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Henrik Larsson - "A Day in Helsingborg"
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When my girlfriend first told me she had the opportunity to go to Sweden as part of her course, I was somewhat jealous. I'd never been to Sweden. In fact, there's very few places I truly have been. I was something of a latecomer to travelling. My first time off these islands was to Holland on a school trip in 1994. My next trip was some five years later to Rhodes. Indeed, I'm still on my first passport, thanks to some weird fiddle the school had with group passports!
I was even more of a latecomer to Celtic away trips. Without a season book until 2002 I couldn't get any tickets for away games. The odd trip to Hampden when I could manage to get a ticket for one of our semis was usually all I managed. But I started to pick them up eventually. It was sheer instinct when we sorted outselves out for tickets for Seville directly from UEFA when we were still at the quarter final stages of the tournament. So Seville was my first trip to see Celtic in Europe.
Since then, I've seen more countries and places than I would ever have thought possible. I've been to the odd place I wouldn't otherwise go to - Donetsk anyone?! My European country list is being ticked off more and more as the years go on, and its mainly down to following Celtic here, there and everywhere. With Portugal and Denmark still to come before the end of the year, I've another two to add to the ever-growing list.
But Sweden was never somewhere I'd found myself before. The last time Celtic played a team from Sweden was... well, I couldn't tell you when it was! I don't have much cause for going over there either. At least I didn't, until now.
I must have done the wrong course at uni. Computing Science had me stuck in a computing lab for four years to come out the other side of it and spend a further two years trying to get a job before finally landing one thanks to folk I played fives with! Mental Health Nursing on the other hand gets you four weeks in Sweden!
Still, not one to miss out on an opportunity, I immediately set out to get myself over there right in the middle of those four weeks for a long weekend. It seemed like a good idea. Split up the time we were apart, got me a long weekend off work, I get to see somewhere I've never been...
It was only AFTER I'd booked up with Ryanair and put in for holiday time from work that it occurred to me that an opportunity for something else was coming my way. Many on Kerrydale Street had spoken about the idea of making the pilgrimage to the homeland of one of the greatest ever Celtic players. To be fair, the other ten in that team the fans voted for are Scottish, so there's only one other land!
Henrik Larsson. Celtic player for seven years, Barcelona player for two. In that time he played a huge part in getting us to Seville, and had left us with a league and cup double to add to the hundreds of memories. He'd rode off into the sunset and headed for Barcelona, where he won another two league titles, and even turned the Champions League final to Barcelona's favour in his final game for them. Henrik has done it all. Time to head home, to where it all started.
Okay, so strictly speaking Henrik started with Hogeborg, but Helsingborg were his first real big team. They've never won the Swedish League. They've come second a few times in the past, but they've never won it. When Henrik arrived in the summer, Helsingborg were mid to lower table. By the time I arrived in the town on the 22nd of October, they were in a European spot still with a mathematical chance of winning the league.
For those that don't know, the Swedish league follows the calendar year. They have a mid season break in the summer, and finish at the start of November. Henrik, having signed an 18 month contract with them, will have another full season after this one. And I wouldn't put it past them to win the league next season, just to cap off an outstanding career.
I'll spare you the details of my time in Gothenburg. Its something of a tourist city. There's nothing spectacular to see at this time of year. The trams are efficient enough, with their own fair share of nutters, but sadly in October their theme park in the middle of the city is closed. Their large "Castle Park" (despite their being no castle to speak of) is possibly the best bit about the city. Its nice for walks, and comes with a free zoo in the middle of it! All in all though, it's pretty much your bog standard city. But they do have a direct link to Prestwick Airport from Gothenburg City Airport, and their trains run down to Copenhagen, stopping in Helsingborg on the way. Which is precisely how I got there myself. With my long suffering girlfriend of course, who by now has long since learned to live with my obession of football!
The first thing we noticed on our way to Helsingborg was the weather. Since I'd arrived on the Friday there had been two kinds of weather. Rainy and cloudy. It was all too familiar for someone who lives in Scotland. But for no apparent reason, the closer you got to Helsingborg the lighter it got. By the time we emerged from the train station in Helsingborg, the sun was out and the sky was a lovely blue. I was suddenly reminded of Only An Excuse, and just had to paraphrase it...
