Alex Ferguson held Henrik Larsson in such high regard, that he would have “done anything to keep him” at Manchester United.
In January 2007, Man United signed Larsson on a short-term loan from Swedish side Helsingborgs to act as cover after Louis Saha picked up an injury.
The striker’s spell at Old Trafford was extremely brief, he only played 13 games across two months, scoring three goals. However, Larsson made a massive impact on his teammates, manager and the Man United supporters.
“On arrival at United, he seemed a bit of a cult figure with our players.”
Larsson was 35 and supposed to be in the winter of his career. He was winding down his playing days with his hometown team after achieving incredible success with Celtic and Barcelona.
Yet, Ferguson felt the Swede could still cut it at the top level and he wasn’t wrong. Larsson scored on his Man United debut, netting the opening goal of an FA Cup tie against Aston Villa at Old Trafford after linking up with Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.
He would act as a mentor for United’s talented young forwards and instantly became a fan favourite.
“On arrival at United, he seemed a bit of a cult figure with our players. They would say his name in awed tones,” Ferguson wrote about Larsson in his second autobiography.
Larsson had scored 242 goals in 313 games for Celtic, helping the club end Rangers’ dominance of Scottish football. After winning several league titles in Scotland, the Swede joined Barcelona on a free transfer in 2004. A serious knee injury cut short his first season with the Catalan giants.
However, Larsson made a full recovery. He returned to set-up two goals for Barca in the Champions League final against Arsenal in 2006, his last game for the club.
“His receptiveness to information on the coaching side was amazing.”
Yet, despite his achievements in the sport and his brilliance as a player, Larsson was like a sponge at Old Trafford.
“For a man of 35 years of age, his receptiveness to information on the coaching side was amazing. At every session he was rapt. He wanted to listen to Carlos (Queiroz), the tactics lectures; he was into every nuance of what we did.”
“I learned a lot from Sir Alex and the way he was with players,” Larsson would later say.
“It didn’t matter if you were younger or older, if you weren’t doing your job, you were told. There was a huge respect from the players, obviously. He was absolutely fantastic towards me and my family.”
Larsson found the net on his final appearance for Man United at Old Trafford. The Swede headed home Ronaldo’s cross to score the only goal of a Champions League tie against Lille.
A few days later, he played his final game for the club in a 2-2 draw with Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium.
According to Ferguson, Larsson worked so hard for the team, the Man United players and staff gave the striker a standing ovation after the match.
“He looked a natural Man United player, with his movement and courage.”
“In his last game in our colours at Middlesbrough, we were winning 2-1 and Henrik went back to play in midfield and ran his balls off,” Ferguson wrote.
“On his return to the dressing room, all the players stood up and applauded him, and the staff joined in. It takes some player to make that kind of impact in two months.
“Cult status can vanish in two minutes if a player isn’t doing his job. Yet Henrik retained that aura in his time with us. He looked a natural Man United player, with his movement and courage.”
“I would have done anything to keep him.”
Following the Middlesbrough game, Ferguson spoke to the media and praised Larsson. The striker had turned down a chance to extend his stay at Old Trafford. He was reluctant to renege on the original agreement. Ferguson fully respected Larsson’s decision but said he would have “done anything” to keep the player.
“He’s been fantastic for us, his professionalism, his attitude, everything he’s done has been excellent,” the former Man United manager said.
“We would love him to stay but, obviously, he has made his promise to his family and Helsingborg and I think we should respect that – but I would have done anything to keep him.”
Larsson returned to Helsingborg and played for another few seasons before retiring in 2009.
Ferguson said he attempted to sign him when he played for Celtic. However, the club were understandably reluctant to lose their talisman.
One can only imagine the impact Larsson would have made on Man United if he had have joined the club in his peak years.