A jigsaw with a missing piece…

Let me paint you a picture… Let’s pretend you are the manager of one of the biggest clubs in world football. You have won numerous league titles with this club, as well as guiding them to a European Champions’ Cup triumph. You finished eight points adrift of one of your biggest rivals last season. However, now, as Christmas comes into view this season, you are several points clear of the same club at the top of the table.

You have a young Portuguese star who is almost literally ‘on fire’ right now. He is already showing signs that he could become one of the greatest players the world has ever seen. He’s almost winning games for you on his own. However, he very much ISN’T on his own. He is ably assisted by many outstanding talents, including Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand.

All that said, you have been in this game a long time. Other managers might have been sitting back, lapping up the media applause for a season which has so far witnessed just two league defeats as January approaches. That’s not you. Your strong work ethic and ‘sixth sense’ that there might be problems ahead serve you well.

Mulling over your first-team squad, you realise you have a nagging concern. You have a superb defence, which hasn’t conceded more than a single goal in any game for months. It has almost two top-class players for every position. Your midfield is also the envy of many fellow managers, with some fabulous players in there.

However, the same cannot be said of your forward line. Rooney is in the form of his life, combining with young Cristiano Ronaldo to devastating effect time and time again. However, beyond the young Liverpudlian, there’s a problem…

Frenchman Louis Saha, despite undeniable talent in front of goal, simply cannot be relied upon to remain match fit. Alas, the same must also be said of veteran club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Now in the twilight of a fabulous career, the little Norwegian is still a potent threat, but his knees are constantly troubling him and he’s missed a lot of football due to other niggling injuries.

The same injury plight has befallen the willing Alan Smith. The former Leeds United lad has the heart of a lion, but his body is taking time to recover from a broken leg and dislocated ankle suffered ten months ago in a reserve game.

Your relationship with legendary hitman Ruud van Nistelrooy had deteriorated over the previous 18 months to the point that when he asked for a transfer to Real Madrid last summer, you agreed to let him leave.

In short, if anything serious were to sideline Wayne Rooney for more than a couple of weeks, you would be in big, big trouble. So, what to do? The club’s American owners (who have little interest in “soccer” to begin with) are not going to sanction a huge spend on a “substitute” striker in the January transfer window, so you will have to “play it smart” here.

A gamble worth taking

Then, on New Year’s Day 2007, Sir Alex Ferguson (that’s “you” in the tale, by the way…) pulled off yet another stroke of genius for the betterment of Manchester United. Having identified the need for a short-term, top-quality striker, he swooped for former Celtic, Barcelona and Sweden legend Henrik Larsson, signing the veteran striker on loan from hometown club Helsingborg until the commencement of the Swedish “Allsvenskan” league season in mid-March.

Larsson, just recently returned to his homeland, didn’t take a lot of persuading. Helsingborg had just concluded their domestic season, during which Henrik had scored eight goals in just 15 appearances to help secure UEFA Cup qualification. Therefore, he was fully match-fit and could leave Helsingborg without causing the club any headaches. It was a two-and-a-bit-months loan deal that would allow him to be back with them in time for their next competitive game.

A “crowd-pleaser”… Immediately

They say that good decisions don’t take long to show themselves as such. Larsson made his United debut just six days later, 7th January, in a home FA Cup third-round tie against Martin O’Neill’s Aston Villa. He scored the opening goal after 55 minutes in a 2-1 victory, endearing himself to the home fans instantly with an immaculate, energetic display of intelligent movement, vision, and of course, deadly finishing. The goal was simply sublime: receiving a lay-off from Rooney, Larsson took one touch to control the ball, another to volley it into the top corner of the Villa net.

This came against a background of disquiet amongst some fans that the deal simply highlighted the hated Glazer family’s penny-pinching modus operandi at United. Whilst there is no doubt that that played its part in their rubber-stamping the loan move, the fact remained that Larsson was a world-class player, albeit in the twilight of his career. He really should have been donning a Manchester United shirt eight or nine years earlier than he eventually did.

That superb debut display was more than enough to keep Henrik in the starting XI a week later when United ironically faced the same opposition, Aston Villa, in the Premier League at Old Trafford. This time he didn’t find the net, but still contributed well to a 3-1 home victory, the goals coming from Park Ji-Sung, Michael Carrick and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Making a contribution

The following Sunday the Red Devils faced a tough trip to take on Arsene Wenger’s star-studded Arsenal team in North London. Larsson was again named in the starting line-up. By the time he left the pitch after 81 minutes, withdrawn for Louis Saha, United led 1-0 thanks to a Wayne Rooney goal scored early in the second half. However, seven minutes later, the visitors had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. United conceded twice in the dying minutes, first to future Reds striker Robin van Persie and then Frenchman Thierry Henry.

