Moments of inspiration are hard to come by during the January transfer window. Indeed, with numerous Premier League teams too often guilty of committing to overpriced and under researched transfer deals the month after Christmas, Manchester United have typically avoided high-profile dealings in the window altogether.
Yet as the start of 2007 approached, Sir Alex Ferguson was on a bit of a roll in the transfer market, with Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Michael Carrick having all been acquired during 2006. One of his most inspired pieces of business, though, was a short term deal: his loan signing of Henrick Larsson from Helsingborgs IF in January of the New Year.
Larsson, whose son Jordan has recently been linked to United, arrived at United in the twilight of a prosperous and thoroughly fulfilling career. Starting off at Hogaborgs BK, Larsson spent a season at Helsingborg before moving to Feyenoord in 1993. It was with Celtic, however, where the Swede established his legend, scoring 174 times in seven years at the club. The long years he spent dedicated to the CelticPark cause were then rewarded by two seasons at Barcelona, where he won his first Champions League medal.
Larsson arrived at a difficult point of the season for United, with Ferguson’s other strikers – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Alan Smith, Louis Saha and Wayne Rooney – struggling for form and fitness over the hectic Christmas period.
It was fortunate for Ferguson, then, that Larsson’s impact at Old Trafford was instant. In fact, the Swede made an immediate impact on the record books, scoring with an emphatic finish on his debut against Aston Villa in the FA Cup. Later in the month he scored in the Premier League against Watford, before notching the winner in a game against Lille in the Champions League. During the early months of 2007 he essentially became United’s first choice striker, giving Ferguson an opportunity to rest the injury prone Saha.
Yet Larsson’s time at Old Trafford was not defined by his goals. Whilst he lacked pace, he remained a tireless, accomplished and ruthlessly intelligent team player. Off the pitch, with his professionalism, dedication to training and rapt enthusiasm to continue to learn, despite his dwindling years, he was an inspiration to those younger than him and the ideal teacher to his new side’s other strikers. Indeed, Larsson was revered by the rest of the United squad: “They would say his name in awed tones,” recalled Sir Alex Ferguson in his recent autobiography.
Despite offers to extend his loan move, Larsson made good on his promise to return to his family and Helsingborg by 12th March. He later wished he had chosen differently, admitting that “if there is one regret I have from my career, it is that I came home to Sweden when Mr Ferguson was trying to get me to stay at Manchester United”. Yet his decision to stick to his promise was typical of the man: classy, loyal and prepared to sacrifice personal ambitions for the good of others whenever required.
Following the final whistle in his last game in a red shirt – a 2-1 win over Middlesbrough, during which Larsson had dropped back into midfield and tirelessly worked to protect his team’s lead – the Swedish striker received a standing ovation from his team mates following his return to the dressing room. He left the club with United still chasing the treble, and special dispensation was later granted by the Premier League to provide him with a medal at the end of the season, even though he had not played the required ten games. He also departed a revered fan favourite: despite the short length of his stay, the impact of his contribution was memorably long-lasting.
Piers Barber (@piersbarber18)