WORDS: WAYNE FARRY
It seemed as though Henrik Larsson’s big league days were over when he departed Barcelona and returned home to Sweden in 2006, but after two seasons with his hometown club Helsingborgs, he fancied one last crack at the big time and he got it with a three-month dream loan at Old Trafford…
“If there is one regret I have from my career,” Henrik Larsson admitted to FIFA’s official website following his retirement in 2010, “it is that I came home to Sweden when Mr Ferguson was trying to get me to stay at Manchester United.
“I should have stayed at United for longer because I had a great time there and everyone at the club was very keen to keep me. My time there was too short. The whole experience was fantastic and, although I was 35 at the time, I still felt that I had some good football in me. That is a regret.”
Larsson arrived at Old Trafford on New Year’s Day 2007, when Sir Alex Ferguson looked past the striker’s age and took advantage of his availability during the Swedish off-season, drafting him in for three months as United fought for trophies on three fronts.
Ferguson had often spoken about his admiration for Larsson and has subsequently mentioned how he had planned to sign the former Sweden captain when he was at his peak, only to be dissuaded by former Celtic owner and close friend, Dermot Desmond.
Buying from the Scottish Premier League can be a bit of a conundrum in so much as it is often hard to properly judge players competing in it. History is littered with stories of top scorers from Scotland trying their hand down south and finding the pace too quick, the football too technical. It spoke volumes, then, of the esteem in which Henrik Larsson was held that when his seven year spell at Celtic came to an end, none other than the mighty Barcelona came in for him. Admittedly it was on a free transfer, thus reducing the risk, but they signed him nonetheless.
If his signing was a testament to how highly Larsson was thought of, what happened next was near unparalleled. Originally signing a one year contract upon his arrival at Camp Nou, Larsson started the season well, scoring four goals in sixteen matches and generally getting well involved in play. However, on the 20th of November 2004, during a derby match against Real Madrid, Larsson went down in agony. He had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and wouldn’t play again that season, yet Barca still took up the option to extend his contract by another year, showing the value they placed in Larsson.
He rewarded the club with 15 goals in his final season in Catalonia before returning to his homeland with Helsingborgs after the 2006 World Cup. It was prior to his second season in Sweden that Ferguson decided it was a case of better late than never when it came to bringing Larsson to Manchester, and he immediately realised he had signed a gem.
Instantly, Larsson blended with the squad and became an integral part of training sessions and team meetings. According to his manager, he approached each aspect of the game at United like a youngster looking to learn.
“On arrival at United, he seemed a bit of a cult figure with our players,” Ferguson recalled. “They would say his name in awed tones. For a man of 35, his receptiveness to information on the coaching side was amazing. At every session he was rapt. He wanted to listen to Carlos, the tactics lectures; he was into every nuance of what he did.”
During his time at United, Larsson scored three goals from 13 games in all competitions, but this record does not come close to symbolising the impact the Swede had during his two month stay. Larsson, from his first touch, was every bit a United player. His composure, touch and temperament had the Old Trafford faithful wondering what might have been had Ferguson signed him all those years before.
He added a dimension to United that was needed during the most hectic period of the season. This was a player who had been there and done it, and was comfortable doing it once again at the highest level. He never seemed off the pace or overawed despite the fact that he hadn’t played in the Premier League before. In short, like most periods throughout his career, Larsson took it in his stride.
He scored on his debut in an FA Cup tie against Aston Villa, before netting his solitary Premier League goal in a 4-0 rout of Watford. Fittingly, he was then among the goals in his final game for the Reds – a 2-2 draw against Middlesbrough in the sixth round of the FA Cup.
So revered was Larsson at United that the club asked for, and received, special dispensation to award him a Premier League medal despite the fact that he didn’t meet the quota for games played – another one to add to the collection for Larsson.
His time at the club was short, but so often in life the best times are. Playing so few games means he can never truly be considered as a United great, but Larsson will always have a special place in the hearts of the United fans who saw a glimpse of what he could offer…and were left wanting more.
From a 13-game spell, that is not a bad return.