Stephen McPhee enjoyed a varied career, a successful one even. The Scottish forward, who strangely…
It’s difficult to envisage now, such has been the success enjoyed in the East end of Glasgow over the past 18 months, but not so long ago Celtic were a club in desperate need of a lift. Under Ronny Deila, the Hoops had lost their identity. It wasn’t uncommon for the top tiers of Celtic Park to be closed for home games, with the swathes of empty green seats the symbol of an apathetic support.
Those seats were soon filled for the unveiling of Brendan Rodgers as the club’s new manager in the summer of 2016, with the Northern Irishman leading Celtic to an unbeaten treble in his first season. Rodgers is well on course to becoming one of the greatest managers in the club’s long and storied history, but things could have been very different.
As has been well-documented, Deila wasn’t Celtic’s first choice. He wasn’t even their second choice. Originally, the Hoops wanted the Norwegian, then in charge of Stromsgodset, to be their assistant manager, working alongside Roy Keane, who was approached to become the next Celtic boss in the summer of 2014.
Before Keane surfaced as Celtic’s first choice, though, the Hoops ventured down a more sentimental route. By many accounts, Celtic wanted Henrik Larsson as their manager. They wanted the player widely considered to be the greatest in the Hoops’ modern history to take the big job. Larsson could have been Celtic manager.
As the former striker has admitted, the approach was knocked back. “Yes, I declined the Celtic job,” Larsson said in an interview three-and-a-half years ago. “This was something I had to think about. In the end I chose to remain at Falkenbergs.” When the time did come for Larsson to leave Falkenbergs, he left for Helsingborg, where he suffered relegation and the disintegration of his reputation as one of Europe’s brightest young coaches.
So let’s consider how history might had been different had Larsson buckled and accepted the call to take over at Celtic. Had he been appointed, it’s possible that Rodgers might never have pitched up at Celtic Park. The Swede would have been afforded greater leeway than Deila was, given his status as a green and white legend and so quite feasibly could have lasted more than two seasons in the job.
Rodgers probably wouldn’t have waited much longer to take a job in football again, with the Northern Irishman out of work for eight months before taking over at Celtic. He has spoken more than once about the offers that came his way before making the move to Glasgow, and those offers would have continued to come. He would have accepted one of them. In an alternative universe, Larsson might not still be Celtic manager at this point, but it’s entirely possible that Rodgers would be elsewhere.
What would the appointment of Larsson said about the strategy of Celtic as a club? The hiring of Rodgers made a statement of renewed ambition, while the appointment of Deila was an extension of a philosophy which saw the club scour the continent for the best available talent. Celtic figured that they could use the same network that brought the likes of Victor Wanyama and Virgil Van Dijk to the club to find a manager.
But what would Larsson’s arrival have said? In pure footballing terms, the Swedish striker hadn’t achieved what Deila had achieved. Larsson hadn’t coached in Europe, he hadn’t lifted any silverware, but his hiring would have been a continuation of the approach which saw Neil Lennon, another Celtic legend, appointed before him.
With Rangers languishing in the lower leagues, and Celtic’s advantage over the rest only likely to widen further, this would have been the time for the Hoops to make such a sentimental decision. Larsson almost certainly would have won titles in Scotland, just as Deila did. Might that have changed the career trajectory of the former Sweden international as a coach? It’s difficult to argue from Celtic’s perspective, at least logically, that Larsson would have been the best candidate for the job, but for Larsson himself might that have been the best move for him?
Of course, Larsson’s success or failure at Celtic would have been determined by a number of factors outside his control. Would Celtic have scrimped in the transfer window with Larsson at the helm like they did with Deila? Towards the end of the Norwegian’s tenure, frustration built among the club’s support over the lack of investment being made in the squad. Fans implored Peter Lawwell to loosen the purse strings, but Deila was never handed the players he truly needed to take Celtic to the group stages of the Champions League – the benchmark for all Celtic managers in the modern age. Rodgers has signed the likes of Moussa Dembele and Scott Sinclair. His predecessor got Jo Inge Berget and Aleksandar Tonev.
For a while even after Deila’s appointment it was speculated that Celtic still held some sort of verbal agreement with Larsson for the former striker to one day become the club’s manager. This is something Larsson, at the time, denied. “I have no agreement with Celtic on anything,” he insisted, before going on to explain how his rolling one-year contract at Falkenbergs suited him best.
In the immediate term, Larsson may well have believed his decision to be the right one. That rolling one-year contract allowed him to take over at Helsinborgs, where the former Barcelona and Feyenoord man was given a platform to show his coaching pedigree. But with Larsson in charge Helsingborg suffered relegation just years after they’d been crowned Swedish champions in 2011. They are yet to escape the second tier and Larsson is still viewed as something of a pantomime villain (even if a statue of him still stands on the town’s beachfront), illustrated by the nature of his departure, when both Larsson and his son Jordan were attacked by fans upon confirmation of their relegation.
With every managerial appointment a club finds itself at something of a juncture. But even by that norm, Celtic’s approach for Larsson back in 2014 could have drastically changed the course of history for both parties had the Swede come to a different decision.