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Henrik Larsson – The Weekend Long Read

20 March 2021


The Rangers fans in the pub thought it was funny. “Who the f*** ‘s this they’ve got noo?” they asked derisively at the sight of Celtic’s new substitute. Dreadlocks gave a slightly feminine look to his face, and as he was being brought on as a substitute in Celtic’s first game of the 1997/98 season, various homophobic words of scorn were heard from the ill-educated. It was against Hibs at Easter Road, and Celtic were struggling.

Even greater was the scorn of the ill-mannered lads in blue when Larsson conceded possession with virtually his first touch of the ball and Hibs ran up and scored what proved to be the winner. Celtic, who had now lost nine League championships in a row, looked as if they had taken the first step towards losing their tenth. Catatonic despair reigned among the Celtic faithful.

It had been new manager Wim Jansen who had brought Larsson to the club from Feyenoord, where latterly he had been far from happy. Celtic fans, who at the beginning of the summer had heard of neither Jansen nor Larsson, were already resigned to a season of frustration, or at least to a long period of adjustment. There had been other buys as well – Darren Jackson, Craig Burley for example – and the new manager had to be given a reasonable chance. But this new centre-forward with the funny hairstyle did not look the part.

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It was probably too early for despair, but despondency was in the air. If ever Celtic needed a cult hero it was now. The nine years without a League title had been deeply wounding, and these dreadful times had been characterised by the rise of quite a few “false messiahs” who had threatened to become the new personality that the support all craved – only for personal, emotional or temperamental problems to get the better of them. Paolo di Canio, Pierre van Hooijdonk and Jorge Cadete, talented players all, saw the beckoning finger of Parkhead immortality. One after another, each one of them threw it all away.

So Parkhead in August 1997 was akin to a spiritual desert. Not a physical desert – a new stadium was almost completed – nor a financial one, as Fergus McCann and his share issue were pouring money into the club. What the fans craved, however, was success and a cult hero, a personality to deliver it to them. There were those who said with a straight face that they, literally, could not face the taunts of “ten in a row” that were being rehearsed at Ibrox, and that they would not stand for it. Presumably this did not mean suicide, or even emigration, but it did hint at taking up a new hobby instead of football. The stakes were high, indded.

Rangers winning ten in a row would have destroyed a great deal of what Jock Stein had done. The great Celtic team had won the championship from 1965/66 until 1973/74, and now craven, spineless and misguided stewardship of the Celtic club had thrown this record away. The stewardship of the club was now much better, but success on the field had not yet arrived. Celtic supporters could not take much more. Where was the Deliverer?

He was, in fact, the man with the dreadlocks. A brilliant flying header to score at McDiarmid Park, Perth, a few weeks after his unfortunate Celtic debut was the launch of a truly great Celtic player and goalscorer. Slowly the team recovered from its dismal start to the season, and by the end of November, silverware returned to Celtic Park in the shape of the Scottish League Cup, won at Ibrox with a competent 3-0 victory over Dundee United. Larsson had excelled that day, scoring one of the goals and always being instrumental in the creation of some fine forward play.

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This had followed a European experience against Liverpool in which Celtic had proved themselves to be at least the Merseysiders’ equals, even though they had gone out on the away-goals rule. Celtic and Larsson’s day against Liverpool would come, but in the meantime there was a thrilling chase for the Scottish League Premier Division title, in which Celtic, Rangers and Hearts challenged each other with spellbinding ferocity.

It was the best Scottish season for some time. Celtic lost to Rangers in the Scottish Cup semi-final, then went down to them in the League the following week in April, and things looked distinctly gloomy. About this time Hearts blew up, as they were always likely to do, but Celtic recovered from their defeats to Rangers, and inspired by Larsson reached the penultimate week of the season needing only to beat Dunfermline at East End Park to win the League. Larsson released Simon Donnelly to put Celtic ahead, but then late in the game, the Pars scored a fortuitous equaliser to deny Celtic.

