After Celtic successfully stopped Rangers’ attempt at 10 league titles in a row, a lot of media attention was directed on the squad and the direction of Celtic Football Club as a whole following the bitter dismissal of Wim Jansen and one such player was Henrik Larsson. The Swedish striker had a successful debut season, scoring 19 goals in all competitions and proving to be a handful for Scottish defences when playing in a partnership with Simon Donnelly or Harold Brattbakk.
Celtic appointed Slovak coach Jozef Venglos who immediately after being formally announced to the Scottish press was met with the now-infamous “Celtic sign a blank Czech” headline. Other headlines were similarly blatantly disrespectful to the Slovak doctorate such as “Dr Who”? so the pressure was well and truly on the Slovak to deliver before the season truly began.
Venglos, who was known as a rather erratic character liked to play a style of football known for it’s relentless attacking, pressing and creativity. However, in truth whilst the idea was certainly a positive one, the execution left a bit to be desired. After a blistering 5-0 battering of Dunfermline, results began to falter, but Larsson gradually began to grow into the season.
The Swedish striker was thriving in Venglos’ expansive system, linking up well with promising young striker Mark Burchill and Simon Donnelly in a narrow 4-3-3 with a tendency to switch to an all-out attacking 3-4-3 if Celtic were needing to chase a goal. This system produced some wonderful results for Celtic such as a 6-1 win against Dundee at Celtic Park and of course the infamous “thrashing”, a 5-1 Old Firm win over bitter rivals Rangers at Celtic Park, with Larsson averaging 2 goals a game throughout November and scoring 2 in an Old Firm which further boosted Larsson’s image in the eyes of the Celtic faithful.
The addition of Slovak attacking midfielder Lubomir Moravcik for £300,000 in November 1998 brought much criticism from the Scottish media, immediately calling him a “cheapskate signing” and doubting whether he had the physicality at the age of 33 to play in the top division in Scotland. Moravcik quickly proved the doubters wrong and formed a sensational partnership with Larsson and later, Mark Viduka after the Aussie striker returned after a brief spell AWOL.
Venglos’ system in the latter half of the season produced some sensational football at times, with Larsson and Viduka forming what can only be described as a dream partnership and Moravcik providing near perfect service in the number 10 role, with Venglos’ 4-3-3 gradually shifting into more of a 4-2-1-3 with space isolated for Moravcik. Larsson once scored four goals in a 7-1 away rout of Motherwell and from a personal point of view, Larsson was quickly working his way into Celtic folklore.
Larsson seemed to have it all as Celtic tried but ultimately fell at the last hurdle to win silverware. Two defeats to bitter rivals Rangers including a 3-0 defeat at Celtic Park spelt the end of Venglos’ tenure at Celtic Park because, for all their fast-paced, free-flowing football, football is ultimately a results business and the results spoke for themselves, Venglos’ side seemed to lack the mental resilience to win trophies and Venglos departed with the best wishes of the Celtic board and squad.
Larsson ended the 98-99 Season with an astonishing 38 goals in all competitions and despite links to Manchester United, Larsson insisted he and his family were settled in Glasgow and happy at Celtic and any rumours quickly died down. However, if anything was going to test the super Swede’s mental resolve, the 99-00 season was likely to do so, both professionally and personally.
Larsson started the season off promisingly yet again, with new manager John Barnes and director of football Kenny Dalglish at the helm Larsson was enjoying what on the surface appeared to be another electrifying season in a Celtic jersey, scoring five goals in 5-0 and 7-0 routs against Aberdeen at the start of the season as Barnes quickly sought to earn the approval of the Celtic faithful when in a disastrous turn of events, Larsson broke his leg in two places whilst challenging Lyon’s Serge Blanc for a loose pass in a UEFA Cup game vs Lyon in October 1999, just days after scoring a hat trick vs Aberdeen at Celtic Park.
Celtic lost the game 1-0 but neither the football or the result were to be the talking point on the night. Celtic’s Super Swede, the star of the season looked utterly devastated as images of what can only be described as a gruesome leg break were hard on the eyes of the Celtic support. I was too young to remember the events live but I spoke to one Celtic fan who was in Lyon the night of Larsson’s injury who said: “the stadium just went silent, you knew it was serious right away.”
