When Henrik Larsson returned to Helsingborg after two years at Barcelona, it seemed like the perfect end to an outstanding career.
Larsson was coming back to where it all started and he was going home after winning the Champions League. His decision to re-sign for Helsingborg was romantic, but at 35 he wasn’t ready to settle down, he just didn’t know it yet.
Larsson was unaware he wanted anything more until he was four months into his second stint at the provincial Swedish club. Manchester United were set to change that with just one phone call received from the Helsingborg side’s coach.
Sir Alex Ferguson had expressed an interest in bringing Larsson – who was in the winter of his career – to Old Trafford. United’s attacking options were exhausted at the time and Ferguson turned to the veteran striker, whom he wanted to sign on a three-month loan.
Larsson became a cult hero at Old Trafford, despite only making 13 appearances for the club, and here is his story.
Of course, Larsson had already played on the British shores before signing for United in January 2007. Larsson signed for Celtic for £650,000 in 1997 and it was in Scotland that he made his name. He was an exceptional goalscorer.
“Celtic were the only team willing to bet on me, to be honest,” Larsson told Sky Sports in 2020. “I think they played well.” If Celtic played when signing Larsson, they ended up holding a royal flush at the transfer market table.
Larsson was an immediate hit. Although he scored an own goal in his first European appearance for Celtic, he also scored a lot on the right side of the pitch and ended his first season in Glasgow with an impressive 19 goals.
It was just a glimpse of what was to come. Larsson would score a total of 242 goals in 313 games for Celtic and his performances were watched south of the border. Ferguson was a fan and he actually tried to sign Larsson twice when he was in Scotland.
“I know Manchester United were interested,” Larsson told Sky Sports when asked about Ferguson’s first attempt to sign him. “I heard about it because Marc Rieper was a centre-half at Celtic and got a phone call from a United player. I don’t know who.
“I know Sir Alex had been watching. But I was happy at the time. I had started to feel at home, I scored goals and we had a good team. was not the time.”
Ferguson wrote about it in his autobiography years later. “I was ready to make the offer when he was at Celtic but Dermot Desmond, Celtic’s majority shareholder, called me and said, ‘You let me down, Alex, you have tons players, we need him.”
After seven years with Celtic, the 32-year-old Larsson was finally ready for a bigger challenge. He signed for Barcelona in 2004 and scored 19 goals in two seasons for the club, including providing two assists from the bench in the 2006 Champions League final against Arsenal.
This game turned out to be Larsson’s last appearance for the Catalans; he had well and truly proven himself outside Scotland. With a Champions League medal, it was time for his career to end as it had begun. Larsson returned to Helsingborg.
But he had only been back in Sweden for four months when his manager approached him on the team bus. United head scout Jim Lawlor had been on the phone and Ferguson wanted to sign him. United’s attacking options were in shambles.
Ruud van Nistelrooy had left United in the summer and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was injured. Louis Saha, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo found themselves with the burden of scoring United’s goals and Ferguson thought Larsson could strengthen his forward line.
“I had to go home and discuss it with the family, but I had already decided if they really wanted me so I’m going,” Larsson recalled years later. Larsson signed a three-month loan deal and Ferguson had finally had his man, even though he was now 35.
“It’s great, it’s a great club with a great history and a great tradition, so I feel really good to be here,” Larsson said during his unveiling. “Obviously I understand how important it is. There’s no doubt that this is an important moment and I’m aware of that.”
Ferguson claimed it was a great deal from United. “I’ve always looked up to Larsson. I made a move for him when he was at Celtic, but they were able to persuade him to stay. He’s a great player. It’s a great deal for us,” he said. he declared.
“We’re bringing in someone who can change a game. We won’t go looking for other strikers. We’ve exhausted all possibilities and this is definitely the best option.”
Larsson wasted no time in proving Ferguson right. The Swede made his debut against Aston Villa in the FA Cup at Old Trafford and he scored it with a goal. Larsson opened the scoring this afternoon with an instinctive volley at the Stretford End.
It was a brilliant first impression. Larsson’s keys were silky smooth and his movement was world class. Ferguson then picked Larsson to start against Villa and Arsenal in the Premier League, and Portsmouth in the FA Cup next round.
Larsson didn’t find the back of the net in those encounters, but he endeared himself to the fans with every appearance. It was clear Larsson could play and his selfless performances quickly made him a fan favorite on the terraces.
“Having the chance to work with Sir Alex and the players there at the time was just a great experience,” Larsson said two years ago.
“Playing at home in Sweden, yes it’s professional, but it’s not the atmosphere, the aura like at United. I felt at home there.”
Larsson playing for United felt good. The striker scored his second goal for the club at the end of January against Watford and that strike, which was again a quiet finish at the Stretford End, capped off a perfect month for the player.
As per the loan deal, Larsson was expected to return to Helsingborg on March 12, just in time for the new Swedish season. He played eight more games for United after January, scoring just one more goal in that run.
Larsson’s last appearance at Old Trafford came against Lille in the Champions League Round of 16. United beat Lille 1-0 that night and Larsson scored the game’s only goal. His header helped United through to the quarter-finals.
Ferguson replaced Larsson after that late goal and he received a delighted standing ovation in the spotlight. It was exactly what he deserved. By then his status as a United cult hero was sealed, despite only making 13 appearances for the club.
Larsson’s last game for United was at Middlesbrough in the FA Cup. He received more appreciation that afternoon, just this time from his colleagues. “When he arrived at United he seemed a bit of a cult figure with our players,” Ferguson wrote in his autobiography.
“They were saying his name in wonder. For a 35-year-old, his receptivity to information from the coaching side was incredible. Every session he was thrilled. He wanted to listen to Carlos Queiroz, the tactics lessons, he was in every nuance of what we have done.
“In training he was superb, his movement, his positional play. His three goals for us were no match for his contribution. In his last match for us at Middlesbrough, we won 2-1 and Henrik returned to play in midfield and ran his balls.
“When he came back to the locker room, all the players stood up and applauded him and the coaching staff joined him. It takes a player to have that kind of impact in two months.”
Larsson returned to Helsingborg after this match. He has since admitted that keeping his promise and returning to Sweden after his successful three months at United was his only regret. “That’s the only regret I have in my career,” Larsson told FourFourTwo in 2016.
“I should have stayed, because that would have meant I got a Premier League winners’ medal, and I would have stayed one more season. But I still had a contract with Helsingborgs and I feel that when you sign a contract, you have to see it.
“Everything was professional at Manchester United. When I had to attend my brother’s christening, the club ordered a plane to take me there after a game. United really take care of all their players.
Ferguson deeply admired Larsson and it’s clear that sentiment was shared by the player, as he explained in an interview with The Independent three years ago. “I learned a lot from Sir Alex and his way of being with the players,” said Larsson.
“It didn’t matter if you were younger or older, if you weren’t doing your job, you were told. There was huge respect from the players, obviously. He was absolutely fantastic towards me and my family. .”
Larsson has also been fantastic for United.
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