Thus it was on to the last day of the League season. Celtic still retained the initiative, but to be absolutely sure of winning the title, they had to beat St Johnstone at Parkhead. It was Larsson who scored in the first minute of the game, catching the Perth defence and the Celtic crowd by surprise with a fine goal from the edge of the penalty box, and then as nerves visibly set in among the other Celtic players and the supporters, Larsson came into his own, showing calmness and poise to control the game. In fact, it was Harald Brattbakk of Norway who scored the second and decisive goal, but who was it who was seen on Harald’s back, pointing to him and saying: “He’s done it! It’s Harald!”?

There was thus built up over that tense and exhausting season an affinity between Larsson and the Celtic hordes. Larsson was not ethnically, nor in any other sense, a “Celt” by birth, but he, like so many others, soon became one. Soon a few ditties were made up about him along the lines of:

Oh Henrik Larsson,

Henrik, Henrik, Henrik, Henrik Larsson.

He wears dreadlocks

And he hates John Knox

Oh Henrik Larsson!

Henrik presumably knew little about the 16th-century Scottish Protestant reformer (one feels that those who wrote this song had a similar lack of knowledge) but the point was that Henrik was now one of the Celts, to the extent that they made up songs about him. This clearly shows that Henrik was, indeed, a cult hero, and had in nine months come a long way from the diffident Swede who came on as a substitute and immediately gave away a goal.

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But his mentor Wim Jansen resigned in the flush of victory, for ill-disguised reasons of being unable to get on with another member of the management team, and Celtic then had to begin an undignified scramble for a successor before coming up with Jo Venglos, a likeable man whose best days were behind him. Season 1998/99 was a major disappointment, with Larsson still playing well but clearly frustrated and upset at the lack of success.

Venglos departed in the summer and was replaced by John Barnes. Barnes’ reign as manager would collapse in ignominy after defeat by Inverness Caledonian Thistle in February 2000, but most people agreed that the real cause of that dreadful winter of discontent happened on 21 October 1999 in Lyon when Henrik Larsson broke his leg. Memories haunt one still of TV pictures of Henrik with his tibia visibly broken and hanging in a sickening position. It remains one of the most distressing sights in a lifetime of that glorious obsession called supporting Celtic.

One would not have been surprised if this had meant curtains for the career of Henrik Larsson, but Henrik was nothing if not determined, and by the end of that season he was able to return to playing for Celtic. By the time he came back, the season had gone, and although the team had managed to win the Scottish League Cup in a dreadful final against Aberdeen, the season 1999/2000 was not a great one in the annals of the club.

It was at this point that Celtic and Larsson were at the nadir of their fortunes, but in these circumstances there is only one way to go and that is up. At long last, Celtic appointed a credible manager in Martin O’Neill, a proven winner, and with a fully fit Larsson and many shrewd buys, Celtic took off to make season 2000/01 one of the best in the long and glorious history of the club.

Larsson’s strong points were commitment and professionalism. This was in addition to his undeniable ability. Larsson, who would always give 100 per-cent for any manager, now began to give 110 per-cent for Martin O’Neill. O’Neill’s side had bounce, rhythm, determination and passion, and very soon these qualities were mirrored in the stands at Celtic Park, now a ground which could reliably house close to 60,000 every week. Celtic won the treble that year, a feat which put them in the same bracket as the men of 1907/08, 1966/67 and 1968/69, and it was appropriate that this was the year in which the Willie Maley song became common with the lyrics of “to play football in the good old Celtic way”.

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Larsson simply could not stop scoring that year. Half a century of goals came his way (putting him in the same bracket as Jimmy McGrory in 1936, and that is saying something) and although many of them were tap-ins from the excellent approach play of the others, they were not all like that. For example, one recalls the League Cup final against Kilmarnock when an injury-hit team, reduced to ten men after Chris Sutton had been sent off, still beat Kilmarnock 3-0 with Larsson scoring a hat-trick. His first was a brilliant piece of athleticism, the second perhaps a shade fortunate with a deflection, but the third was sheer class, as he picked up a ball on the halfway line, shrugged off repeated fouls, charged for goal, rounded the goalkeeper, put one foot over the ball and scored with his other foot. For this, Henrik was given the Man-of-the-Match award. It was a silver platter. Several times, Henrik made as if to throw it into the crowd as the team did their lap of honour. It was as if to say: “I am one of you”.