"And Larsson fixes the weather! Is there anything he can't do?!"
Helsingborg itself is a port, and has a regular ferry across the short span of water which separates it from its Danish twin town of Helsingor. On good days, like the one when I was there, you can easily see across. Actually, you can probably see across on bad days too, its not like its far.
Apart from the fact its a port, the most striking part of Helsingborg is the castle. You'll find it dominates quite a bit of life there. Their town flag has it, the football team's badge has it, and you can see most of the city from the grounds of it, let alone the tower. The buildings surrounding the entrance to the castle are lovely too, and well worth stopping and having a look at - if you like that sort of thing.
Having a look around the castle ourselves, it soon became apparent that we weren't alone. While I was probably the only one wearing a Black Magic Celtic away top with the name Larsson 7 on the back, my girlfriend wasn't the only one in the hoops. Indeed, when you're having a look at Helsingborg from the castle and you hear "I wonder if there's any Swedes going to the game today" from behind you in your own accent, you almost forget you're in another country!
Continuing up past the tower is a small park. There's a metal looking stage and a duck pond from what I could see. Hardly competition for the castle, but its a good marker for finding your way to the stadium. If you follow the path between them you soon come to a road. Cross that and with any luck you can follow Magnus Erikssons Gata straight to the south west corner of the Olympia stadium - home to Helsingborgs IF.
Its not exactly the most impressive stadium in the world, but its nice enough. There's two stands running the length of the pitch on either side. The north stand is terraces and you'll usually find the away fans in one corner of it. The south stand tends to be where the more hardcore Helsingborg fans stand - especially the east side of the south stand.
Having purchased my tickets from ticnet.se a couple of months previous, I went to collect them from the ticket office in the main west stand. The ticket office seems to perform a lot of functions. The club shop is served from the same area, while the main entrance to the stadium is through a second door from the ticket office area. Helsingborg are small enough that they can get away with this. If Celtic tried this I dread to think what kind of mayhem would ensue. And I've stood in our ticket office queue for eight hours once, so I know what kind of mayhem we can ensue without trying this!
There was no problem getting my tickets at all. The staff were friendly and helpful, and their English was a million times better than my Swedish. Although having learned that several keywords like "Hej!" (prounounced "Hey!") and "Polis" mean precisely the same there as they do here, as well as learning that thank you or "Tack" is as polite as Swedes get (there appears to be no word for "Please") I've at least added something to my culture.
After purchasing a Larsson t-shirt and scarf (I really am quite sad when it comes to such things) we left the ticket office. It should be noted that the actual order of events was slightly different than here. We headed straight for the stadium from the station to get the tickets and purchases, then back to the station to get some food as we'd seen a nice little cafe there, then up to the castle before heading on to the stadium. But it makes far more sense if you follow how I've actually written this. It saves you walking twice as much after all!
Inside the stadium itself, it turned out we had one of the best seats in the house. We were sitting right next to the tunnel, behind the away dugout, and just three rows from the front. I doubt I could have picked better seats if I'd tried. We were in the stadium in plenty of time to watch everything take place.
The first thing we noticed was the deckchairs out on the pitch. Those turned out to be used by the stadium announcer as he interviewed some guy about the game. We then went onto the big screen at the south stand to see what the horoscopes said about Helsingborg's chances against the team 2nd bottom of the league. Although this team would be fighting for their place in the league, I somehow doubted Helsingborg would do anything but win. It might be close, but Henrik had never let me down before and I knew he wouldn't let me down this time either.
The teams came out for warm up. Pretty much your standard warm up that you could watch Celtic do if you were in early enough. Nothing new there. Literally nothing new there as it turned out, since Henrik ended his warm up the way he always did. A few practice shots with the trainer setting him up, before finishing off with his own shots and only heading off for the dressing room when he'd hit the back of the net. After pointing this out to my girlfriend she has since decided I probably love Henrik more than her. I thought about pointing out that he left Celtic before we started going out, but decided better of it.
