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28th Feb 2018

The reaction of Man United’s players after Henrik Larsson’s last game says it all

"On arrival at United, he seemed a bit of a cult figure with our players. They would say his name in awed tones"

Robert Redmond

“On arrival at United, he seemed a bit of a cult figure with our players. They would say his name in awed tones.”

If someone tells you Henrik Larsson wasn’t a world-class player because he spent most of his career in Scotland, feel free to instantly disregard it. Larsson was an incredible footballer for Celtic, one of the greatest players in the club’s history who scored 242 goals in 313 games.

He was the top scorer in Europe in the 2000/01 season, netting a ridiculous 53 goals in 50 games for Celtic, and fired the team to four Scottish titles, two Scottish Cups and two Scottish League Cups.

Larsson helped end Rangers’ dominance of Scottish football, and scored twice in the 2003 Uefa Cup final, when Celtic narrowly lost to Jose Mourinho’s Porto. He then went on to prove any doubters wrong by setting up both of Barcelona’s goals as they won the 2006 Champions League final against Arsenal in Paris.

Larsson was 34 at the time and had come back from the second serious knee injury of his career, winning the respect and admiration of his teammates in the process. He also played 106 times for Sweden, scoring 37 goals and was part of the side that finished third at the 1994 World Cup.

Larsson returned to Swedish football in 2006, signing for Helsingborg, his hometown team. But he had one final stint at a top European club left in him and joined Manchester United on loan in January 2007 for two months.

He made an instant impression, scoring on his debut in the FA Cup against Aston Villa. He poked the ball home after Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney created space with a one-two at the edge of the penalty area.

He would only make 13 appearances, and score three goals for United, but Larsson’s impact went beyond these modest statistics. He was revered by his teammates and held in very high esteem by his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.

The former Sweden striker has said that the only regret from his career is that he did not get to play for United for a full season, and he has been speaking about his admiration for Ferguson in a wide-ranging interview with The Independent.

“I learned a lot from Sir Alex and the way he was with players,” the former Helsingborg manager said.

“It didn’t matter if you were younger or older, if you weren’t doing your job, you were told. There was a huge respect from the players, obviously. He was absolutely fantastic towards me and my family.”

Larsson scored on his final appearance for United at Old Trafford, leaping to head home Ronaldo’s cross against Lille in the Champions League.

His last match for the team was a 2-2 draw in the FA Cup away to Middlesbrough, and the interview references the reaction of United’s players following the game. It hammers home just how good Larsson was, and how highly he was rated by his teammates.

The United players and staff gave him a standing ovation when he returned to the dressing room, which Ferguson spoke about in his second autobiography.

“In training he was superb: his movement, his positional play. His three goals for us were no measure of his contribution. In his last game in our colours at Middlesbrough, we were winning 2-1 and Henrik went back to play in midfield and ran his balls off. On his return to the dressing room, all the players stood up and applauded him, and the staff joined in. It takes some player to make that kind of impact in two months. Cult status can vanish in two minutes if a player isn’t doing his job, yet Henrik retained that aura in his time with us. He looked a natural Man United player, with his movement and courage.”

United’s team at the time contained Ronaldo and Rooney, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. Not only were they brilliant footballers, among the best players of their generation, they were tough taskmasters, who would not have given standing ovations to teammates on a whim. According to Ferguson, Larsson was a “cult figure” with the United players, and “they would say his name in awed tones.”

It takes a special player to make the impact and impression Larsson did at three of Europe’s biggest clubs, and especially in just two months at Old Trafford.