The Celtic fans, for their part, were singing his praises, and it was no accident that the song was borrowed from evangelical Christianity:

Give me joy in my heart, Henrik Larsson

Give me joy in my heart, I pray

Give me joy in my heart, Henrik Larsson

Keep on scoring till the end of day!

Henrik Larsson, Henrik Larsson

Henrik Larsson is the King of Kings

It alternated with another ditty, this time a parody of You are my sunshine:

You are my Larsson, my Henrik Larsson

You make me happy when times are gray

Keep your Shearer, he’s a ******

Please don’t take my Larsson away!

The offensive reference to Alan Shearer did not rhyme or scan particularly well, and no doubt would have upset the kindly Newcastle United man, who does not hide his affections for Celtic, but the Celtic songwriters, however deficient in talent, did not hide their love for the man who had done so much for them that season.

Then there was the Scottish Cup semi-final against Dundee United, when he scored with a bullet header, and the final against Hibs where he scored a good goal, then a penalty, but sadly could not notch the hat trick in a Scottish Cup final which would have made him the equal of Jimmy Quinn in 1904 and Dixie Deans in 1972. There was not a shadow of doubt about who both the journalists and the players would choose as Scotland’s Player of the Year – 2001 belonged to Henrik Larsson. Henrik Larsson was, indeed, the “King of Kings” as the fans now sang repeatedly.

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The next few seasons saw Celtic with a superb team. What a joy it used to be to go to Parkhead in those days to see a team playing in top gear with a total understanding of each other and enjoying the total love of their support. Henrik, or “Henke” as he became known, was the jewel in the crown. Supporters began to wear Henrik Larsson masks.

No longer did he have the dreadlocks. He had shed them in autumn 2000, and somehow or other, his lack of dreadlocks seemed to accentuate his lean and lithe frame, especially when a burst of speed was necessary. But his physique was strong as well. A centre-forward must not be pushed around. He must have weight in his shoulders to ward off challenges and to shield the ball when necessary.

He was fortunate in that he had loads of good players around him. He developed an understanding with Chris Sutton, he could use the speed of Didier Agathe, and exploit the fine midfield play of Stilian Petrov and that “little genius” Lubo Moravcik. He was an old-fashioned leader of the line-type of centre-forward who could distribute and feed other players, then be in precisely the right place for the return pass.

His bad days were few. The 2002 Scottish Cup final was, perhaps, one such occasion, when Larsson was less than up to his game and was marked out of the match by Rangers’ Lorenzo Amoruso. The result was a heart-breaking loss in the last minute, a disappointment that Henrik would take with him to the World Cup in Japan and Korea. Henrik would frequently say that he hated to let the Celtic fans down. He never did that totally, of course, but there can be little doubt that the 2002 Cup final was a bitter blow. It was, however, more than compensated for by the retention of the SPL Championship in 2001/02. Like the previous year, it was won very comfortably by the beginning of April and was characterised by some phenomenal football, played by the whole team.

And then we come to the tumultuous events of 2002/03. Oddly enough, it was a season in which Celtic won nothing in terms of silver (always a hard thing for Celtic fans to accept) but in which they gained everything throughout Europe, in terms of respect, affection, admiration and even love from those who would not necessarily of choice support Celtic.

In the first place they reached the final of the UEFA Cup, going down to Jose Mourinho’s Porto team of plausible divers only in extra time and after Bobo Balde had been sent off seconds after a free-kick should have been awarded for a foul on Larsson. Celtic’s two goals were scored by the head of Henrik Larsson, and had fortune smiled on Celtic that night, the result would surely have gone the other way.

One recalls the interview given by Larsson in the immediate aftermath of the Seville disappointment. While retaining his dignity, Henrik expressed his own frustration and that of the fans in a way which made everyone realise the depth there was to this man. It cannot have been easy, and the temptation must have been to lash out at the referee or the Portuguese divers or his own goalkeeper, who was badly at fault for at least one of the goals. His sorrow for the fans was so genuine and so apparent.

