EXCLUSIVE: MY STORY BY HENRIK LARSSON; Scotland saved my marriage.
HENRIK LARSSON has revealed that Celtic saved his marriage and his career when they rescued him from his nightmare at Dutch club Feyenoord.
The Parkhead striker has told how the frustration of being frozen out during his dark days in Rotterdam spilled into his home life.
Henrik claims the loss of confidence he suffered on the pitch made him "moody and difficult to live with" when he went home at the end of each day to loving wife Magdalena.
Yet his spell at Feyenoord had started so much brighter after he joined them from Helsingborgs in his native Sweden.
For three years, he enjoyed life in Holland as a first-team regular under the guidance of mentor Wim Jansen until the boss left.
It was Jansen who would later rescue him from his hell under new coach Arie Haan by taking him to Celtic on July 28, 1997.
Henrik still had to battle through the courts to win the right to leave Feyenoord before he could complete his dream move.
But he did - and he went on to become a hero to Celtic fans as his goals helped the club to the title in 1998 and the treble last season.
Now - in the Sunday Mail's exclusive serialisation of his new autobiography, A Season In Paradise - Henrik relives those tough times at Feyenoord and pays tribute to Celtic for saving more than just his career.
He said: "Celtic came along at a time when I was at a very low point in my career and I needed to get away from a situation that could have destroyed me as a player.
"The move to Glasgow gave me the chance to start again, to rebuild my career at a club that had belief in me and was prepared to let me play football in the way I wanted and knew was best for me and the team. That has never changed. Celtic has remained a great place to play football and I feel proud to say it is my club.
"I remember my first flight into Glasgow because I was sure it was the journey that would change my life. To me, Glasgow was like the Promised Land, the place that was going to save me and my career.
"I was escaping. Escaping from a nightmare in Rotterdam.
"I was too excited to eat and I couldn't concentrate on reading anything, so I ended up staring at passing clouds, my nose almost pressed against the window, running over in my mind all the things that had happened in the last few months. All the things that had brought me to this point.
"I'd become the most miserable professional footballer in Holland with Feyenoord, where the coach obviously didn't rate me, and now I was desperate to leave. Wim Jansen, my friend, coach and, to some extent, my mentor, left the club and with that my career at Feyenoord had started to unravel, along with my life in Rotterdam.
"The club's new coach, Arie Haan, had different ideas about how he wanted the team to play and certainly had different ideas about me.
"I'd like to think I'm a good team player. I know no player is bigger than the club but I soon started to believe the coach was wrong and that what he was doing was not good for the team.
"One week I'd be playing on the right wing, the next I'd be switched to the left, then I'd be moved into midfield. I was also being substituted in every game I started.
"I know what I'm capable of and the simple fact is I wasn't being given the chance to do it.
"My confidence was being affected, my game started suffering and it wasn't long before I knew my performance was falling well below the standard I expected of myself.
"As the weeks of frustration turned to months, I began to wish I could get away. Before long, the unhappiness at the club began to affect the rest of my life.
"I became quite moody and difficult to live with. I talked a lot with Magdalena and we tried to work out what was best for us.
"We had travelled to a new country so that I could pursue my football career and that we could experience a new life - but now things were going badly wrong.
"She had been with me during the good times in Sweden and had supported me when I said we should move to Holland. It can be tough for a footballer's wife because there is always a chance you might have to move, no matter how much you like a place, no matter how close you are to the people there.
"The career comes first and it can be very unsettling.
"Magdalena is an amazing woman. She has never complained about the life. I suppose she chose me when I was a footballer and accepted all the things that go with it, good and bad.
"After seven years together, she knew me almost better than I knew myself and talking with her helped get things straight in my head.
"Our life was suffering and that had to stop for both our sakes. We hadn't come to Holland to be unhappy and you can only keep going for so long in a situation like that.
"At first, you think that if you keep battling and do your best, things will change. But there comes a time when you realise there is nothing more you can do - that you are just hitting your head against a brick wall.
"I wanted to get away as fast as possible... and fortunately there was a way. I had a clause in my contract that allowed me to leave if a club came in with an offer of pounds 600,000 or more.
"I told my agent to get get me out of there and ask around to see if any clubs were interested in me. There were times when I would just lie in bed hoping the phone would ring and my agent would say this great club wanted me.