It was the first disappointment Larsson had experienced since his temporary switch to English football, even though he himself, obviously, couldn’t be blamed for that late collapse.

A visit from Portsmouth, then under the guidance of wily boss Harry Redknapp, in the FA Cup the following weekend gave Larsson another opportunity to shine in the red shirt. He played the full 90 minutes, as two goals from substitute Wayne Rooney gave United safe passage to the next round on a 2-1 scoreline. Whilst Larsson no longer had the pace he once possessed, his years of experience as a professional player gave him a coolness under pressure that younger players rarely possess.

Sir Alex: The master at man-management

As you can imagine, one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s top traits as a manager was that of man-management. With United facing Watford at Old Trafford the following Wednesday evening, it was little surprise that the boss decided to give 35-year-old Larsson a breather. The Swede had played in four tough games in quick succession. Ferguson dropped him to the bench, choosing to partner Solskjaer with the in-form Rooney instead.

By the time Larsson came off the bench for the little Norwegian after 66 minutes, his teammates were already 2-0 ahead thanks to a Ronaldo penalty and a Lloyd Doyley own goal. It didn’t take long for the ice-cool hitman to join the fun. Three minutes later he showed that he already had great telepathy with Rooney, delightfully swapping passes before charging through to calmly make it 3-0, sending the Watford ‘keeper the wrong way. It was his first goal in the Premier League in only his third league appearance. United added another goal within a minute through Rooney and the game was over.

United continued their impressive domestic form with an emphatic 4-0 win at White Hart Lane on the Sunday, 4th February. Larsson was again in the starting XI, his blossoming strike partnership with Rooney now as potent as any to be found in England after only a month. The win over Tottenham, achieved despite ‘keeper Edwin van der Sar suffering a broken nose in the closing minutes, moved the Red Devils six points clear of reigning champions Chelsea at the top of the table.

A week later, relegation-haunted Charlton Athletic were comfortably dispatched 2-0 at Old Trafford. Larsson had been dropped to the bench in favour of the fit-again Louis Saha, coming on to replace fellow veteran Ryan Giggs after 63 minutes. Again, it is easy to look back at Sir Alex’s thinking on that decision to bench Larsson and feel it was justifiable. The Swede was only going to be with the United squad for another month, and after that Saha would need to be fully “up and running” to support Rooney for the title run-in.

However, Larsson may not have seen it that way. Time was not on his side at United, so, he had little of it to waste sitting kicking his heels on the bench.

Why don’t you please stay?!

A true United legend, Steve Coppell, brought his Reading side to Manchester on 17th February for an FA Cup tie and left with a hard-fought 1-1 draw. Henrik Larsson had once again found himself on the bench, replacing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after 73 minutes as part of a triple substitution by Sir Alex. However, neither he nor fellow substitute Paul Scholes could help find a way past a resolute Royals backline.

Despite that, by this stage, United, and Sir Alex Ferguson in particular, were very keen that Larsson should extend his stay in south-west Manchester beyond mid-March. However, Henrik Larsson was nothing if not a man of his word. He had promised both his family and his hometown club that he would return to Sweden on 12th March to spearhead Helsingborg’s domestic campaign, and now that is what he had determined to do: keep his promise. He’d reluctantly told Ferguson that he would not be staying beyond 12th March, though it was a tough decision to say “no” to the legendary Scotsman.

The following Tuesday evening brought the return of the UEFA Champions League, and a very challenging trip to French side Lille for Larsson and his temporary teammates. The Swede must have been pleased to see his name in the starting side named by Ferguson since the boss had clearly named as strong a side as he felt he had available. Larsson was preferred to both Saha and Solskjaer, and was now clearly the main striking partner for Rooney for the remainder of his loan spell.

The game was an ugly, bad-tempered affair, settled by a quickly-taken Giggs free-kick seven minutes from time. The French side were furious that the goal was allowed to stand, and threatened to walk off the pitch. Larsson had almost opened the scoring ten minutes earlier, chipping inches over the crossbar after Lille ‘keeper Tony Sylva had failed to gather a Rooney cross.

Behind… For twelve minutes

On the weekend, Larsson started the game at Craven Cottage against a Fulham side desperate for points in their fight against the dreaded drop. The Cottagers fought hard, opening the scoring through veteran American hitman Brian McBride, but goals from Giggs and a late, fabulous Ronaldo strike gave United a barely deserved 2-1 victory.