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Yet the fans were happy enough in their own way. Ten years previously, the suggestion of Celtic in a European final would have been bizarre. In 1993 Celtic could not even claim with any honesty to be the second best team in Scotland. Now they were a power in Europe again. The difference was Henrik Larsson.

The final had been reached with many fine performances, not least against the two English sides Blackburn Rovers and Liverpool. On both occasions, patronising comments about Celtic and Scottish football came to sudden stop, as the Larsson-inspired Celtic showed the English Premiership that it had no monopoly on successful football sides. Before one of the games, a pundit had said something along the lines of “men against boys”. After Celtic had won, Larsson gently reminded that chap in a TV interview that it might be better in future if he were “to keep his mouth shut”.

The Liverpool result was all the more remarkable as Larsson was just back from a broken jaw, sustained in a game against Livingston at Parkhead in early February. As with the broken leg of 1999, determination played a great part in Larsson’s return, far earlier than anyone dared hope. In the semi-final against Boavista, Larsson scored in the first leg at Parkhead, then had the mortification to miss a penalty, leading the cynics and the pessimists to believe that Celtic had gone far enough and that the final was an impossible dream. Not a bit of it. Henrik scored again away from home – an untidy but crucial goal, and Celtic were on their way to Seville.

The Seville experience showed Celtic at their best, even in defeat. The Celtic family was in evidence that day as the wonderful fans descended on the Spanish city in a number reckoned to be not far short of 80,000. Deservedly did they win their reward for being the best fans in the business, and it was a fascinating exercise to recall that dreadful night less than ten years previously when a fox ran on the park in a game against Kilmarnock as the previous dynasty came to grief. Things were different now. Apart from anything else, we had Henrik Larsson.

The heartbreak of losing the UEFA Cup final was compounded by the loss of the Scottish Premier League the following Sunday, simply because Rangers scored more goals against feeble opponents than Celtic did. Yet at a key point, as those who were watching two televisions simultaneously could tell, Rangers scored as Larsson hit a post. There were, of course, other reasons in missed penalties and sheer bad luck, but once again Henrik retained his dignity, applauding the fans who idolised him. While a colleague, not entirely without justification, lashed out at Rangers’ opponents for insufficient effort on the last day, Henrik, who must have been hurting just as much, kept silent counsel.

But there was a quiet determination in that summer of 2003 for more success. Henrik had decided that 2003/04, his seventh season at Celtic, would be his last. Despite all the emotional blackmail in the world in the shape of letters to the press, personal appeals and a few banners which said “Don’t go, Henrik”, he stuck to his resolution, clearly determined that the Celtic fans would have something to remember him by. Clearly he remembered the old axiom that one should go when the fans are still asking “why?” and before they begin to ask “why not?”

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Apart from a draw in the first game of the season, League form bordered on the invincible, with Rangers and others regularly taken apart. In a game against Motherwell in September, Henrik’s birthday as it turned out, an erroneous, albeit courageous, referee booked him for diving. One well recalls the storm of booing and whistling that greeted this decision – not only for the insult to Parkhead’s greatest son, but also because the referee had accused him of doing something that was totally alien to the way that he played the game. Frankly, Henrik was too good to have to cheat.

Europe was a disappointment that season – although there were several superb Larsson performances, not least in a game against Lyon in which he did not score but set up two brilliant goals for Liam Miller and Chris Sutton – and once again Celtic failed to be involved after the New Year, but this allowed more time and energy for the Scottish season. The SPL was never really in doubt and was clinched one Sunday in April at Kilmarnock with loads of games to spare. The day that the trophy was presented was, ironically enough, after a defeat at the hands of Dunfermline. The defeat took some of the edge away from the occasion, it has to be said, but the Parkhead fans exulted in the sight of Henrik Larsson collecting his fourth League medal, andthen the sight of young Jordan Larsson, complete in the green-and-white hoops, scoring goals as part of the celebrations.