Larsson suffered a double fracture in his left leg which many thought would rule him out for the season. Celtic lost the return leg at Celtic Park 1-0 and were eliminated at the hands of the French Giants but in the grand scheme of the season, the result ultimately felt irrelevant. Celtic had to find a way to adapt and win games without their star striker but that would prove much more challenging than initially anticipated.
Celtic’s form stuttered greatly following the loss of Larsson, suffering successive defeats to Motherwell, unable to win against bitter rivals Rangers and of course the now-infamous “Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious” headline which is iconic in Scottish Football Folklore following tiny part-time Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s 3-1 win over Celtic in the same week that Celtic went 10 points behind Rangers in the league.
Celtic’s season was in ruins it seemed, fan revolt against Barnes, assistant coach Eric Black and Director of Football Kenny Dalglish was higher than ever. Attendances were in freefall, fans and media alike were calling for Barnes to be sacked or for Barnes to resign following the rather desperate and bizarre attempt at tactical experimentation with the now ridiculed 2-2-2-2-2 formation attempt, with full backs and wingers playing narrow and inverted in an attempt to create more chances in an around the ICT penalty area, which ultimately backfired spectacularly.
Barnes was sacked almost immediately after, following rumours of player revolt particularly from Australian striker Mark Viduka who famously refused to play the second half against Inverness, following an altercation with assistant coach Eric Black which saw the striker throw his boots in the bin. Kenny Daglish would take over until the end of the season and whilst results slightly improved, Larsson somehow miraculously made an appearance in Celtic’s final game of the season against Dundee United at Celtic Park, replacing Eyal Berkovic in the 65th minute.
The game itself was a rather forgettable affair in which Celtic laboured a win which brought closure on a poor season at Celtic however, with Larsson returning from injury there was a slight optimism that with the right head coach in place Celtic could challenge for silverware once again next season.
Martin O’Neill was soon announced as the new manager of Celtic after the board refused to offer Kenny Daglish a contract and O’Neill had big plans for Celtic but nobody could have anticipated the rapid rise of Henrik Larsson and Celtic that would take place over the next few seasons.
O’Neill spent big in the summer of 2000, bringing in fellow striker Chris Sutton and dynamic midfielder Neil Lennon for a combined fee of almost £12 million and as the summer spending came to a halt at close to £20 million, O’Neill made clear that he did not intend to lose any major domestic honours this season. Furthermore, O’Neill got rid of some of the deadwood in the Celtic squad including wantaway striker Mark Viduka.
Celtic sensationally started the 2000-01 season, remaining undefeated domestically until November and playing an “all-out attack” style of direct football that O’Neill’s predecessors were unable to replicate. Defences struggled to cope with O’Neill’s now famous 3-5-2 with Chris Sutton and Henrik Larsson forming a formidable strike partnership, which was proven to be highly effective in a 6-2 rout of Rangers in August 2000, with Larsson scoring what would prove to be one of his most iconic goals for Celtic, the famous chip over the helpless Rangers goalkeeper Stefan Klos.
Larsson’s pace and skill were greatly complimented by Sutton’s athletic capability and when the 3 man midfield was comprised of Lennon/Lambert and any of Moravcik, Petrov or Thompson then defences knew they were in for a rough afternoon, with Moravcik quickly becoming a mainstay of the Celtic side at the age of 35. Moravcik seemed to be able to naturally predict the path and timing of Larsson’s runs. Not one for direct high balls “Lubo” was able to seemingly guide a pass into the feet of Larsson without fail on many occasions.
After a decade of domestic dominance from bitter rivals Rangers Celtic were beginning to enjoy a period of success of their own and of course with that comes rumours of incoming bids for major players. January 2000 saw rumours of Larsson going to seemingly every major club in England however these were quickly refuted by O’Neill. Celtic seemed to almost cruise through the second half of the domestic season, dropping only 1 point from January 2001 through to May, winning the Scottish League Cup in the process in a 3-0 win vs Kilmarnock at Hampden Park. Larsson’s scintillating displays were enough to leave some fans speechless at times. Henrik Larsson scored his 50th goal of the 2000-01 season in a sensational 3-0 win against Rangers at Ibrox, with his ability to remain composed under pressure to score the third adding yet another string to the bow of a potentially world-class striker.
