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June 2004

Farewell to Henrik Larsson
SPL in chaos - again!











So, the long goodbye is finally over and Henrik Larsson has kicked his last ball in Scottish football. We’ve hung back from joining in the sobfest that enveloped Larsson’s last few weeks in the SPL. Eight-page supplements here, TV programmes there, fawning tributes to the Swede apparently everywhere, including, bizarrely, on Scottish TV – a station which had little, if any, footage of the great man in action.

But now that it’s all over we’ll stick our oar in what are less media shark-infested waters than a week ago. Right back at the start of 2003-04 we said of Larsson: “no matter who you support, if you have the opportunity to see this man play then take it. It may be a long time before a striker of his ability graces our game again.”

Words we are happy to stand by. You don’t have to be a Parkhead season ticket holder or a media sycophant to appreciate that a great talent has been lost to our game. Nor do you have to have tear-stained ticket stubs or signed programmes of the man himself to realise that talk of replacing Larsson is futile.

He came. He saw. He conquered. He left. And he has left us all with memories of a marvellous player, even if some of his skill wasn’t fully appreciated at the time. For this writer the outstanding memory of Larsson was agony to endure. It was the League Cup Final of 2001 and Kilmarnock were giving Celtic a right old game of it until two things happened. First, another great football talent’s career came to a close when Ian Durrant had to go off injured. Second, Larsson took charge. The Swede gave Celtic the lead early in the second half but when his hotheaded strike partner Chris Sutton was deservedly sent off, it looked like Killie could claw their way back into the match.

It was then that Larsson proved that he didn’t need to rely on anybody else up front beside him. He scored again – perhaps a tad fortuitously as his shot seemed to take a deflection. But there was nothing lucky about his third. Receiving the ball just inside his own half, he outstripped the entire Killie defence to claim his hat-trick and present Martin O’Neill with the first trophy of his Celtic career.

Just about every supporter of every other SPL club can tell a similar tale of skill that filled them full of simultaneous horror and delight.

Larsson (fended off here by Chris Innes) scored a hat-trick in the 2001 League Cup Final

But now he’s gone and the arguments raging over his position among the all-time greats of the Scottish game are fruitless. The supporters of Baxter, Dalglish, Johnstone or others will never cede their hero’s position to Larsson or to anyone else. The same applies to the question as to whether he was the best import into our game. The defenders of Laudrup and Gazza will stand their ground.

We make no claim for the Swede, save to say that his name isn’t out of place with any of those mentioned above and that his departure has left a talent void. There is no outstanding footballer presently plying his trade in Scotland.

And while we have a talented group of youngsters coming through, it’s been a long time since the Scottish game produced a talent that could compete with the world’s best.

In fact you could argue that Larsson was the last such player. For although he is a Swede who played in Holland, it was Celtic and Scotland that made Larsson an international star. Unlike Brian Laudrup or Paul Gascoigne – both established world stars when they arrived at Rangers – few had heard of Larsson before he landed on these shores.

And while Celtic mull over the identity of Larsson’s replacement – a toss-up between Rivaldo and Shaun Maloney(!!!) it appears – the dormant SPL continues to make the news.

At the time of writing it appears that Dundee will make moves to come out of administration and thus avoid a ten point deduction at the start of next season, but that Livingston might not be so lucky. In fact there is a real danger that the League Cup holders will go bust.

While we hope that isn’t the case and regard the death of any club as a tragedy the knock-on effects for the rest of the SPL would cause chaos.

OK, let’s assume Partick Thistle would be reprieved from relegation. Say that ICT decide against ground-sharing in Aberdeen. There would be eleven clubs. What happens to the top and bottom six in such circumstances? Top six and bottom five? Top five and bottom six? What about the signed and sealed TV deals to show 38 matches?

Could the sixth placed side take action if deprived of fixtures against the Old Firm? Would the SPL admit second-placed 1st Division Clyde to make up the numbers? Clyde’s team has already started to break up after their failure to win promotion. Their SPL performance could make East Stirling’s record look good.

Or would they, in desperation, go to the highest-placed side with a 10,000 seater stadium – St Johnstone?

Tragic though it may be for the hardy band of supporters in Livingston, their going to the wall may actually represent a chance for Scottish football to sort itself out. Or their demise might just hand the SPL a get-out-of-jail card. Stranded with eleven teams and unable to guarantee fixture lists or TV commitments, the morally bankrupt SPL would have two choices.

They could heed the calls for change.

Or they could relegate the Jags anyway, refuse to admit ICT and move back to a League of ten.

Sadly, none of us have to be Einstein to work out what they would do.

All in all, Larsson’s better off going. In fact the more you look at the madhouse that is the SPL the more you wonder why he stuck around for as long as he did!


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