The Scottish Cup was also a triumphant march that year. Defeats of Ross County, who put up a brave performance at Parkhead, Hearts at Tynecastle and then Rangers at Parkhead, left Celtic to play the semi-final at Hampden against Livingston. Henrik scored at the Celtic End with a deft flick past the goalkeeper, then ran to his adoring fans and did the deft flick again just in case they had missed it the first time round. The opponents in the final on 22 May 2004 were Dunfermline Athletic. It would be Henrik’s last big game in the colours that he loved so much – sadly, however, not the hoops, but the change strip, although the hoops would be used if they had to collect the Scottish Cup.

There were still a few who hoped and prayed that he might yet be persuaded to stay for just one more year, but he was inexorable and would go to Barcelona for the following season. Thus the Scottish Cup final assumed great importance. Would Henrik go out with a bang or a whimper? In addition, the historically-minded pointed out that it was exactly 100 years ago in 1904 since the immortal Jimmy Quinn had scored his famous hat-trick in a Scottish Cup final at the same ground. Could Henrik do likewise?

At half-time, depression reigned at the Celtic End, as the Pars were one goal up. It had been a lucky goal, perhaps there had been a foul on the goalkeeper, and Celtic and Larsson should have had one when they were whistled up for offside. But Celtic were now attacking their favourite King’s Park end of the ground – and they had Henrik Larsson.

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For a spell, all remained quiet as the Dunfermline defence grew in confidence and Celtic seemed to lack creativity. But then, a strange sound was heard as all the seats at the Celtic End of the ground tipped up simultaneously. A long ball had reached Larsson, and the fans all stood up at the same time to see their hero run on and score a somehow typical Larsson goal. We then suspected that it was to be Henrik’s day, and he scored another after some fine play. It would have been nice if Larsson had scored yet another so that he could be mentioned in the same breath as Jimmy Quinn, but it was Petrov who grabbed the third goal to seal Celtic’s 3-1 victory, and their 32nd win in the Scottish Cup. Oddly enough, perhaps, Larsson won only two Scottish Cup medals in 2001 and 2004, and in both games he scored twice.

And so Henrik was off. He had another emotional farewell in a friendly game, but then he disappeared to Catalonia, to Barcelona. There he played for two years, but was frequently injured, and was never the same player as he had been for Celtic. There were two occasions, however, when he impinged on the life of Celtic.

One was in the following season when Barcelona, as the luck of the draw would have it, were paired with Celtic in the European Champions League. It was Larsson’s fortune to score a goal – and a good one it was – against the team and the fans who still adored him. There was something almost pre-ordained about that. Certainly the media had predicted it, but his body language showed as he ran back to the centre of the field, accepting the congratulations of his team-mates in a restrained and quiet way, that he would have preferred the opponents to be someone other than Celtic. The fans reacted quietly as always happens when the opponents score. Stunned silence reigned, until everyone realised that it was Henrik Larsson who had scored, then there was the blasphemous sound of a ripple of applause to hail a goal scored against Celtic. The historically-minded could recall one previous such occasion, and that was in January 1951 when Jimmy Delaney scored for Aberdeen.

The second occasion was a far happier time for both Celtic and Larsson. It was the European Cup final of 2006 between Barcelona and Arsenal. Henrik did not score, but he played a part in both Barcelona goals in the 2-1 win. Celtic fans were obviously delighted for their former hero, but particularly so because, thanks to the labyrinthine and mystifying regulations of UEFA, it meant that Celtic, the champions of Scotland, would qualify directly into the group stages of the Champions League, rather than through preliminary rounds. Thus had Henrik Larsson done Celtic yet another great favour.

Henrik Larsson belongs to the supremely great. Celtic have had throughout their history many great goalscorers, but perhaps there are three who stand out above all the others. They are Jimmy Quinn, Jimmy McGrory and Henrik Larsson. The inclusion of Larsson in that elite bracket is deserved. Little gain can be served by arguments about which of the three was best. They played, after all, in totally different circumstances and ages, but the claims of Larsson to be considered one of the greatest worldwide at the turn of the century are substantial.

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He was a complete player. He was compact, a thorough professional, a great team man, gracious and encouraging to team-mates, chivalrous to opponents. He had speed, and in particular he had a turn of speed in that he could suddenly step up a gear; he was tirelessly energetic and prepared to forage for the ball if necessary.