"I simply dreaded going into the club, especially on match days when I knew I would spend most, if not all, of the game with my tracksuit on. I even started to hate that tracksuit. The most important thing at a time like that is not to forget you do have ability. Still, I was struggling to retain my confidence, and if I had stayed much longer in Rotterdam I can't say what might have happened to me.
"Then it happened. I was sitting at home thinking about moving home to Sweden when the phone rang.
"My agent, Rob Jansen, said, 'So Henrik, what do you think about Celtic?' I felt my heart skip a beat.
"To say I was excited would be an understatement. The magic ingredient was Wim Jansen, who was taking over as coach at Celtic and had obviously heard about my predicament. I have so much respect for him that, even if I had known nothing about Celtic being such a big club with a rich history, his word alone would have been good enough to bring me to Glasgow."
But Henrik's joy turned to despair when he returned from his Parkhead medical to discover Feyenoord were trying to block the move. The club didn't have a case but their actions were enough to delay the move by a fortnight while the matter went to a tribunal at the Dutch FA's Camp Zeist HQ.
Henrik says in his book: "I was really angry. Not only were they making my life hell but now that I had a chance to get away and rebuild my career, they were putting obstacles in my way.
"I was sure I would win the case but it seemed malicious and petty. I don't think Feyenoord were interested in keeping me but I suppose they were sure they could get more than pounds 600,000 and wanted to hold on to me until a better offer came in.
"The thought of hanging around while they looked at offers made me feel sick. The more I thought about Celtic, the more I knew it was exactly the right place for me to go.
"Although it was more of a tribunal than an actual law court, it was all very formal. I had to turn up in a suit and answer questions.
"It was an odd feeling to sit there in a sports court like a criminal on trial, when all I wanted to do was play football and fulfil the terms of my contract. I was sure I had right on my side but there is always a nagging doubt in the back of your mind that some horrible injustice will take place.
"The two weeks between the end of the case and the verdict were two of the worst I've ever experienced. We were in pre-season training at Feyenoord and the team was spending the mornings running and working on fitness, then playing games in the afternoon.
"I had to train, but the coach wouldn't let me play in the afternoon. I had to get changed and sit on the bench watching my team-mates have a mini-match.
"One day, I decided I'd had enough of being treated that way. I turned to the coach and, with real frustration in my voice, said, 'I just don't understand you. Why don't you just let me go, since you obviously don't have any use for me here? I want to play football but you don't appreciate me at all.'
"He told me he had said to the club he was happy for me to leave but the president didn't want me to go.
"Perhaps the president quite liked me or, more likely, I know there were people at the club who believed in me. Of course, I'm sure they didn't want me to go for a mere pounds 600,000.
"A few days later, I was sitting in front of the hotel TV at the training camp and idly flicked the channel over to Teletext. Just for a second, I couldn't believe my eyes and I felt my heart pounding in my chest.
"There it was, clear as anything: 'Tribunal says Larsson can go.'
"I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders. Free at last! I didn't want to waste another second. I went straight to see the other players and say goodbye because I didn't intend setting foot inside Feyenoord's stadium ever again.
"The players were really good about it because they knew what I was going through. We used to get an allowance for expenses when we were at training camp - around 600 guilders (roughly pounds 180) - so I gave mine to the boys, told them to have a few drinks on me and have a good night. I shook them all by the hand and that was it. I was gone.
"Of course, it was another big move and there were lots of things to think about. Wim Jansen told me the Scottish people were great, really friendly and good fun. We also had to find a home for our dog, a huge Rhodesian Ridgeback.
"Leaving our friends and the dog were our biggest regrets. The plan was for me to go over first and get all the official stuff sorted out, then Magdalena would follow and we'd find somewhere to live.
"I suddenly felt alive again. The months of moping were behind me, I had a new life and a new challenge ahead. The smile was back on my face and, as the plane's wheels hit the runway, in my head I said 'Thanks'."
Henrik had come through one of the toughest times he would encounter in his career when he questioned if he had a future in the game. But Celtic fans will be amazed to hear Henrik almost quit the game twice, long before those frustrating days in Rotterdam.
