Hooray Henrik: Celtic fans have a chance to join in some hero worship in Helsingborg
THERE are moves afoot in Helsingborg to establish “Henrik holidays”, wherein visitors are tempted to the Swedish port to lose themselves on the Larsson trail. And, while they are at it, have a gander at the statue that was last year erected in honour of the city’s favourite footballing son.
Richard Nilsson has 29 years’ service for Helsingborgs IF. He has known Henrik Larsson man and boy, then. And he knows there will be plenty of ways for Celtic supporters to indulge themselves in their love of all things Larsson when they descend on the city for the clubs’ Champions League play-off on Tuesday. The icon for both sides has spawned much in the way of iconography. “There are even exhibits in the local museum that tell of his playing career [which] the Scottish fans would enjoy seeing,” he says. The living exhibit, meanwhile, is to be found managing second division side Landskrona BoIS.
The European tie has bound together two clubs that Nilsson considers have developed a mutual “affection” because of the manner in which Larsson profoundly affected their fortunes. Celtic certainly transformed the career of Larsson, faltering at Feyenoord, and in return his seven years at the club from 1997 witnessed a goalscoring return – 242 strikes – and level of success unimaginable before he pitched up. Swedish sobriety, however, does not allow the man who is now marketing manager at Helsingborg to make great claims for Larsson’s debt to Helsingborg, which was served by his return at the end of his career. Nilsson takes care not to overlook that the supreme forward talent came through the ranks at the much smaller and more unfashionable Hogaborg. If he wasn’t a made man on arriving at Helsingborg as a 21-year-old, he was a man firmly on the make. “We needed him and he needed us,” says Nilsson of the striker’s 1991 move, which proved central to the club earning promotion to the Allsvenskan, the Swedish top flight, two years later. “His partner Mats Magnusson was very important to his success [in netting 56 goals in 50 league games]. They made it on the field together.”
Larsson made his international debut against Finland in a World Cup qualifier in 1993 as he was preparing to leave for Feyenoord. The veteran Magnusson played too. “It was such a big thing for a smaller club like ours to see these two players together for the national team,” Nilsson says. Seeing Larsson in Helsingborg colours again after his departure that year was something that Nilsson says many within the club didn’t believe could really happen. “Everyone had changed: the board, the trainers, the coaches. We heard him say he would come back, but it was only really the doctor, Harald Roos, he kept a good connection with. But after his time at Barcelona, he made contact and said ‘it’s time to come home’.”
Larsson’s desire to see his two children educated in Sweden, coupled with his wife Magdalena’s wish to have a house in Helsingborg, made 2006 the time to reacquaint himself with the Swedish way of life he had treasured as a child. The celebrity and adulation his career had engendered had not changed an inscrutable personality. “As a youngster, Henrik was always strong in his own mind: he went his own way and believed in his own way. In knowing him from an early age, I recognised too he had a public face and a private face that were different and never confused. I have great respect for what he achieved for himself and what he did for his family.
“He came back with the intention of claiming an Allsvenskan medal, and we were sorry we couldn’t give him that. But in his three years, he did achieve a cup win.”
It is fitting that, having done so, he plundered goals aplenty in a subsequent UEFA Cup run. For there is a perfect symmetry about scrolling down the UEFA profiles of Celtic and Helsingborg and seeing the name Henrik Larsson listed as the clubs’ top scorer in continental competition. His 59-goal haul, including strikes with Feyenoord, Barcelona and Manchester United, put him in sixth place in the all-time rankings for European club football scorers. Yet the 106-times-capped Larsson, one of the few men to appear in seven major international finals, never experienced the best of Helsingborg’s recent history. The club are bidding to become the first Swedish side to compete in the Champions League group stages since they earned that right in dramatic fashion in 2000, with a first title in 58 years they were guided to by current manager, the Norwegian Age Hareide.
Drawn against Internazionale in the play-offs, a 1-0 win at the Olympia Stadium was considered to have merely delayed the inevitable in Italy. It didn’t because in the 88th minute goalkeeper Sven Andersson saved a penalty to thereby earn the nickname San Siro Sven. “In a newspaper before that game it said the chance for Helsingborg is the same as it would be for a snowball to survive in hell. But we survived,” says Nilsson proudly.
Helsingborg look to prosper now with the help of San Siro Sven, the goalkeeping coach at the club. Under his tutelage is Par Hansson, a keeper Nilsson rates as part of the “next generation” of international breakthrough players at the club. The 26-year-old is Helsingborg captain and has already been capped twice by the national side. A blow to the hopes of Helsingborg making history and plenty of the folding stuff by qualifying for the group stages at Celtic’s expense was the decision of Alfred Finnbogason to sign for Dutch side Heerenveen on Thursday. The Icelandic striker had scored 12 goals in 17 games while on loan from Belgian club Lokeren. “When we took him we wanted to buy him, but they didn’t want to sell him,” Nilsson says. “But we agreed for an amount to buy him at the end of the loan period only for Lokeren to raise the figure we had agreed.”
When Larsson ended his playing career in 2009, the club also retired the No.17 jersey he had worn. How they must wish he could slip back into that for a couple more occasions over the next fortnight. How Celtic will be glad a vacancy for the natural goalscorer role he so exquisitely filled has unexpectedly opened up again in the Helsingborg ranks.
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