The instructions came laced with a thick Danish delivery from Ebbe Skovdahl. ‘If the referee gives them a penalty, don't dive. Okay?’ I should've put money on Celtic scoring right there and then. My face crumpled like a cabbage patch doll when the boss issued that order. 'Don't dive?' I asked. 'Larsson will hit the ball down the centre. Don't dive and you will save it.' As simple as that?
His insistence that of all things I should focus on was the off-chance they might win a penalty. The moment would prove decisive. When the moment came, this is how I should intervene.
As it happened, none of us decided to intervene that day. The manager's strict mandate of allowing them easy possession of the ball, before hitting them on the break, fell down at the point of them scoring before we had the chance to win it back. A major stumbling block in tactical warfare. Possibly a breakdown in communication from our Danish manager. A man who after a narrow defeat once declared, 'The operation went well, but the patient died anyway'. On this occasion the patient didn't just die; he grabbed the scalpel from the surgeon's hand and bludgeoned himself.
Three-nil down at half-time and a squandered penalty of our own, the blood was spurting everywhere. Then it came. Mark Viduka was fed into the box, and as he performed a less than balletic Cruyff turn, Russell Anderson stepped on Viduka's foot, and the prophecy was complete.
Me versus Larsson. From twelve yards. I knew what to do. And I did.
The only problem was Larsson didn't, coolly side-footing the ball just to my right. I still might have saved it, but I'd played out the scenario in my mind so many times I expected him to chip it straight into my hands before receiving a knowing 'I told you so.' wink from my gaffer. What I didn't expect was to feel like I'd had my pants pulled down in front of 20,000 and the millions watching on Sky Sports. This was my introduction to Henrik Larsson.
We sat next to one another at a table as we were passed bottles of water and Lucozade to down. A man on either shoulder, waiting to accompany you to a toilet and watch you take a piss. Not just watch over you. Actually watch you perform the tricky task of pissing into a small plastic bottle without it going everywhere.
'You know, you should probably dive when trying to save penalties', he joked. If I didn't know any better, I'd say he'd had our dressing room tapped before the game. 'It was my manager's fault,' I said. 'Otherwise, I would have saved it.' So there it was—the beginning of a very one-sided relationship.
Eight times we faced one another during our time in Scotland. In that time Larsson scored twelve times, including two hat-tricks. Any time Celtic was spoken of in my presence the words 'Larsson' and 'nemesis' often cropped up. I never saw it like that.
Much of the time I was the agent of my own downfall. Especially against Celtic. And though the defeats were heavy, I was losing the battle against myself rather than the fight against The Bhoys. That debut appearance resulted in a 5–0 drubbing, and like a gambler chasing his losses, I raced after that defeat only to fall further behind. The harder I tried, the more wound up I was, the less effective my hands became.
Despite his prolificacy at my expense, I admired the absolute clinical efficiency of his play; his sole extravagance was his volume of goals. 174 league goals in 218 appearances for Celtic, along with 35 in 58 European games. 'They' reckoned that because of the Old Firm's dominance those goals carried less currency outside Scotland. 'They' should ask Arsenal.
The goals themselves were merely the cherry on the cake of Larsson's all-round game. Those two assists that rescued the Champions League trophy for Barcelona were testimony to the intelligence of his play. The guile of the pass, the precision of touch. People comment on Messi's ability to stroll around the pitch, sizing up opposition and opportunity: ditto Larsson.
When I had the ball in my hand, I was accustomed to defences squeezing right up to the halfway line, allowing me time and space to place the ball on the deck and deliver an accurate forward pass. The first time I tried this against Larsson I failed to spot that he'd drifted out wide in line with the defenders. As soon as I placed the ball, Henrik started his run along the touchline, drifting in and bending his run, gathering pace as he attacked me from my right-hand side.
He was stealth. He's on the edge of your peripheral vision and setting a trap. He's inviting you to put the ball down. He knows he'll panic you into making a hurried clearance. He knows that the chances are that his team will gain possession and be back on top. He. Never. Switched. Off.
Sometimes, many times to be fair, there were surreal moments when every player on the pitch appeared to be frozen, the ball apparently glued to a midfielder's boot like the picture on the front of the Subbuteo box in your attic. Then he makes his move.
I know what's coming, so does he. He's out of the blocks, weaving his way down the by-line ready to meet, with pace and precision, the pass that results from the mayhem he's created amongst defenders trying to keep one eye on him and the other on the ball. It's me and him. He wins.
They say that the greats can slow time down. The true greats can make it stand still.
He found the back of my net many times but, looking back, that first one at Pittodrie in 1999 summed him up. Hanging in the air like Michael Jordan, glancing the ball across me like Joe Jordan (ask your dad). Watching it, I feel the same sense of helplessness that I felt right then. With every goal you question yourself. Thinking 'What else could I have done?'
The man was Henrik Larsson. And there was nothing, nothing at all you could do...
This article was first published in MUNDIAL Magazine Issue 09.