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FOOTBALL: BREAKING UP IS H HARD TO DO; Celtic 1 Seville 0 Agony for Celts fans as Henrik says a sad farewell to Paradise.

Byline: By James Traynor

THE longest goodbye in the cluttered history of Scottish football ended with the dying of the light at Parkhead last night.

As the final sun set on a phenomenon, Celtic were left to wonder where on this earth they might search for someone who will stand comparison with their Magnificent Seven.

But in their heart of hearts they know Henrik Larsson has no equal, unless the DNA strands of those dreadlocks that were hacked off a couple of years back can produce a clone.

There are better players around the world, of course there are, but to the tens of thousands who buy into the Celtic dream every season Larsson will remain a one-off.

And now he really has gone for - good and forever, even if Celtic didtry one last time to make him change his mind through the choice of music.

When he trotted out to go through his pre-match warm-up with seven-year-old son Jordan, whowas last night's mascot, it was to the sound of the Clash belting out Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

Perhaps it would have been more appropriate had it been Abba's Money Money Money as the Swede will pocket pounds 1million from last night's farewell, but 60,117 Celtic fans were more than happy to give.

They did get to see the Abba tribute group Bjorn Again but they weren't that interested. They were in place to see the real thing, their Messiah, one last time.

Even Martin O'Neill seemed to defer by taking a back seat, well, a chair in the directors' box, rather than pad about the technical area.

Last night was one man's special time and it is doubtful if anyone else with studs on the soles of his shoes will form a bond as strong as the one between Larsson and Celtic's fans.

He's special, but more than that,he made every one of them feel special again.

So this was it, the final flourish, the last roundup for Celtic's King of Kings, and it didn't matter that Seville had come as opposition on a night that, in the beginning and again at the end, was like Last Night at the Proms, Christmas, and Hogmanay all rolled in to one.

At those times, Celtic fans sang his praises, just as they have done for seven terrific years, but last night the voices were tinged with regret and it was all they could do to keep the tears at bay. But by the end of an uneventful match, the salty water was flowing all around the green.

As Larsson, alone in the centre circle, saluted his subjects he, too, fought to prevent himself from breaking down because he knew what he was about to walk away from for the last time.

The most lethal striker many of Celtic's fans have ever seen, or will ever see in their team's colours, was really going.

He told supporters the last few weeks had been 'absolutely fantastic' and thanked them for the memories and support.

But the cynics among us may say Larsson didn't deserve such a lucrative pay-off because he'd been raking in pounds 38,000 a week for the last few years of his time here.

Yet while those Celtic fans who stayed away were entitled to the opinion that the Swede has been given enough, it was difficult to remain unmoved.

Yes, of course values might well be upside down and inside out when the masses, many of whom can barely afford to go to football, club together and give one already fabulously wealthy man another million quid, but nobody was counting last night.

The truth is these fans, who have cheered Larsson to the rafters almost from the day he arrived in Glasgow, believed they owed him this final gesture.

They would insist an average of pounds 20 a skull was a small price to pay for the joy he has given and also for his part in the restoration of their battered pride.

That's why fans, including the celeb supporters such as Billy Connolly, were in place just so they can say: 'I was there.'

So streams of gratitude flowed down from the sloped banks of seats because for every fan inside the stadium, last night was an affair of the heart.

There was nothing, absolutely nothing at stake, but London Road was awash with the faithful three hours before kick-off, and that doesn't even happen on Celtic's massive European nights. But then this wasn't about one friendly match, this was all about Larsson's overall contribution.

It was about the goals, all 242 of them in 315 real matches throughout seven sensational seasons, and even Seville's players knew they were in the middle of something that nudged the boundaries of belief.

Before the game they wandered around the pitch sending back photographs of one another via their mobiles, but when the place was crammed full of believers they looked taken aback by the sights and sounds. They had come here to see for themselves what Celtic, the club whose fans had flooded into their own city this time a year ago, are all about.

Well, they found out it's about knowing the history and never walking alone. It's now also about the legend of Larsson.

This game, the formations, the personnel, save for one man, did not matter in the slightest and was, in fact, a crashing bore that got in the way of Larsson's leaving do.

The Spaniards did get hot and bothered, surrounding referee Mike McCurry at half-time to complain he was being too kind to Celtic,but Seville themselves were even more obliging in 59 minutes when their defenders stood back and allowed Chris Sutton to head in Neil Lennon's left-wing cross.

The start and finish of the night contained the drama,pathos,and feeling and apart from noting the return of John Hartson, whohad a back operation in January, there was little to interest the fans in the actual play when Larsson wasn't on the ball.

With Celtic's young keeper, David Marshall,away on Scotland duty and Rab Douglas injured, there was also a surprise return for Jonathan Gould, who left the club a few seasons ago for Preston.

However, as the game dragged towards a conclusion, the fans' focus was even moreon Larsson.

They had been praying for the miracle that would make Larsson change his mind but since he is the miracle worker around here, that was never likely.

His agent, Rob Jansen, insisted before the match that Larsson will be playing in Spain next season but no matter where he ends up he knows it won't get any better than this. Maybe that's why he's been so reluctant to pick a new club, maybe the thought of playing for another set of fans has no appeal after this, but if that's so he could always take to healing the sick.

It should surprise no one if he can do that too. The fans feel he is capable of anything but after the last of them had gone a good half-hour after the final whistle and only after their hero had taken another bow to the sound of Sinatra's My Way the stadium felt haunted. The thick, over-the-top sentimentality had subsided, leaving only a quiet, intense sadness.

He was missed already.


ONE LARS EFFORT: Henrik; was determined to sign off with a goal but despite his best attempts it wasn't to be; PICTURES: ROB CASEY, RICHARD PARKER AND MARK IRVINE; THANK YOU AND GOOD-BHOY:; Larsson may not have scored despite all his effort, far left, but he was happy to see Sutton hit the net, above, and was quick to hail his strike partner, left. The sight of John Hartson back in the hoops, below, was also a sight to please those inside Celtic Park last night
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:May 26, 2004
Previous Article:FOOTBALL: Sobering call for Spartans.

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