Larsson's exit leaves Celtic needing new headline act

Celtic 3 Dunfermline Athletic 1
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Knowing when to quit is an issue that tortures the world of music as much as football. It was something that must have crossed Rod Stewart's mind as he rushed to the VIP lounge here just after the half-time whistle on Saturday.

Not even the obvious charms of his girlfriend, Penny Lancaster, would have compensated Celtic's famous fan as he contemplated how a carefully-orchestrated farewell was being ripped up by Dunfermline Athletic.

Stewart's ears would have been unable to shut out the unmistakable punk anthem from The Skids, "Into The Valley", that lifted the roof off Hampden as 15,000 supporters from Fife mixed a tribute to their famous fan, the sadly-departed Stuart Adamson, with sheer unbridled celebration at Andrei Skerla's goal just minutes earlier.

For around half an hour, those Dunfermline supporters clung to the dream that the Scottish Cup would be coming back to East End Park for the first time since 1968. Then, Henrik Larsson showed everyone what timing is all about.

Adamson and Stewart occupy different ends of the rock spectrum. The Fifer, who was also in Big Country, checked out early, his suicide in 2001 robbing his fans and his family of his talent, while Rod has just kept on going, swapping one blonde for another, and even becoming a crooner just to stay in the music game.

Larsson pitched it somewhere in between. The prolific Swede brought the curtain down on seven wonderful years at Celtic in the only way that any true performer could; always leave them wanting more.

Two sublime finishes midway through the second half followed by Stilian Petrov's late goal turned the final around and stripped Dunfermline of the idea that Skerla's header just before half-time would wreck Larsson's leaving do.

The departing idol was the last man off the Hampden pitch after Celtic had paraded the Scottish Cup for a record 32nd time and secured the Double for Martin O'Neill's side. The television interviewers would not let him leave, nor would the Celtic supporters. Even a policeman halted Larsson's personal lap of honour - simply to shake the great one's hand.

Larsson headed up the tunnel with "The Magnificent Seven" theme blaring out. Yet, if he's riding off into the sunset, O'Neill is in no mood to retire his No 7 shirt. "We won't," said the Celtic manager. "I don't think following a legend will scare players, in fact I am sure there are quite a few footballers who would love to take on that mantle of responsibility."

Rivaldo perhaps? O'Neill would not say, but he knows that life after Larsson will need the kind of substance that only the Brazilian World Cup star can provide. "It's my job to find a replacement, just as it was for Brian Clough after Trevor Francis left Nottingham Forest and for Jock Stein when Jimmy Johnstone's days were up here."

O'Neill admitted to some concern when Dunfermline, who had won at Parkhead just a few weeks ago in the league, had gone in front. However, a second-half onslaught turned the game and Larsson provided the cutting edge as he took his final haul of goals for Celtic to 242 since his arrival in 1997.

A ruthless counter-attack in the 58th minute, with Chris Sutton firing a 50-yard pass from his own box into the feet of Larsson, saw a fatal stumble by Aaron Labonte, his marker, before the Celtic striker advanced upon Derek Stillie and curled an exquisite shot past the goalkeeper for his 40th goal of the season.

Thirteen minutes later, Larsson struck for the last time in Celtic's colours. Alan Thompson's pass allowed him to elude Labonte once more and he swept a left-foot finish past Stillie without even looking to see where the goal was.

"Henrik is a magician," declared O'Neill. "We need a few better words in the English language than 'fantastic' and 'marvellous' to describe him. What a way for him to leave the scene. We will miss him badly, not just on the pitch but in the dressing room. We will mourn him for a while, maybe a year or two, but we will try to get another hero."

"I did not want to leave as a loser," reflected Larsson. "It was good to put a smile on the faces of the fans and to do the Double. But the club will go on without me. Celtic have great players and a great manager and they will continue to grow."

Dunfermline will go forward too. Their compensation for contributing to a pulsating final is a place in the Uefa Cup, their first European football in three decades. "I am proud of my players," said Jimmy Calderwood, the Dunfermline manager. "They gave everything but Celtic lifted the pace in the second half and we could not cope."

Goals: Skerla (40) 0-1; Larsson (58) 1-1; Larsson (71) 2-1; Petrov (84) 3-1.

Dunfermline Athletic (4-4-2): Stillie; Nicholson, Skerla, Labonte, Byrne (Tod, 87); Derek Young, Darren Young, Mason, (Grondin, 81), Dempsey (Bullen, 59); Crawford, Brewster. Substitutes not used: Thomson (gk), Mehmet.

Celtic (4-4-2): Marshall; Agathe, Balde, Varga, McNamara; Petrov, Lennon, Pearson (Wallace, 57), Thompson; Larsson, Sutton. Substitutes not used: McGovern (gk), Lambert, Mjallby, Beattie.

Referee: S Dougal.

Booked: Dunfermline: Brewster, Darren Young; Celtic: Lennon.

Man of the match: Larsson.

Attendance: 50,846.