HENRIK LARSSON became a genuine Celtic legend during his glorious, mesmerising and breathtaking seven years at the club.
But his move from Feyenoord to Paradise exactly 23 years ago almost didn’t take place when an eleventh-hour hitch materialised.
Today, in a CQN EXCLUSIVE extract from Davie Hay’s autobiography, ‘The Quiet Assassin’, co-authored by Alex Gordon, we reveal how the signing was pushed through – and Henrik was allowed to take his place in the Hoops’ Hall of Fame.
THE Henrik Larsson deal was on the brink of collapse. I realised something would have to be done within the next crucial twenty-four hours if Celtic were to sign the Swedish international from Dutch side Feyenoord.
If we did not act with the utmost speed there would be no transfer. I had travelled to Gouda, in Holland, where I was to meet Henrik’s agent Rob Jansen and try to put the finishing details on the contract. Wim Jansen had just taken over as Celtic manager in the summer of 1997 and we struck an immediate rapport. I had worked the previous three years with Tommy Burns, who had brought me back to Celtic in June 1994.
Wim, who had been in the Feyenoord team that had beaten Celtic in the European Cup Final in Milan in 1970, remembered me from our playing days and we had a chat about the way ahead for the club. I might not have been there at all because I was close to quitting after Tommy and Billy Stark left. I was in a quandary because Tommy, Billy and I were a team behind the team. However, Celtic wanted me to stay on and, after a lot of soul searching, I agreed. What would the point of us all being out of a job?
I decided to remain and discuss things with Wim. I’m glad I did. He was an impressive bloke and his ambition was obvious a couple of minutes into our wee natter. He wasn’t in Scotland to top up his pension. He was here to do a job for what he called ‘one of the most famous football clubs in the world.’
Wim trusted my judgement completely and I appreciated that. He would listen to your views on a player and would give you the thumbs up or down whether or not we should proceed. He listened to advice and always kept an open mind. Naturally enough, he wasn’t quite up to speed with some of the Scottish players around at the time, but he had an extensive knowledge of the continent. And, with his Feyenoord background, he knew all about a bloke called Henrik Larsson.
SILVER SMILES…Davie Hay with the Premiership trophy.
‘I want him, Davie,’ he said. ‘He will do well for this club. I know it.’ He had made Henrik one of his essential targets that summer and, armed with that knowledge, I flew to Holland to meet the player’s agent. I had done business with Rob Jansen before and I liked him. He dealt in quality players and Henrik Larsson certainly came into that category. When I met up with Rob in his office, Henrik, his wife Magdalena and baby son Jordan were there, too. The fee had been set at a mere £650,000. It was more of a steal than a deal. There was a clause in the player’s contract that would allow him to move on if Feyenoord received such an offer.
It was obvious that Wim knew the ins and outs of Henrik’s contract and the Swede was as eager to come to Celtic as we were to have him. I had seen him play as an out-and-out left-winger for the Swedish international side and had always quite liked the look of him.
He had a fair turn of pace and excellent ball control. I didn’t realise then what a place he would take in Celtic history and the part he would play in revitalising the club. As Henrik, Magdalena and Jordan sat in the corner, Rob suddenly became very serious. He was a businessman, after all, and, while wanting his best for his client, he wanted a good deal for himself. That seemed fair.
Rob asked for something in the region of £140,000 for his part in the transfer. It was hardly an extravagant amount. I telephoned Jock Brown, the General Manager, and relayed the message. Now, unless you have been living on the moon for the last decade or so, it was well known that Fergus McCann, the club’s owner, was never going to become famous for throwing his money around. ‘Not one more slim dime,’ was one of his oft-used phrases and you knew he meant it. He could be stubborn when it came to loosening those purse strings.
I know Jock would have had to go to Fergus to run the sum by him. Nothing was paid for at Celtic without the say-so of Fergus. I could hear him asking, ‘Can we bring the agent’s fee down a bit?’ That was his style. I reassured Jock that Rob’s fee was not excessive, especially as we were getting a special talent in Henrik for £650,000, which was buttons in the market at that time. I was asked to see if Rob would modify his cash demands. He proved to be every bit as stubborn as Fergus. It was going to be £140,000 or there was every likelihood that the player would be moving elsewhere.
GETTING SHIRTY…Henrik Larsson with the iconic Celtic jersey he graced for seven years.
Can you get your head round that thought? Now, as I said, I had a good relationship with the agent and we had worked together before when I helped to bring Pierre van Hooijdonk to Celtic in 1995. Rob, rightly or wrongly, didn’t think he received a proper percentage of that £1.1million move. He was going to get his money’s worth on this occasion. I realised he was not bluffing. I telephoned Jock again and emphasised that we should pay the £140,000 without a quibble.
There was no room for manoeuvre. I reasoned that Celtic were getting a world class player for well under £1million and that figure seemed to be the starting point in transfer bids for distinctly average players around that time. I said, ‘Make it happen.’
Rob agreed to wait for one more day and, thankfully, Jock didn’t hesitate. He was sent over, completed the negotiations and, on 27 July 1997, the club had a rock-solid contract signed, sealed and delivered. Celtic had just landed a legend for £650,000. It must still rate as one of the greatest transfer deals in the history of football.
I think you could say the club got their money’s worth from the Swede! Even Fergus agreed. In fact, not even the most outrageous optimist could have foreseen what Larsson would bring to Celtic over the next seven years. Remember, Rangers had just completed their sequence of nine successive titles and that matched Celtic’s effort that started in 1966 and carried through to 1974. They were going for ten-in-a-row and that could not be allowed to happen.
Henrik Larsson played an awesome role in derailing the Ibrox juggernaut in his first year at Parkhead.