Celtic lost their last two league games of the 2000-01 domestic season but the fans weren’t bothered. The League was won, the League Cup was won and soon the Scottish Cup would also be secured in a 3-0 win against Hibernian at Hampden, in which Larsson scored his 52nd and 53rd goals of the season. Henrik Larsson finished the season with 53 goals, setting an almost unthinkable record in the process as Celtic secured a domestic treble to lift the mood at Celtic Park after a decade of dominance by Rangers and whilst some in the media were linking him with moves to Barcelona and Manchester United, O’Neill insisted that the striker was happy and settled in Glasgow and that left fans thinking what more was to come.
Larsson didn’t just have a phenomenal impact on the pitch, off the pitch his attitude in training and his professionalism were rumoured to be top level. Rumoured to be one of the first to arrive and one of the last to leave, Larsson truly personified the true ethos and values of Celtic Football Club. A star on the pitch but friendly and approachable off it those who have had conversations with the Swedish striker have had nothing but positive things to say about his character and personality.
As the 2000-01 season drew to a close the cautious optimism that surrounded Celtic Park the previous summer had well and truly been replaced by joyous hope and optimism as O’Neill put plans in place to not only secure Celtic’s domestic dominance but also to progress further in European Competition as Celtic were perhaps unlucky to go out at the hands of Bordeaux in the second round of the 2000-01 UEFA Cup and Larsson was a key part of those plans.
O’Neill didn’t go for the “gung-ho” approach of the previous summer transfer window, instead refining his squad to play further to their strengths. O’Neill brought in 2 man mountains in prolific Welsh striker John Hartson and free transfer centre-back Bobo Balde. Wingers Steve Guppy and Momo Sylla were brought in to complete summer recruitment and Celtic held on to their prized asset in Henrik Larsson for another window.
The 2001-02 season started as Celtic meant to go on, playing their direct, attacking 3-5-2 with the new acquisitions adding a different dynamic in terms of pace, power and general skill and trickery. Larsson was quickly stamping his authority on this season, scoring two past Heart of Midlothian at Celtic Park and forming an arguably unstoppable chemistry with playmaker Moravcik and fellow striker Sutton. Celtic started the season well domestically but also on the European front as Celtic qualified for the group stages of the Champions League, which would ultimately be the catalyst of a series of truly unforgettable European nights, of which Larsson would play a vital role in many.
The most notable of these would, of course, be the 4-3 win against a full-strength Juventus side at Celtic Park in October 2001. Larsson proving once again that he could compete with effectively any defence in Europe, even those of the Italian giants renowned for their stubborn and rigid defence. Larsson went on a scoring streak across December and January of the 2001-02 season, averaging roughly almost a goal every game as Celtic looked to secure a second consecutive domestic treble.
Larsson’s form dipped slightly however in the second half of the 2001-02 season as Celtic’s form began to falter. Celtic managed to secure the SPL title for the second season in a row however, they lost both the Scottish Cup and the Scottish League Cup at the hands of Rangers at Hampden Park which left some sections of the Celtic support fuming that their star-studded line-up didn’t seem to have the grit and determination to succeed that was there in O’Neill’s first season in charge. Larsson failed to score in either cup final yet still finished Celtic’s top scorer on 35 goals. A decent return, but not the return that Celtic Fans were expecting from their record-breaking striker last season.
As the 2001-02 season concluded O’Neill was putting plans in place to try and push Celtic to the next level of domestic and European success and once again rumours were circulating to try and unsettle Larsson. Larsson was committed to O’Neill’s plans and visions of success for Celtic but nobody, not even O’Neill or Larsson themselves could have predicted the emotional rollercoaster that would become of the 2002-03 Celtic season or more commonly known as “The Road to Seville” which will be covered in more depth in Part 3.