Henrik Larsson, the bargain Bhoy who would be king of kings.
Thursday marks 22 years since the day Henrik Larsson walked through the door of Celtic Park for the first time.
Back in 1997, Celtic fans had met with more than a few false dawns over the preceding nine years.
Year after year, season after season, early optimism would quickly give way to dejection and stoical defiance, but unknown to them their world was about to change.
Always Look on the Bright Side was a regular ditty, along with Our Day Will Come but, after a grim nine years, to even dream of winning a league title became a heavy burden.
Then came Larsson.
It’s hard to imagine today that someone as talented as Larsson, a couple of months shy of his 26th birthday, would escape the net of the big clubs.
Three years earlier, we had got a glimpse of the deadly hitman he would become as he scored a brilliant goal in the World Cup 1994 third-place play-off against Bulgaria.
Springing the offside trap, he rounded the keeper and dummied the backtracking defender before sliding the ball into the unguarded net. He was never going to miss.
When Wim Jansen followed Tommy Burns as Celtic boss in the summer of 1997, he had plenty of work to do.
The ‘three amigos’ of Pierre van Hooijdonk, Paulo Di Canio and Jorge Cadete were no longer at the club.
They were all quality players and to lose even one of them would be a blow to any team.
Off the pitch, they had become a serious distraction, however, and a parting of the ways was inevitable. Midfield maestro Paul McStay also retired through injury and a 10th win in a row for the Ibrox club was looking ever more likely.
Jansen had an ace up his sleeve. He knew Larsson and was aware of the £600k fee that would trigger a move from Feyenoord, where he was locked in a dispute. The dreadlocked striker’s frustration at not being able to get a move saw him shed tears of frustration.
On reading this at the time, it was possible to think that, perhaps, this guy didn’t have the right mentality to play at a club like Celtic. Of all the things to be wrong about, this just about tops the list!
Larsson wasn’t the only good signing Jansen made. Marc Rieper, Craig Burley, Paul Lambert, Stephane Mahe and Jonathan Gould would all sign. They would be joined midway through the season by Harald Brattback.
Brattbakk, was meant to be the final piece in the jigsaw. With a reputation as a deadly finisher, Larsson was more of a supporting striker in a team that was also able to call upon Simon Donnelly and Darren Jackson at various stages.
Alas, Brattbakk wasn’t to find his form and we know from hindsight that the real lethal finisher was already at the club.
As far back as that first season, though, Larsson showed himself to be the perfect team player.
With Brattback struggling for confidence, form and goals, Larsson unselfishly teed him up for his first goal for the Bhoys, in a game where he went all to score all four in a 4-0 win over Kilmarnock.
Having earlier in the season won the League Cup at Ibrox, with Larsson scoring a deflected effort in a 3-0 win at Ibrox, both players would score in the final league match of the season at home to St Johnstone, ending a decade of misery for Celtic.
The relief was incredible as our day finally, magically, had come.
It all seemed so far away from the first day of the season, when a slack pass by our yet-to-be-discovered talisman gifted Chic Charnley the ball in midfield and the rest is history.
Celtic being Celtic, though, trouble wasn’t far away. Wim Jansen left and so began the reign of Dr Jo Venglos. He didn’t bring much success to Celtic, but he gifted us Lubo and Mjallby. Success was elusive but the foundations were being built.
The John Barnes/Kenny Dalglish experiment ended in calamity. A horrific injury to Larsson probably did for Barnes’ chances before he’d even got time to get used to his seat in the dugout.
He was gone by February of the following year. Without Larsson, Celtic at least managed to pick up another League Cup to salvage some pride in what had been a disastrous season.
For the fans, the return of Larsson for the last game of the season against Dundee United was a further welcome boost.
The match finished 2-0 to Celtic and was notable for Dalglish giving a start to around half a dozen youngsters, but it was Larsson’s appearance as a substitute that brought the house down.
Coming seven months to the day after snapping his leg on that grim night in France, it was evidence of his almost superhuman powers.
Applauded onto the pitch by teammates and with a standing ovation from the fans, there was reason to hope, once again, as he turned in a brilliant cameo.
A superb goal for Sweden against Italy in that summer’s European Championships, again beating the offside trap before rounding the goalie and scoring into the empty net, signalled he was as good as new.
Or was he?
Martin O’Neill would be the fifth Celtic manager Larsson would play under.
It was, yet again, a huge season. Rangers had been spending like there was no tomorrow (and, as a result, one day in the not too distant future, there wouldn’t be!) even after winning the league by the ridiculous margin of 21 points.
