How Henrik Larsson closed a fateful circle at Helsingborg
It will be very difficult to find a man who closed a circle in a more dramatic and fateful fashion than Henrik Larsson. His story at Helsingborg is almost mystical.
In 1992, as a young local striker, Larsson helped Helsingborg to win promotion to the Swedish top division after 24 years in the wilderness. Now, exactly 24 years later, the club are relegated back to the second division and Larsson is the main culprit as manager. Who could have thought of such a script?
The beginning was truly magical. By the age of 20, Larsson was very close to abandoning his childhood dream of becoming a professional footballer. "Henke," as he is fondly known in Sweden, starred as a part-timer at tiny Hodaborg in the third division, but mostly had to concentrate on his day job, driving a forklift at a fruit packing warehouse.
Helsingborg initially got in touch in the beginning of 1991, but Hodaborg refused to release their prodigy and Larsson only joined the biggest team from his hometown a year later. The salary was modest, and the striker bought a bicycle so that he could continue his work at the factory. It was soon evident, though, that he didn't have to bother with fruits anymore.
Having formed a superb partnership with his idol and role model Mats Magnusson, the veteran forward who had just returned home after five successful years at Benfica, Larsson flourished. He scored 34 goals in his debut season, helping Helsingborg to win an historic promotion. His youthful looks with blonde dreadlocks made him even more popular, and it was impossible to think of a more charismatic player in the country.
The rise continued, with 16 goals in his debut season in Allsvenskan, and it was soon time for the young star to leave Sweden. He moved on to Feyenoord and made a name for himself at Celtic before starring for Barcelona and providing two assists in the 2006 Champions League final against Arsenal. But Helsingborg fans always knew he would return. Larsson promised so, and was true to his word.
Just weeks after lifting the Champions League trophy, Larsson was back. "He was greeted like a king," local journalist Tomas Nilsson tells ESPN FC. His newspaper, Helsingborgs Dagblad, changed its name to Henkeborgs Dagblad that day to celebrate the occasion. The team went on a positive run and ended the season in emphatic fashion by winning the Cup. A short loan move to Manchester United followed in the beginning of 2007, but Larsson was with Helsingborg thereafter until hanging up his boots in October 2009. His No. 17 shirt was retired by the club in honor of his achievements.
When the beloved star decided to become a manager shortly afterwards, it was crystal clear that he would return to Helsingborg again one day in his new role -- even though he started out at local rivals Landskrona. Larsson's biggest feat was keeping small newly promoted Falkenberg in the top division in 2014, and after such a success it was only natural that Helsingborg came calling.
The move seemed even more logical because Jordan Larsson, aged 17 at the time, had moved from Hodaborg to Helsingborg a year prior. Some thought that he could be talented like his father, and the new family project made a lot of headlines.
Hopes were high, but the reality was difficult. After winning the title in 2011, Helsingborg spent too much and by 2015 were forced to sell their best players. "The club made exactly the same mistakes as after winning the gold medals in 1999 and playing in the Champions League in 2000. Expensive players were signed on high contracts, and the debts grew," says Nilsson.
In addition, Larsson was not only chosen as coach, but as a manager for all football activities at the club. "We need to take the holistic approach and review the organisation," said chairman Claes Ohlson. It could have been unwise to put the inexperienced Larsson in such a position, given the major difficulties he faced.
Helsingborg finished midtable last term, but pressure grew significantly this campaign and Henke couldn't cope. When the team started losing game after game in May, he proved unable to stop the snowball from reaching monstrous proportions.
"The squad was good enough to finish in the top 10 despite the budget cuts, but the players were nervous and looked scared. They lost self confidence and were defeated in 13 out of 16 matches. There was no harmony in the squad, and Larsson is responsible for that," says Johan Flinck of Aftonbladet newspaper to ESPN FC.
To make matters worse, Larsson became extremely hostile towards the media, and that influenced the negative atmosphere around the club. At one news conference in October, the coach chose to keep silent for long periods, leading Dagens Nyheter columnist Johan Croneman to say that "he behaves like a three-year-old."
Helsingborg managed to win their last two fixtures to avoid direct relegation, but had to go through the two-legged playoffs against neighbours Halmstad, who finished third in Superettan (the second division). Amusingly, Halmstad coach Jan Jonsson played against Larsson and was injured by him during the famous 1992 season. The circle was about to close in all possible ways.
Henke's team were favourites and took the lead in the first leg at Halmstad on Thursday, but a clumsy own goal by Frederik Helstrup in the dying moments made it 1-1. The meant that a goalless draw at home on Sunday would have been enough for Helsingborg to stay up, but the pressure was immense.
With just eight minutes remaining, that pressure was relieved. Jordan Larsson, of all people, scored a great goal and sent his father into emotional celebrations on the touchlines. The fans at renovated Olympia stadion were ecstatic, and it looked like the royal family of Helsingborg had produced a happy ending to the heartbreaking drama. And yet, the drama was far from finished.
At 87 minutes, an outrageously needless foul led to a Halmstad penalty, and Marcus Mathisen made it 1-1. Then, just as the game was about to go into extra-time, Mathisen scored a majestic winner to complete a brace -- and that was that. Helsingborg were down after 24 years.
The tragedy was too much for a few masked ultras to take. They took to the field and attacked Jordan Larsson, forcing him to take his shirt off. Henrik ran to defend his son amid horrifying scenes. "It is very unfortunate, because the fans were outstanding this season. Thousands were singing and supporting their team, but 20 idiots ruined everything," Nilsson says.
The future is uncertain. At the moment, Larsson refused to step down, but his reputation suffered a significant blow, and most of the journalists expect the legend to be sacked. That would be a disastrous end for Henke at the club he loves, but he could yet recover elsewhere.
In the meantime, Helsingborg fans hope they won't have to wait 24 years and see Larsson's grandson in action in order to be promoted again.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin