Henrik Larsson, the name alone is enough to bring a whirlwind of emotion to any Celtic fans’ eyes. Some will mention his undoubted wealth of ability and skill, some will mention his ability to link brilliantly with John Hartson and Chris Sutton in Martin O’Neill’s legendary front three on the road to Seville and some will simply just state one word, usually genius to describe the man who played a major role in making Celtic a competing force both domestically and on the European front in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.
However, it wasn’t always plain sailing for the affectionately nicknamed “King of Kings” to reach his iconic status amongst the Celtic faithful. Signed in 1997 for a relatively inexpensive fee of £650,000 by new Celtic manager Wim Jansen from Dutch club Feyenoord, the signing was announced with little fanfare and a hint of scepticism from some of the Celtic support that the board were not attempting to sign the calibre of players their bitter rivals Rangers were signing during their attempt for 10 league titles in a row. One Celtic fan that I spoke to when preparing this article said, “I didn’t have a clue who the guy was, I thought he was going to be another foreign dud”.
Based on Larsson’s first impressions he may well have been right, Larsson’s first game for Celtic, a 2-1 away defeat to Hibernian was nothing short of a disaster. Larsson struggled to work his way into the game, with Hibernian in the ascendancy for the majority of the game and his rather awful night concluding in a horribly wayward pass which fell into the feet of self-confessed Celtic fan Chic Charnley who kept his cool to fire in the winner from around 20 yards. Media outlets were questioning if Larsson had the mentality to succeed in the intense pressure of the potential 10-in-a-row stopping campaign for Celtic. Another Celtic fan that I spoke to in the planning process of this article said: “If Twitter was around back then he would have been out the door before he even came in, he looked like a donkey that game to be totally honest with you.”
Things didn’t get much better for Larsson after that, despite a League Cup debut goal against Berwick Rangers away, Larsson went on to struggle in his next few domestic appearances including an unexpected 2-1 home defeat to Dunfermline, with media pressure already creeping up on Celtic with only a few games of the domestic season played. Furthermore, Larsson’s start to the 97-98 European campaign for Celtic couldn’t have gone much worse either. Larsson scored what can only be described as a wondergoal… in the wrong direction as he lobbed Celtic goalkeeper Jonathan Gould to level the game at 2-2 at half time. Celtic eventually went on to win the fixture 6-3 but Larsson was undoubtedly raw at the beginning of his time at Celtic.
However, as we now know, Larsson gradually began to pick up form, forming a formidable yet rather underrated partnership with Simon Donnelly as Wim Jansen’s traditional 4-4-2 began to pay off and Celtic were beginning to click into gear and pick up results. After a rather stuttering start to the season, questions were beginning to be asked, murmurings were beginning to stir up: could this be the season that Celtic stop the 10? This intensified especially after Celtic secured their place in the Scottish League Cup final after overcoming Dunfermline to reach the final.
The arrival of Paul Lambert in November 1997 from Borussia Dortmund for a fee of £2 Million appeared to be a shrewd piece of business by Jansen, with the addition of Lambert in the holding midfield role allowing Craig Burley to push forward more, almost creating an auxiliary 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation with Burley acting as a traditional ten. Despite Celtic slipping to three defeats in a row in the autumn, including a 1-0 Old Firm loss, the arrival of Harold Brattbakk and an emphatic 3-0 League Cup win against Dundee United at Ibrox of all places with another goal for Larsson seemed to spark new life into Celtic’s season, with Larsson linking well with Brattbakk who had blistering pace to be able to split many domestic defences apart.
Furthermore, in rather bizarre circumstances Rangers top scorer Marco Negri, who only signed in the summer played a game of squash with his Italian counterpart Sergio Porrini and appeared to suffer an eye injury. This eye injury would later go on to have catastrophic consequences for Rangers as Negri appeared to take a huge psychological knock from this as the goals soon dried up and Hearts were quickly becoming a formidable force under Jim Jeffries, which threatened to turn this into the first three-team Scottish football title race in quite a significant amount of time.
Post-Christmas once again Celtic and Larsson clicked into gear and rediscovered form, the emergence of Craig Burley in a more creative capacity and the impact of Harold Brattbakk allowed Larsson to thrive in whatever system Janssen chose to play and one of the landmark occasions of this campaign was, of course, the famous 2-0 Old Firm win over Rangers, with Larsson not on the scoresheet but still playing an important role in what can only be described as a massive psychological turning point for Celtic. Fans were beginning to truly believe that the Rangers domestic juggernaut could be stopped not just metaphorically wonder, as the three horse race between Celtic, Rangers and a battling underdog in Hearts continued to proceed into February.
As the season progressed it appeared to very much be one step forward, two steps back for Celtic. With every psychological barrier they overcame they appeared to run into difficulty or defeat against typically “lesser” opposition and this hit-and-miss form came to a head when Celtic lost an Old Firm league and Scottish Cup double and the promise they showed at various points of the season looked to fade, Larsson was continuing to score goals but despite his increasingly bright performances from a personal perspective, the collective were ultimately starting to lose sight of domestic success and iconic status that would have came with stopping “the ten”.
Celtic refused to give up but with two games of the season to go the title was firmly in Rangers’ grasp but stunningly, Rangers suffered a rare Ibrox defeat in injury time at the hands of Kilmarnock, Ally Mitchell scoring what proved to be a crucial goal in Celtic’s quest to stop the 10. Celtic fans’ optimism was short-lived, however, with Celtic once again failing to capitalise on Rangers’ misfortune with a 1-1 draw at unfancied Dunfermline at East End Park, with Larsson receiving criticism for “hiding” in the second half in a relatively poor performance overall.
So it all came down to the final day, the 9th of May 1998. The anxiety of Celtic fans both inside and outside of Parkhead was growing increasingly palpable, I was unfortunately too young to witness the scenes but one fan that I spoke to in the planning of this article said “imagine your heart pumping out your chest, now imagine that for about 6 hours faster and faster, that’s what it felt like”.
The scenario was simple, win and Celtic had officially stopped the dreaded Rangers ten in a row. Lose and the unthinkable would have become a reality.
The game started brightly, Celtic playing with the intensity and swagger of a team on a mission to stop the Rangers juggernaut and this intensity paid dividends pretty much immediately from the off, Larsson not one to shy away from the intensity of arguably the biggest game of his career thus far composed himself to calmly slot home a near perfect right-footed curling shot from outside the box past the seemingly helpless Alan Main in the St. Johnstone goal and sent Wim Jansen and the Celtic support into joyous rapture, scenes of sheer joy and elation consumed the Parkhead crowd as confidence and belief took hold that this was going to be the game that stopped the 10.
However, as per a recurring theme throughout the season, this determined Celtic side seemed to lose their composure and their mental resilience as fear and anxiety took hold. News quickly spread round Celtic Park that Rangers had taken the lead at Tannadice. Larsson, seemingly so calm and collected to put Celtic in front now resembled something of a rabbit in the headlights as St Johnstone began to take control and work their way back into the game, the riveting Celtic Park atmosphere after Larsson’s opener, soon turning to a concoction of nail-biting, heart-racing collective tension and drama as whispers of the events at Tannadice began to spread across the ground.
St. Johnstone missed a golden opportunity to put Rangers in pole-position to make Scottish football history when Northern Irish striker and Rangers fan George O’Boyle blazed a header over the bar which upon reflection seemed harder to miss than score and it came as no surprise to hear the collective sigh of relief from the Celtic support when the half time whistle blew, with Celtic’s fate still in their own hands.
The second half played out in a strange, intermittent fashion with a flurry of rushed, incomplete Celtic attacks and several failed counters from St Johnstone. Concern began to grow that no sign of a second goal was in sight and discontent gradually began to grow on the Celtic fans’ faces. Jansen threw on Brattbakk for Donnelly and the pace of the new strike duo of Larsson and Brattbakk immediately began to cause problems for the St Johnstone defence. Brattbakk’s intelligent runs and blistering pace certainly added an element of effectiveness that perhaps was missing until that point.
Then, the moment that secured the title, Jackie McNamara latched on to an effective pass from Tom Boyd and spotted yet another lung-bursting run from Brattbakk who took the ball in his stride and almost effortlessly blasted the ball well beyond the reach of St Johnstone keeper Alan Main. Celtic Park was sent into overdrive, the era of domestic dominance for Rangers was over. Grown men burst into tears, strangers cried tears of joy and hugged passionately in the stands, limbs flying everywhere and some were simply breathless and overawed in what would go on to be one of the most iconic days in Celtic history. The rest of the match was played in what could be described as a carnival atmosphere before fans from all three sides of a three-quarter completed Celtic Park ran onto the pitch at full time to celebrate stopping the ten. I truly wish I was able to be in the 48,000 capacity crowd on that day however eyewitness accounts are often just as powerful. One of my favourite that I heard in the planning of this article was “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house and I mean that! Everyone was in tears, I don’t think I will ever feel emotion like that again.”
Was Henrik Larsson the signing that stopped the ten? He may well have been. An unfancied Swedish striker signed for a mere £650,000 went on to be a dynamic acquisition, capable of playing in whatever role assigned to him by Wim Jansen, either as a lone number 9 in a 4-4-1-1 or as a very effective partner to Simon Donnelly or Harold Brattbakk in Jansen’s favoured traditional 4-4-2. Larsson’s pace, technical ability and spatial awareness were vital assets in a critical campaign in Celtic’s history and finished the season with 19 goals in all competitions. Certainly a decent return for a striker who some thought wouldn’t cut it at Celtic after his disastrous debut and whilst there was no question that Larsson was certainly talented, he still seemed a bit raw to the intensity and pressure of Scottish football at times in this campaign.
Larsson would eventually go on to secure legend status at Celtic, capturing the hearts of Celtic Fans with his exceptional skill and prowess in front of goal, particularly with his unbelievable form during the Martin O’Neill era and of course, the road to Seville which will all be covered in Part 2.