The twelve minutes during which Brian McBride’s goal had separated the teams at Craven Cottage would be the only time during his thirteen-game loan spell at United that Henrik Larsson would be on the pitch in a Red Devils side that were trailing the opposition…

For the first time since his arrival in Manchester, Larsson had looked a bit jaded at Fulham, not really contributing much. It was little surprise to most observers when he was completely dropped from the matchday squad for the FA Cup fifth-round replay at Reading the following midweek. It was a game in which United stormed into a 3-0 lead after only SIX MINUTES, but ended up having to hold on in to win 3-2.

Going to Liverpool…

Being rested from a trip to Reading was the calm before the storm for Larsson. On the Saturday afternoon, he rejoined the squad for the daunting trip to Anfield to face Rafa Benitez’ in-form Liverpool team.

It was a surprisingly quiet day for the Swede. He saw little by way of action before being withdrawn for Louis Saha after 67 minutes. The score was locked at 0-0 but the hosts had been dominating possession for large spells of the game. When midfield dynamo Paul Scholes was red-carded for reacting to provocation from Xabi Alonso four minutes from time, it seemed as if United would do well just to hold on for a point. However, a last-gasp goal in front of a stunned Kop Stand from the unlikely source of big John O’Shea gave the Red Devils a superb 1-0 away win.

Going out with a ‘bang’!

The following Wednesday evening, Henrik Larsson appeared at Old Trafford for the last time in a competitive fixture when he took the field for the return Champions League game with Lille. By now the United faithful had taken the quiet, likeable Swede very much to their hearts; it was an emotional occasion.

As flattered as he was by United’s clearly stated desire that he extend his loan spell at Old Trafford until the end of the English season, Larsson had already publicly announced that he would not delay his return home to Sweden. The fans were heartbroken.

Fittingly, it was a goal from the man himself that gave the hosts a 1-0 win over their fiery French visitors on the night, for a 2-0 victory on aggregate. With nerves fraying around the ground and United struggling to finish off the Ligue 1 outfit, Larsson rose majestically to head a Ronaldo cross past Tony Sylva after 72 minutes. The goal released the pressure valve squeezing on the Stretford End. At the final whistle, the Swede was given a rousing ovation by the entire stadium as he left the pitch.

Larsson’s final appearance in a United shirt came three days later at the Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough in an FA Cup sixth-round tie. He played a part in setting up Wayne Rooney for the opening goal after 23 minutes. However, the hosts had chances of their own and eventually took a 2-1 lead through Lee Cattermole and a George Boateng header. Only a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty, awarded after Boateng had handled in his own area, saved United from defeat. The game finished in a 2-2 draw, which was probably a fair result since both sides had had chances to snatch victory.

All hail the conquering hero

On his return to the United dressing room after the game, the other players and staff members alike stood and gave Larsson a round of applause. As Sir Alex Ferguson later commented, “it takes some player to make that impact in three months!”

And then, as quickly as he’d arrived, Henrik Larsson was gone. In his absence United went on to wrap up their first Premier League title triumph in four years, finishing six points clear of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, twenty-one points clear of third-placed Liverpool.

Despite not having played in the requisite ten Premier League games required to receive a winners’ medal automatically, United appealed to the League on Larsson’s behalf and he was granted a gold medal on special dispensation. No one who witnessed his contribution to the side at that vital stage of the season would have argued he didn’t deserve it.

The Larsson legacy

Beyond his obvious abilities on the pitch, Henrik Larsson brought a much-needed measure of leadership and experience to a fairly youthful United squad that was transitioning between two glorious eras of Sir Alex Ferguson’s 26-year reign. A lot of the familiar faces of the great side of the late 1990s and early 2000s had moved on: Roy Keane, Jaap Stam, Teddy Sheringham, David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy. In their place came the likes of Ronaldo, Rooney and Michael Carrick; highly skilled young men but still inexperienced in the means and methods of becoming serial winners.

Larsson has been credited with helping to steer the younger lads through a crucial period in a defining season for their development as Manchester United players. After he had returned to Sweden, Sir Alex Ferguson was quick to sing his praises: “On arrival, he seemed a bit of a cult figure with our players. They would say his name in awed tones. 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’s been fantastic for us, his professionalism, his attitude, everything he’s done has been excellent.”

For his part, Henrik Larsson has since expressed regret that he didn’t stay longer at Old Trafford. Some years later, after his playing career had come to an end, Larsson admitted: “I should have stayed, that’s the only regret I have in my career. But I still had a contract with Helsingborg and I felt that when you sign a contract you have to see it out.”

It may have been but a brief glimpse of what could have been a few glorious years in a red shirt, but Henrik Larsson will forever be remembered with great fondness by Manchester United fans. In less than three months, he proved he was much more than merely a legend in some parts of Scotland!