Larsson would start the season with a goal at Tannadice, a lethal curling effort from the edge of the box that would kick start O’Neill’s reign.
Even though he was back in goalscoring form, there were commentators who regularly questioned whether the ‘old’ Larsson might have scored from certain chances.
Evidence of that (if my memory is correct) can even be heard during the first half of that famous 6-2 win over Rangers, a game where he would score twice, including one of the most famous goals of all time in that fixture.
By this stage, all doubt from even that first half was surely swept away, as commentator Davie Provan described his nutmeg and chip as “a special goal from a very special player’.
Rightly described as world class, it was one of many highlights in a stunning season, when Larsson scored 53 goals in all competitions, including his 50th at Ibrox into the Broomloan end, a hat trick in the League Cup final and a double in the Scottish Cup final to secure a famous Treble.
In a brilliant team, with winners like Sutton, with whom he formed one of the best Celtic partnerships seen at Parkhead, Lambert, Lennon, Thompson et at, under the guidance of O’Neill, Larsson was the man who could produce something from nothing.
As for Rangers, they would never recover from the blows of that season, not even by increasingly resorting to serious foul play.
Imagine he had been as good as the ‘old’ Larsson after all!
The next year he kept up his remarkable scoring, bagging 35 and taking his tally over two years to 88.
If getting Larsson for such a ridiculously low price, hanging onto him seems just as incredible in hindsight. He wasn’t without his suitors, but he was happy at Celtic and a £10m move from Manchester United was rebuffed.
Into his third season under O’Neill and Larsson would suffer a fractured jaw against Livingston.
If there was a ball to be won and a goal to be scored, he would be in there. He would miss Celtic’s tie against Stuttgart due to this but returned to face Liverpool at Parkhead, doing what he does best by opening the scoring at the earliest opportunity.
The following Sunday he went in for a header at Hampden against Rangers and everyone held their breath. Providing yet another example of his mental strength and bravery, but he simply got up and rubbed his jaw and played on.
Larsson would go on to score both goals in the UEFA Cup semi-final against Boavista, the winner in Portugal sending Celtic fans around the world into a state of frenzy and sparking possibly the largest friendly invasion of a European country that’s ever been seen.
His heroic performance in Seville ultimately counted for nothing but swelled the hearts of the travelling army of Celtic fans and those at home and around the world who couldn’t make it.
Two majestic headers levelled things twice for Celtic in the sweltering heat in the frying pan of Spain.
Alas, it was not to be.
There was a report, maybe in Four Four Two magazine, that described Larsson along the lines of ‘a computer-generated character who came to life in a violent thunderstorm’, such was his footballing perfection.
His first goal that night, where he seemed to put swerve on his header to guide it in at the far post, remains a thing of wonder.
Celtic would finish the season empty handed in terms of silverware, but there was much to take from it.
The next season would be Henrik’s last for the club. He scored 41 including another double in the Cup Final.
The emotional send-off had come earlier though. In his last competitive game at his beloved Paradise on May 16, 2004, he was, as usual, the man who came to Celtic’s rescue, scoring a double to overturn Dundee United’s lead.
The steely professional that he was finally came undone as he bid a tearful farewell to an arena that he’d graced so often and that, now, barely contained a dry eye.
Larsson would move to Barcelona where his intervention with 60 minutes on the clock in the 2006 European Cup Final would swing the match towards the Catalans.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, indeed. It was a contribution recognised by many, including the defeated Arsenal striker Thierry Henry.
It happened to earn Celtic a hefty pot of cash by ensuring they’d qualify for the Champions League the next year.
Those fans briefly upset at his, inevitable, goalscoring return to Parkhead in Barca colours would have raised a glass to him that night.
A great scorer of goals, a scorer of great goals, Larsson had everything. Remarkable headers, stunning diving headers, tap-ins, movement, rockets from outside the box, one-on-ones, goals from impossible angles, he could do the lot.
His achievements and highlights are too many to list. A book would have been a better idea on reflection.
With 242 goals for the Hoops, a World Cup bronze medal, bag of silverware, a golden boot, a collection of other personal and professional awards, we were lucky to see him give his best years to the club.
For the price we paid, we could now possibly afford a week to 10 days of Gareth Bale’s wages.
It was the days before English football skewed the market and set football on a path to lavish ruin.
If anyone thinks that the game is somehow better today for all the money, glitz and glamour, think of Henrik Larsson and his magnificent seven years of service at Celtic.
Then ask yourself, are you sure?