So, the teams back in the dressing room and all was normal. Then a bunch of kids wearing the strips of the two teams came running out. Had the teams shrunk in the wash? No, these were just kids who would line up on the pitch to illustrate where each player for each team would play. As the names were called out, the kid who represented that player would wave to the crowd. All except the last boy for Helsingborg. He got the microphone stuck in his face so he could call out the name of his player. "Henrik Larsson!" That got the loudest roar of all the Helsingborg players.
As the boys headed back down the tunnel I happened to notice that there were a few heads in the crowd looking up. My wonderful powers of deduction lead me to an inescapable conclusion. I should also look up.
A bunch of people came parachuting into the stadium! Some of them came in at a fair speed. There was one who I swore was going to break his legs if he had hit the ground, but somewhere between dropping below the stand roof height and actually touching the ground he'd somehow managed to slow himself down so much that he barely even moved the grass. Impressive.
Finally, as those guys cleared off the park, the players emerged from the tunnel and lined up for what I can only assume was the Swedish national anthem. There were a few people singing it in the crowd anyway. I looked around, taking in the atmosphere and saw...
... that I was in the wrong bit of the stadium after all. I'd wondered where they'd got to. Sure enough, the south east corner had a fair share of hoops, Celtic banners, a saltire and a tricolour. Oddly, there was also a Union Flag. I'd noticed that when I'd first arrived, and half expected to see it had "disappeared" before the end of the game, but remarkably it was still there even after all the crowds had gone. I never could make out what it said on it.
When the game finally got under way, it didn't take long for a goal to come. A cross into the box was aimed at Henrik, but a sneaky shove stopped him from getting it. No matter though, as one of his teammates picked it up at the edge of the box and tried a shot. The shot got blocked, but rolled along the six yard box and into the path of Olivier Karekezi, Helsingborg's young Rwandan player, who slotted the ball in at the nearpost for 1-0 to the home side.
The lead didn't last long though. Helsingborg, for some reason, decided that watching one of the Orgryte players run through their defence would be a good idea. The guy were unchallenged for a good 20 yards or so before he finally decided he'd gone far enough and curled a low shot past the Helsingborg goalkeeper and into the net for the equaliser.
And that was it for the first half really. The rest of the first half saw Helsingborg try to create more chances, but the final shot just wasn't hitting the target, or was being cut out by a defender before the shot could even be taken. So 1-1 was the half time score. Still, I did manage to get my best picture of Henrik at this point.
I've seen a lot of half time entertainment now. There's the Kilmarnock cheerleaders who look like they couldn't get to practice much since they had too much homework to do. Celtic themselves invited the Rockettes to show Killie how its really done. There's the ten second countdown game where you run from the half way line and try and score. There's that daft one where you have to hit each post and the crossbar with three shots which even Ronaldinho would struggle to do on his first attempt. There was even that one we had last season where you tried to put the ball through the covered goal through the small hole that was in the vacinity of the top corner.
Helsingborg however have trumped the lot them. They got a Helsingborg fan and an Orgryte fan to come down onto the pitch, stand in front of the the south stand, and play Helsingborg V Orgryte on Fifa 07 on the big screen! Absolute genius idea. Okay, so they could only manage a 0-0 draw, but still the idea was brilliant. I'm not sure it would work at Celtic Park mind you. Our screens are just a TAD higher.
The second half went on much like the first half. Helsingborg creating most of the chances but not taking any of them. There was a point in the second half where I found myself doing what I always do - telling the players where to pass the ball. Like they can hear me. Like I'm any good at doing it when I'm on the field of play myself. But it did amuse me when I found myself telling one to pass to "Larsson". He then did some quick turn and found himself one-on-one with the keeper. Before I could even think about it I'd said "Oh he's in!" Then the brain kicked in and Ian Crocker came to mind. So in a terrible Ian Crocker impersonation type way the "Henrik Larsson..." part of the lob commentary came out and was just waiting to be finished off with "That is sensational!" when Henrik hit the keeper with it. The replay showed he was going for a meg and keeper got down quick enough, but it was still kinda frustrating that I didn't get to finish the famous commentary.
