to Barcelona. Despite receiving no fee for the loss of the striker, very few Celtic fans would consider that they hadn’t had their full value from his seven seasons with the club. Of course, he finished as top scorer in Scotland again, and Larsson being Larsson, he scored both goals in a 2-1 victory over Dundee United in his last league encounter for the club and six days later netted another brace to guide Celtic to the Scottish Cup.
It was truly the end of an era when Larsson left Celtic after four Scottish League titles, a pair of Cup victories, matched by two League Cups, and leaving aside the season when he was injured for the vast majority of the games, he top-scored in five of the other six seasons. A phenomenal record. It’s little wonder that, in 2002, when the club’s fans elected their all-time greatest eleven, Henrik Larsson was the only non-Scot in the team.
Some have voiced comments that despite his tally of goals, many were due to the fact that it was in an arguably ‘lesser’ league whilst playing for one of the top clubs there. In an interview with The Independent, the striker offered the perfect riposte, querying that, “if it was that easy, why didn’t everybody score so many goals?” Many Celtic fans would stridently agree with that assertion, and they have at least 242 reasons to agree with Henrik Larsson, the Celtic Legend.