Henrik Larsson broke his leg in 1999. A year later he was back, and all he had to do was beat their most hated rivals who had won 11 of the previous 12 Scottish titles. Obviously, he did it…
The 1999/2000 season didn’t quite go to plan for Celtic. That was the season of John Barnes and Kenny Dalglish, of defeat to Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Scottish Cup, of Mark Viduka downing tools at half-time in that game and forcing his way out of the club, of finishing a whopping 21 points behind Rangers as the hated rivals won their 11th title in 12 seasons.
It was also the season they nearly lost a great. After 12 minutes of their UEFA Cup tie against Lyon in October, Henrik Larsson attempted to charge down a clearance but got his left boot caught in the turf, and his tibia snapped in two.
A freak injury, but one that derailed a season: from that point their league form tanked, and they gained just a single point in four Old Firm games as they watched Rangers disappear over the horizon. The last of those, a 4-0 defeat at Ibrox, was especially painful.
But by the start of the following season, the mood had changed. Barnes and Dalglish were out, and Martin O’Neill had taken over. Chris Sutton had replaced Viduka and Larsson was back, leg healed and spirit revitalised after making the Sweden Euro 2000 squad.
Optimism had returned to Paradise, and by the time the first Old Firm game of the season rolled around they were firing, with a 100% record in all competitions and Larsson was scoring like nothing had happened. They tuned up for the fixture by sticking seven past Luxembourgers Jeunesse Esch. The mood was high.
But optimism is intangible: they needed something more to grab onto, some sort of actual achievement. The target was obvious. ”We want to do better against Rangers in the league and close the gap on them,” said Larsson before the season started. “Hopefully we can do that.” Sutton was slightly more forthright, asserting that “the important thing is to put Rangers in their place.”
That place-putting began after 51 seconds. The shuffling genius of Lubo Moravcik belted in a corner from the left, an uncoordinated semi-scramble ensued and the ball fell to Sutton, bafflingly unmarked in the six-yard box, who swept home.
Parkhead exploded, but this could have been one of Scottish football’s great ‘What if?’ moments: Sutton was offside, lurking behind the prone goalkeeper and last defender as the ball was played but stepping up at just the right time so that the linesman didn’t spot it. Had the goal been chalked off, would the game have gone differently? Would Celtic have run away with it all so spectacularly? Would the psychological barrier of Rangers dominance been shattered quite so emphatically?
The important thing is to put Rangers in their place.
Who knows. What we do know is that the fizzing atmosphere reached new heights as Celtic quickly spanked two more, Stiliyan Petrov and Paul Lambert making it 3-0 by the 11th minute. By this point Parkhead was less a packed football stadium, more one single incredulous, ecstatic consciousness with about 120,000 arms, flying all over the shop.
The one thing missing was a goal from Larsson. This was only the great man’s fourth season with Celtic (the third having been curtailed that night in Lyon), but he was already on his way to becoming a legend, the metaphorical stone masons working on chiselling out his likeness alongside Johnstone and McGrain and Lennox and the rest on the club’s Mount Rushmore. But if that status needed to be confirmed, it was in the 2000/01 season.
Writing in his book ‘A Season In Paradise’, his diary of that campaign, Larsson explains that even after that horrific injury, he was never really fearful for his career. But anyone who saw it (and only look it up if you’re sturdy of stomach) will testify that it was a terrifying break, one that would have ended careers in other generations. And the doubts even crept into Larsson’s mind. “There was never a time when I feared not coming back into the team but you can’t help the feeling of ‘What if?’” he told the Daily Record that summer.
So his return, for a brief cameo at the end of the previous season, was greeted in appropriate fashion, the return of a glorious king come to save his people. And any questions that he might have lost something from that injury were rendered laughable five minutes after half-time against Rangers.
The thing about immensely-talented sportspeople – geniuses, even – is that they don’t see extraordinary moments as extraordinary at all. When they do something that makes everyone gasp, to them it’s usually simply the most logical thing, occurring naturally. They see a problem, and their instinctive solution is to solve it in a way most of us wouldn’t even consider, let alone attempt.