By this point, one of the groundsmen had noticed me. It was hard not to. Some manic Scotsman, wanting Helsingborg to win and paying close attention to Henrik Larsson, all while wearing some black top with Henrik's name of the back... you'd notice that if you were Swedish and five feet away. He called me over and asked if I was from Glasgow. I figured he wouldn't have a clue where Linwood was, so I embellished slightly and said yes. He went on to tell me that he was coming over to Glasgow soon to see Celtic play Hearts. Apparently Henrik had sorted him out for tickets for the game and he was staying over for a few nights. Nice one Henrik! The game was still going on though, so after mentioning that it should be a good game and I hoped he'd enjoy it, we went back to watching the match and somehow trying to will that winner.
Henrik had already laid one on a plate. A cross from the left wing had met the head of his fellow striker, but the keeper had got a hand to it and got it away. A few minutes later and this time it was Henrik's header he was saving. Sadly for the keeper, Henrik wasn't alone. Karekezi had followed him in, and with the keeper not recovered from Henrik's save, he was able to bundle the ball into the empty net for 2-1.
It should be noted that with just a couple of minutes to go, Henrik himself had a tap in. Somehow, he put it wide. As per usual, Henrik looked somewhat annoyed with himself. I'm not surprised, it really was a shocking miss. Akin to something I myself might have missed! It really was THAT bad. Still, Henrik had been involved in both goals, and Helsingborg ended up winning the game 2-1.
At the end of the match, the two teams congratulated each other, then went on to thank the fans. The Helsingborg players obviously know where their hardcore fan are, as they stopped just under the area the Celtic fans occupied to pay special tribute to the fans there. Somehow the Celtic fans had ended up in the noisiest part of the stadium. Somehow, we always seem to manage that kind of thing. I'm not so lucky, but I can't complain about my seat!
As the teams headed back to the tunnel for the final time, what looked like man of the match presentations were made to Karekezi. I have to say, for all I was there to see Henrik, I was well impressed by this young boy. An attacking midfielder, he was on hand to score both goals in opportunistic positions. Aside from that, he looked strong in midfield. Physically he was not only difficult to get off the ball, but also used his size to win the ball on occasion, without risking the wrath of the referee. He might be one to keep an eye on. After all, anyone who can share a pitch with Henrik and be picked out as "sticking out like a sore thumb" must have some kind of talent. I'd even have to say he was deservedly man of the match. Though I'm not sure Davie Provan would have agreed...
With the teams away, the game done, and the stadium emptying, I took one last look around. To my left, on the other side of the tunnel, I spotted a couple of Barcelona fans taking photos. It seems Henrik has left an impression in more than one city in Europe. Can't say I'm surprised. On the pitch, a game of football had broken out. This time a bunch of kids were playing while the goals were being put away. Rock Steady would have a fit if any of the Celtic supporting kids tried that. The teams started to filter out for their warm down.
It was time to go.
Heading away from the stadium, down through the castle and towards the train station, it suddenly occurred to me that it might be the last time I'd see Henrik play. For all Helsingborg are doing really well this season, they're still only heading for the UEFA Cup next season. With any luck, we'll be back in the Champions League once more, with the UEFA Cup only a possibility after Christmas next year. By that point in time, Henrik's contract will be up. So even if we did meet Helsingborg, Henrik wouldn't be there.
And then I thought back to the night he came on for Barcelona to turn 1-1 into 3-1 to them. After he picked up his injury and couldn't play in the game at the Camp Nou. I thought then that it might be the last time I'd see him in the flesh. I thought back to the Dundee United game of tears. The cup final. The game against Sevilla. How many more "last times" would there be?
Its true that I may never get to see him play again. If that's the case, then I'm glad I went to see him in his homeland. He gave me so much joy in his time at Celtic, he even managed it with Barcelona to a certain extent... it was the least I could do. But there's always that little nagging feeling that while Henrik's still playing and he hasn't yet retired...
There are always possibilities.
(written by Psychoheart of KStreet forum Oct 06)
Google Maps Walking Directions (from Train Station)
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