“FOOTBALL is all about making decisions. The more times you make the right decision, the better it’s going to go.”
Henrik Larsson is referring to his coaching methods, but he may as well be talking about his career as a whole. Celtic legend Larsson had been under consideration for the Parkhead manager’s job earlier this year, but ruled himself out to continue building his reputation in his homeland at Falkenberg in the Swedish Allsvenskan.
The Swede stresses that he simply wants his players to be armed with the skills necessary to make the right choices more often than they make the wrong ones. “Obviously as a manager you decide the set-up of the team, who’s playing, but when it comes to doing the things I want I have principles, but I also want to leave it open for the players to find their own solutions. At the end of the day it’s also about the individual.”
Larsson’s principles aren’t in doubt. This is a man who turned down Sir Alex Ferguson’s pleas to stay at Manchester United because he wanted to honour the promises he made to Helsingborg. It is therefore no surprise that the former Celtic striker equally chose to honour his contract with Falkenberg, as great as the allure of the Celtic job must have been.
Falkenberg are by no means the easy option for Larsson. From a town with a population of only 20,000, the club are currently in the middle of their first ever season in the Swedish top flight. Most expected them to be relegation fodder, yet they are still in with a good chance of staying up, despite limited resources.
Larsson refuses to look for excuses, exuding the same belief in his team as he showed in himself as a player.
“Football is all about self-confidence. I have quality players here. They don’t really understand that yet, and it’s for me to instil self-confidence in them and make them realise their potential. That’s an ongoing process,” he says.
“I came here in January and that’s the process I’ve been working with since day one. I knew from the beginning that I wouldn’t have any major resources and I didn’t want them either.
“I knew I had the budget I have, and that’s what I have to work with, so for me that’s no problem. The thing that is really important is that the players have the drive to do something more with their football. If you have that you can make a decent player into a very good player. I feel the players here at this club have that ambition. That’s what I’m very pleased with. I’m honoured to train players that want more from their football than just raising their small wages.”
Falkenberg are a young team – a glance at their squad photo reveals baby faces and optimistic eyes – and Larsson is desperate to help his players push on to the next level. It is evident that he has a genuine desire to use his rich experience as a footballer to improve the players he is working with, and hopefully in turn eliminate one of the scourges of the modern footballer: a chronic lack of patience. “The problem here in Sweden is that the young players go far too early to play football abroad. They don’t have any experience of playing first-team football, then go away and play in an English academy. In some cases it’s a good standard, but they’re missing a big step there. They need to play in Allsvenskan, I think.
“To be top players here, then take the step, then you’ve prepared your body and brain for something a lot tougher and quicker. Then you can make the next step up. When you start building a house, you don’t start with the roof!”
A born winner as a player, Larsson is absolutely clear about the high expectations he has of his side. The type of attractive football he demands would be music to the ears of supporters of one Glasgow club in particular, while maximum effort is also an absolute must for the Falkenberg coach.
“What I want from them is that they play with the passion that I had. The will and desire to make something more out of your football. I expect that from each and every one of my players. I want them to play a passing game, but also to know when to pass the ball. Sometimes you have to play a long ball, that’s a pass in my book as well. You need to know what to do, and when to do it. That’s what I’m trying to build into the squad I have now. In terms of keeping the ball, daring to get at your opponent, making sure you make a tackle, blocking an opponent’s shot.
“My team train a lot with the ball. We’re playing football, we need to be able to handle the ball. I try to do everything that I can fitness-wise with the ball. Of course even I have some exercises where it isn’t involved, but never for long periods. I think that if you have the right intensity in the practice games, you can still work on the physical side and the body at the same time.”
The conversation turns away from Falkenberg and to his son, Jordan. Celtic supporters will most probably remember him as a toddler on the Parkhead turf, celebrating trophy wins in his father’s arms. That same boy is now a bright young footballer in his own right, competing directly against his dad in Allsvenskan after signing for Helsingborg earlier this year.
Larsson senior says Jordan’s quest to become a professional footballer hasn’t been an easy one.
“I’m proud because he wants it so much and has been talking about it for a number of years. He has made the first step now, signing his first contract. He loves the game and has the inner drive to push on. It’s not easy for him, people might think it’s easy because he’s my son, but as a consequence he always has to prove himself even more. He has done the first bit and now he has a few more things to do before hopefully becoming better than his dad.”
If Jordan ends up even half as good a player as his father then clubs will be queuing up to sign him – not least Celtic. Could fond memories of Parkhead perhaps draw the younger Larsson back to Scotland one day? Henrik is quick to shoot down speculation, demanding the same level of patience from his own son as he does his players.
“Jordan is focused on Helsingborg now. The future will be whatever it will be, because I don’t know what it is. He wants a lot from his football, yes, but time will tell if he can reach his goals or not.
“As I said, you have to build from the basement all the way up, otherwise you’ll never have a firm platform to stand on when things aren’t going so well.”
Despite still only being in the fledgling stage of his career, Jordan has already been involved in one of the highlights of his father’s. The pair briefly shared the same pitch last year when Henrik opted to come out of retirement temporarily to help Swedish fourth division outfit Hogaborg, where his son was playing at the time.
“It was great to play with him. It was an important game. It wasn’t my intention, but we were in a difficult situation, so the coach asked me to put my boots on again. I said I’m not really sure. I was 42 at the time! To play with him was great. It’s something I will always remember, and something he will always have with him.”
The revival of Larsson’s playing career was only a footnote, and his place these days is on the sidelines, passing on knowledge. So what does the future hold for Henrik Larsson the manager? The Swede is as ambitious now as he was when playing.
“I want to become as good as possible and manage teams in Europe. I played for teams in Europe, and I want to try and do the same as a manager.” Could Europe include Scotland, I ask? The Celtic legend doesn’t say no.
“As I said, I have to wait. The future will give us the answer to that question.”
My last question is a far more straightforward one, and Henrik’s answer is straight to the point. We’ve talked extensively about his first top-flight managerial position, but does coaching give him the same thrill he got from playing?
“No. Coaching is second best. Playing the game is the absolute best; this is the closest you can get. I have to settle for that.”