Ican still see his smile. Or rather, I can still remember how it bounced back the light of the camera flashbulbs into our eyes, making the registering of it actually quite difficult. The grin was even more gleamy than usual because there were replacement teeth for the ones knocked out in the act of scoring a steepling header in a famous derby victory. What could possibly go wrong with Frank Sauzee becoming Hibernian’s new manager?
Well, everything really. The charismatic Frenchman was in charge for a mere 15 games. He won just one of them, a Scottish Cup third-round replay against Stranraer as his team lurched from a humiliating semi-final defeat by Ayr United in the League Cup to a thumping from Motherwell. One more match and he was gone – sacked – a humiliating end to what had been a fairytale residency at Easter Road and a semi-tragic one for the fans who adored him. I present this as a cautionary tale for those Celtic supporters praying for it to be Henrik Larsson who replaces Ronny Deila.
Yes, there are differences. Sauzee went straight from the dressing-room to the manager’s office, a tricky manoeuvre which might require the rookie boss to suddenly be strict with players with whom he might have been shooting the post-match breeze a few days before, possibly involving jokes at the expense of the previous boss. Larsson on the other hand has been away from Celtic Park for 12 years.
Sauzee, obviously, had no managerial experience whereas the great Swede entered coaching at the end of 2009. But sentiment is driving the call for Larsson’s return just as it did for Sauzee’s elevation – that and not much else.
All football fans are sentimental – often tough and seething and looking like they might be about to burst but inside they’re pure marshmallow. They’re suckers for fairytales, happy endings and gooey homecomings which would make the most manipulative romcom director baulk. They go weak at the knees over the return of an old hero. This convinces them that legends love their club as much as they do, even though the truth is that footballers move around a lot, move without much pain between rival teams and like to move for money.
I’ve no doubt Larsson’s love for Celtic is deep but what else would he bring to the post? In five and a bit years he has managed in Sweden, mostly in the second tier. He’s currently in charge of his hometown club Helsingborgs, who’re in the top division, the Allsvenskan, but currently sit third from bottom and this better improve or he could be sacked.
His CV sounds not dissimilar to that of another Scandi-boss, one R Deila, but in this case without the interest from abroad or the overtures from Malmo which the Norwegian experienced before being introduced to Glasgow’s East End. Ah, but Henrik is Henrik, the faithful will chorus. He comes with the, erm, Henrik Factor.
Larsson could one day become a top coach but shouldn’t he by now have shown more in the way of genuine promise? It would be a gamble for Celtic to appoint him and one that this time they can’t really afford. Deila was a gamble, an experiment, but Rangers weren’t around and we guessed those joke tweets on the day of his appointment – “Congratulations on your Premiership title, Ronny” – were calling it right. Let’s hope football’s expansionism doesn’t bring about a tournament celebrating the sport’s glorious unpredictability. Scotland wouldn’t qualify for that one either.
Despite this, it still seems odd to be labelling back-to-back titles as failure, but this is OldFirmWorld, a place like no other. Celtic can’t gamble with Larsson because Rangers have just re-entered OldFirmWorld and as that comprehensive Scottish Cup semi-final victory showed, they never had any intention of feeling their way back, like one half of a marriage required to live elsewhere for a while, because of circumstances too problematic for the children to know about.
No, Rangers just came crashing right through the front door. Barry McKay cut inside with swagger and banged one into the top corner like he was Davie Cooper. The Rangers players mean business, the Rangers fans won’t need a reminder of how to get up to Aberdeen and what songs to sing and, crucially, there’s the manager. Do Celtic really want to put an appointment bathed in sentimentality up against the least sentimental manager in Scotland?
Possibly Mark Warburton has a sentimental side. He ain’t showing it, though. He set up his team to kill the rest of the Championship and quickly – he wasn’t for hanging about. There was a brusqueness to him that mildly shocked those of us who spend a lot of time observing the niceties of Scottish football and debating the incidentals. This doubtless thrilled Rangers supporters.
He stuck to a script which was pretty short and inevitably started to sound repetitive, as his side continued to hammer the rest. In his small lexicon, he said “With respect… ” so often that some began to feel disrespected. Hang on, you’ve just won 5-0 – couldn’t you even mention us by name? But there’s too much wimpish pique in Scottish football, with a player’s mild reaction to a barrage of fan abuse invariably provoking an outcry.
Warburton hasn’t indulged us but then he hasn’t patronised us either. He’s not said something is great when it clearly isn’t. His outsider views are interesting. And the most interesting of all? That the top flight should be 16 teams, so no four Old Firm games a season. Oh, and another thing: his team play good football.
This isn’t a job, a challenge, for Larsson, even though his cheerleaders include old team-mates such as Stiliyan Petrov who predicts: “There would be no empty Celtic Park with Henrik back there.” OK, the fans would welcome him, and give him more time than they’d allow anyone else in the world, but that wouldn’t last forever if they were to be dominated by Warburton’s Rangers like Deila’s team for long periods last Sunday.
That is not to say there’s a shiningly, brilliantly obvious candidate elsewhere on the list. David Moyes and Brendan Rodgers intrigue, but would they come? The thoughtful Paul Lambert wouldn’t relish the Old Firm madness. Neil Lennon might, but don’t they say you should never go back? Henrik Larsson, whose heritage is diamond-studded, take heed.