He explained: "There had been times during the early part of my career in Sweden when I didn't think I was going to make it as a professional footballer at all. I'm sure plenty of pros have doubts but I had been dogged by them.
"In fact, when I was only 13 I seriously thought about giving up football completely. As a kid, I was always being told I had talent. I certainly seemed to have an instinct for scoring goals. But by the time I reached my teens, my progress towards footballing glory appeared to have come up against a pretty tough obstacle - my size.
"While the other lads were rocketing up all around me into big, strong men, I remained small and decidedly lightweight. I spent more time as a substitute watching my friends play than I did playing myself.
"I was on the point of quitting when Bengt Persson, the coach of my home town's under-15 side Hogaborg BK, grabbed me after another awful game in which I'd hardly touched the ball."I suppose it would have been easy for him not to bother with me - he could have let me drift off, lose interest in football and end up in some completely different walk of life. But he didn't.
"That day after our match, instead of going off home for his dinner, Bengt had decided to spend a few minutes with me. He obviously saw something in me that I didn't see myself, and for that I'll always be grateful.
"I reckon I must have looked like a big baby to Bengt, sulking away because I wasn't winning the ball and the big boys were knocking me around. I also wasn't very good at taking advice. When he called me over, I shuffled towards him, wishing he would just let me get away.
"Bengt asked me, 'Henrik, what are you worrying about? You have a lot of ability in those feet and you know how to play football up here,' he said, as he pointed to his head. 'What you have to do is believe in both those things. You will grow, it might just take a bit longer. And if you train hard, you'll be strong like the other boys. Now go off home and stop feeling sorry for yourself.'
"Of course, he was right. Over the years I've realised that if you have talent, you will get on - but you also have to work hard and be dedicated.
"There was another time when I was a few years older and playing with Hogaborg's senior side that I almost fell out of the game again.
"Just when I thought I'd made it as a player, my career came to a standstill. I found it hard to concentrate on training and I was having too much of a good time outside football. Although I knew I had to keep working hard, I wasn't as committed as I should have been.
"For the second time in my career, I could easily have drifted out of the game. I stopped believing that football was going to be my life.
"By the time I turned 21, it seemed that I might have missed the boat. Then one day I got a phone call saying the local professional side, Helsingborgs, were interested in me. A friend drove me to the ground and I signed immediately for pounds 300 a month and no bonuses.
"I was working in a youth centre at the time and I suppose I could have ended up in some sort of social work. I'm sure it's a great career but for me it's difficult to compare it with running out in front of 60,000 people at Celtic Park."
These days, the idea that Henrik - Europe's top scorer last season with an astonishing 53 goals - might never have made the big-time seems incredible. But he's never been happier in his life and career than since he arrived in Scotland.
On the pitch, his upturn in fortunes is reflected in his medals haul of two Premier League titles, two League Cup and one Scottish Cup win. But Henrik has always put more emphasis on his life away from football - and Celtic fans will be relieved to hear he loves his home in Scotland.
His family is settled and content in his home in the exclusive suburban town of Bothwell. And he revealed his son, Jordan, feels so at home in Scotland he doesn't even consider himself Swedish.
He said: "We love the way of life here - the people and the country - and we feel totally at home in Bothwell. We have been shown nothing but kindness and have made a lot of really good friends
"Here, the fans are understanding about your privacy.
"I have no problem stopping for supporters but I always say my home and family are not part of that.
"I want to keep that to myself, and the Celtic fans have always respected that.
"That wasn't the case in Holland. You would get people turning up at the door for autographs. You would give one, and then they'd be back wanting one for their brother or friend.
"My family are settled here, too, especially Jordan.
"Hopefully, he'll grow up speaking both Swedish and English equally well, although it's often difficult to get him to speak in Swedish.
"He just says 'no, speak English' and he has a bit of a Scottish accent. He says 'wee' for small - and if we're here for much longer, I'm sure he'll be saying 'nae bother'.
"It has been an amazing experience since I joined Celtic, and last season has been the icing on that particular cake.
"Ask any footballer if he wants to play for a club where 60,000 fervent fans turn up nearly every week and he'll jump at the chance.
"I really feel part of this great club, its history and traditions. It's a big family, both in Scotland and the world."
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|Publication:||Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)|
|Date:||Sep 16, 2001|
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