Which explains what happened when Celtic keeper Jonathan Gould sent a long ball towards Sutton, who knocked it down into Larsson’s path around 40 yards from goal. Larsson picked it up, ran straight towards the backpedalling defence and encountered Bert Konterman, a vast Dutch defender, part of their European Championship squad that summer and newly signed for £4.5million, in the days when £4.5million was a lot of money for a centre-back.
All Larsson did was nutmeg Konterman, spotting an infinitesimal gap between his legs and popping the ball through it, like the Millennium Falcon squeezing betwixt two asteroids, then contorted his body in such a way that he could clip a curling chip over Stefan Klos, looping gently into the net. It’s not often that you see an original goal, but that was one, an exquisite piece of skill that few others could replicate.
In ‘A Season In Paradise’, Larsson wrote: ‘I saw Konterman coming towards me and I could also see that there was space behind him. I can’t explain why I nutmegged him, it just seemed the thing to do at that moment. I had to get past him and, from the angle I was running at, that was about the only thing I could do.
‘Once past Konterman, I could see the keeper coming out to close me down, so I immediately decided to lift it over him…and it went in. As soon as I hit it, I thought it was going in, it felt totally right when it left my boot. but there were a few moments when it seemed to be a on a strange curve that would take it over the bar. In a split second it reached the top of its trajectory and started dipping, and then I knew it was a goal.’
This is the problem with asking those capable of extraordinary things to explain how they do it. When they do, it makes it sound like you or I could easily pull it off too. “I saw the shot and I thought for a second it was going over the bar,” said O’Neill. “I was just about to kill him. But then how could I have doubted him?”
I can't explain why I nutmegged him, it just seem the thing to do at that moment.
Poor Konterman, though. In the crowd that day was Louis van Gaal, the Netherlands national coach, in town to cast an eye over the significant Dutch contingent in the Rangers team, most notably Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Fernando Ricksen and Konterman. With a round of World Cup qualifiers ahead, they were all keen to impress. Alas, the usually immaculate van Bronckhorst was overrun in midfield, Konterman had his pants pulled down as the world watched on and Petta gave Ricksen such a chasing that he was substituted after 22 minutes.
The odd thing about this game is that, on the face of things it very much earned its nickname of the ‘Demolition Derby’. By any standards, 6-2 is a thrashing, a shoeing, a hiding, a humiliation. But, perhaps conditioned by years of defeat to the blue side of town, Celtic didn’t feel certain about it until late on. Larsson and Sutton added another goal each, and only then did O’Neill relax.
“Even at 4-1, I was thinking there is a long, long way to go,” he said afterwards. “They got back to 4-2, and I think the only time I ever really felt comfortable was when Sutton put the sixth one in…I met Noel Gallagher in the tunnel after the game and we were both practically speechless.”
Notes of caution were sounded afterwards. Rangers are a great team, they’ll be back, can’t get carried away, etc and so on. The Celtic contingent didn’t really have the option to say anything else. But this was about more than just a single victory. This marked the start of something, of a dynasty, breaking the Rangers stranglehold for Celtic’s own era of dominance.
They won the title by 17 points, a scarcely believable swing of 38 from the previous season, and as a flourish added both cups for their first domestic treble since 1969. Larsson scored 35 league goals and 53 in 50 appearances overall, Messiesque numbers in the days before those sort of feats were normalised.
But the chip is the one everyone remembers. Including him. “I know I scored a lot of goals in those games,” Larsson told Sky a couple of years ago, skilfully avoiding sounding conceited by being factually correct, “but the 6-2 game is my favourite.”
You can listen to the latest edition of the Totally Scottish Football Show here, and even better, you can subscribe here. If you wish to reproduce any of the material in this article or from the podcast you are very welcome to, but please credit The Totally Football Show and include this link.