Anecdotes tend to be a worthier currency than financial gains in future times. Some tidbits disappear into the reservoir of the
mind, while others remain reassuringly bright. It has always been this way in football.
It must be acknowledged that Celtic and Henrik Larsson wallowed in millions during the Swedish player's stint in Glasgow, whatever price one wants to put on such moments. Between club and player, they have a
treasure trove of gilded memories that cannot be bought or sold.
Watching Larsson score a hat-trick for Celtic against Manchester United's legends at Celtic Park in a charity match for the famine in East Africa on Tuesday was an
occasion mired in nostalgia, and one profiting from more than a hint of poignancy.
I was fortunate enough to interview Larsson twice during his
outrageous seven-year period representing Celtic, a quite heaving spell of finding the onion bag that
spawned 242 goals in 315 games from the man in the number seven shirt.
The first time I met him was only months after he had
arrived in Scottish football from Feyenoord after Celtic had benefited from a
clause in his contract with the Dutch club that allowed Larsson to move for
a paltry £650,000.
Many Celtic fans wondered if their club had landed a dud
after Larsson's slack pass to Chic Charnley saw Hibernian down the Glasgow side
2-1 in the opening game of the 1997/98 league season. Larsson was catapulted into the role
of the club's leading striker by Celtic's Dutch coach Wim Jansen. The rest, as they
say, is history. Larsson struck 16 league goals in 35 games in his first season representing
Larsson scored against St Johnstone in a season that ran to the final game before
Celtic denied Rangers a 10th Scottish title that would have usurped their
record of nine straight crowns.
When I came across him four years later, he was one of
the most coveted strikers in Europe. He had rejected a move to Manchester
United in a deal rumoured to be worth £15 million in 2000 because he was of a mind that
he could not better himself away from Celtic.
"I don't need to move," he said. "Why do I
have to move? Everything here is geared for success."
When one looks back at some of his team-mates of that period,
some of whom drunk in a charity match that included the Scottish actor and
ardent Celtic supporter Gerard Butler, it is difficult to argue otherwise. Chris Sutton
was purchased from Chelsea for £6 million, Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager,
arrived for over £5 million from Leicester while others, Lubmoir Moravick, a
player young Zinedine Zidane had admired in France, and John Hartson, a £6 million signing from Coventry, were figures who contributed heartily to the Larsson legend. As Butler's Leonidas character in the film 300 might say 'This is Celtic'. Or this was Celtic.
Within hours of Larsson's timely reminder on Tuesday, the seriousness of Scottish football's situation was outed yesterday morning. The 2011
annual report on Scottish football finances, published by accountancy firm
Pricewaterhouse Coopers, studies the 2009/10 season with some tredpidation. The latest literature suggests the game in Scotland may go the same way as
the dodo unless there is radical change.
Chatting with Larsson was unremarkable. He was a little bit
guarded, mindful of what he was saying, a bit like a stereotypical Swede, one might say. What was more memorable was his very
presence in Scottish football. At the age of 39, he continues to look like he could do a
job for Celtic. He remains by some distance the most talented striker to play in Scotland since the 1970s, but the latest financial report continues to mourn his passing.
Larsson left Celtic for Barcelona in 2004. The product
has slowly decomposed in the intervening period. A mist of depression seems to have become stranded over the game in Scotland with dwindling attendances amid the recession, rising debts and a punitive television contract with Sky and ESPN bringing only £65 milllon to the SPL poorhouse over five years since being signed two years ago. All of this combines to paint a grim picture of what could lie ahead for a league flag that has been carved up without much thought between Celtic and Rangers since 1985.
David Glen, author of the annual Pricewaterhouse Coopers report, is quite a thinker
on this subject. He is not one to fraternise with a sensationalist viewpoint.
It is there for all to see.
The SPL has haemorraghed 600,000 fans in the past five
years, according to findings.
Glen is of a mind that some English clubs may topple over due to unsustainable spending, but this is the last thing Scotland would need when there is suddenly the old pressure to flog talent to their larger neighbours. Dundee United were crying out for the £2 million they pocketed from Blackburn Rovers for the sale of the Scotland forward David Goodwillie.
Glen feels that Scottish football is dying on its
feet unless it can improve the brand. This is difficult to achieve when Celtic and
Rangers, who have had Brian Laudrup, Paul Gascoigne and Ronald de Boer to their
name in modern times, do not have the funds to attract men such as Larsson.
Over 13,000 turned out to watch Aberdeen confront Celtic on
Sunday. In years gone by, Aberdeen would have attracted 20,000 for such a fixture in the SPL.
Only the travelling Celtic support prevented the attendance being an embarrassment. A dose of reality has taken over.
Celtic managed to attract 55,000 for the charity match,
but this is because adults were allowed in for £10 and children for a fiver. This was because Larsson and Sutton were playing for their side. Dusting down old icons tends to work a treat.
remains a genuine thirst for true quality in Scotland, but the price to watch football in the SPL is too
much to pay for the product on offer. The longer the league goes without a face
like Larsson, the harder the game becomes to sell to the paying public.
Celtic and Manchester United raised £300,000 for charity on Tuesday. Finding fresh faces to watch Scottish football on a weekly basis seems a much more daunting task.