Desmond Kane

Larsson the logical choice to succeed Lennon at Celtic

Desmond Kane

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A few days before Celtic contested the 2001 Scottish Cup final against Hibernian, I found myself interviewing Henrik Larsson in the main stand of a deserted Celtic Park.

During our interview, an unsuspecting retired Irish priest in the midst of a stadium tour was given the bonus of paying homage to the Celtic folk hero at close range. Larsson was conducting interviews while promoting a range of Umbro boots made from kangaroo leather.

The priest's mood visibly changed when he spotted Henrik. He suddenly looked chirpier than Skippy.

The Sweden player was then a feted striker midway through a glorious seven-year stint in Glasgow that would see him depart three years later for Barcelona having posted searing figures of 242 goals in 315 matches.

The priest could not have looked more thrilled if ‘Il Papa’ himself had been standing there saying mass, but Larsson responded to all inquiries with good nature, exuding the same level of professionalism he carried onto the pitch.

He was more than happy to chat and posed for a few pictures with the priest, whose last words were to tell 'Henke' "God Bless" ahead of his impending appearance at Hampden Park.

Not that Larsson was in need of any goodwill from above.

A few days later, he scored twice in a 3-0 win that helped Celtic complete the domestic treble of Scottish Premier League, Scottish League Cup and Scottish Cup under Martin O'Neill. Larsson declared on an outlandish 53 goals for the 2000/01 season as Europe’s leading scorer.

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Celtic have not managed the domestic clean sweep since 2001. The challenge remains to emulate such a feat for whoever replaces the outgoing Neil Lennon as manager.

The news that Larsson could be handed the remit a decade after he departed Celtic Park as a player seems to be logical.

I sat down twice with Larsson for interviews during his playing career with Celtic. It struck me back then that here was a figure who appeared to have the correct demeanour for coaching.

Courteous and grounded, he would bring a different set of attributes to the Celtic manager's job than the vociferous Lennon, but no less passionate.

Certainly, not in relation to his affection for Celtic.

Larsson and Lennon were team-mates under O'Neill in the early noughties. They played in a side that reached the UEFA Cup final in 2003 where they lost to Jose Mourinho’s Porto.

Larsson's scored two headers in a 3-2 defeat in Seville. It is part of the legacy that makes him a viable option to replace Lennon. Signed from Feyenoord for a measly £650,000 in 1997, he is arguably the greatest striker in the club's history. Certainly in the modern era.

At 42, he is still in the formative years of his coaching career at Swedish club Falkenberg, but Lennon was a mere novice when he was handed the post in 2010 after Tony Mowbray's brief but chaotic spell as manager.

Larsson's return to Celtic Park would bring financial benefits. Notably in season ticket sales. With no Rangers in the Scottish Premiership and no Glasgow derby for at least another 18 months, the benefits of parachuting Larsson in as head coach are obvious.

Inexperience is his main problem, but he has time to grow into the job. Celtic operate in a market where a more experienced manager may be let down by the budgets and how the former European Cup holders conduct their business within the financial straitjacket of Scottish football.

It was perhaps the main reason why Lennon departed after four years. Celtic look to find talent and sell it on at a profit. It is a strategy that has seen them stash away millions of pounds from big markups on player sales.

Which is good for the future health of the club, but bad for any manager trying to rely on the same cast of performers.

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Away from contending with the bigots who tried to hound him out of Scotland for no discernible reason, Northern Irishman Lennon enjoyed an admirable period running Celtic in winning three titles in Scotland, and reaching the last 16 of the Champions League last year.

But the job seems to bring with it a four or five-year mortality rate simply because it is difficult to retain the same squad for any length of time.

Lennon looked slightly dismayed a few weeks ago about Greek forward Georgios Samaras departing the club without a fresh offer, but it is a feeling he had become familiar with. The transfers concluded of £12.5 million for Victor Wanyama from Southampton and £5 million from Norwich for Gary Hooper left Celtic a weakened side last summer.

If they decide to flog the England goalkeeper Fraser Forster and the Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk during the close season, it will take a minor miracle for Celtic to reach the Champions League group stage for a third straight season.

It is little wonder Lennon was left wondering how much more he could do. Unlike Larsson as a player, he couldn't turn water into wine every season.

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David Moyes, Malky Mackay, Paul Lambert and Owen Coyle have all been mentioned in connection with the post. But all these figures have experience of the Premier League in England. All would expect to be furnished with an appropriate budget to spend.

None of the candidates mentioned can encourage the frisson of excitement that would be generated among Celtic’s supporters if Larsson returns.

Like Lennon in 2010, Larsson would bring a vitality to proceedings. He would have less expectations than Lennon as he tries to construct a team over the close season because it would all be fresh.

Unless some major mishap befalls Celtic, there is no sign of them failing to secure a fourth straight title in Scotland.

The challenge lies in trying to qualify for the Champions League, but Larsson’s reputation around Europe in representing Feyenoord, Celtic, Barcelona and Manchester United may be an obvious attraction to potential targets. 37 goals and 106 caps for Sweden over 16 years tells you enough about his stature.

Celtic’s supporters used to sing ‘Henrik Larsson is the King of Kings’ when he was ravaging opposition defences in Scotland and in Europe. It was delivered to the tune of the old uplifting hymn 'Give Me Joy In My Heart'.

If Larsson succeeds Lennon, it will feel a little like the king is dead, long live the king.

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