His goalscoring ability was phenomenal. A great deal of his goals were tap-ins, but that is the hallmark of a great striker, in that he can be in exactly the right place at the right time, having read the play, then made himself available to pick up a cross from Didier Agathe or a through-ball from Alan Thompson or Paul Lambert. But also he could score spectacular goals, hammered into the roof of the net from the edge of the box, and he had some gloriously headed goals as well. “It had to be Henrik” was the cry of the commentators, as if they could not quite see, at the critical moment, who had scored. But then a split second later, they realised that no-one else could score such a magical goal.

Yet there was more to him that that. He was a good player and has done well for other clubs like Barcelona and (briefly) Manchester United, and Sweden on the international scene, but he has not been great for them. His greatness has been reserved for the seven years that he spent with Celtic. He loved Celtic and he loved Scotland, where his wife and family settled very comfortably. He was able to cope with the ignorance and the bigotry because he had the intelligence to ignore it, and he could cope with the media spotlight because, quite simply, he did all his real speaking on the field, although he interviewed well also.

He joined Celtic at the time when they were at the crossroads. The summer 1of 997 was a time when all of Celtic’s massive support was beginning to ask whether the club would ever come back, so inured were they to failure and second best. There have been times in Celtic’s history when “slave mentality” has taken over the mindset. It happened in the 1940s, the 1960s and certainly in the 1990s. Something extra special is required to convince Celtic and their supporters of their own value and worth in these circumstances. In the middle 1960s, it was Jock Stein who did just that. The late 1990s were characterised by the emergence of a truly great player.

It is also very easy to forget about Henrik’s horrendously broken leg in 1999. That would have knocked the stuffing out of many a lesser man, but we are talking here about Henrik Larsson. There was also a broken jaw in 2003, although Henrik was comparatively free of other lesser injuries. Mental toughness is a great thing to have. Henrik Larsson realised that he was lucky to be such a great footballer, lucky to earn such a fine living out of doing something that he loves. Therefore training and dedication, including something that was foreign to Scotland, namely a care about diet and nutrition, were of paramount importance.

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Celtic were also lucky in that Larsson was easy to get on with and a good team man. There was one incident in which Tosh McKinlay and he had a violent altercation:

“Oh Tosh McKinlay, Tosh, Tosh, Tosh McKinlay

He pit the heid upon the Swede

Oh Tosh McKinlay”

sang the Rangers fans when news of this leaked to the press, but the general opinion was that it was an isolated incident in which Henrik was less blameworthy than his protagonist. Apart from this, little scandal ever attached itself to Henrik. He was emphatically not a trouble-maker, and also co-operated with the succession of managers that he worked with – Jansen (with whom he had worked at Feyenoord), Venglos, Barnes, Dalglish and eventually O’Neill, who recognised in Larsson something really special.

A total of four SPL medals (1998, 2001, 2002 and 2004), two Scottish Cup medals (2001 and 2004) and two Scottish League Cup medals (1998 and 2001) in seven glorious years could have been more, had he enjoyed a little more luck. But it is the less tangible legacy that is more important – the memory of some tremendous goals and some tremendous football played by this valiant man. Those of us who have followed the club for over 50 years (and more) will always say, presumably, that the best Celtic team would have to be Jock Stein’s all-stars of 1967 and the few years after that, but we will scratch our heads and eventually shake them if we are asked to name a better all-round player than Henrik Larsson. “I’ve seen Patsy Gallacher” said those who were around in the 1920s. Those of us who were around at the turn of the century saw Henrik Larsson.

Born in 1948, David Potter first saw Celtic at Dens Park, Dundee in March 29. It was a 3-5 defeat, which equipped him admirably for the horrors of the early 1960’s. He had “followed” Celtic for a few years before that and recalls having been called upon to impersonate Jock Stein and receive the family silver teapot which had to do for the Scottish Cup as it was presented on April 24 1954, after he and his father had spent a nerve wracking afternoon listening to the radio!  Since then, he has “followed” every Celtic game with bated breath, and has written extensively about the club in magazines and books. His favorite team was that of 1969 (which he rates marginally better than 1967) and his favorite player was Henrik Larsson.

His ambition for Celtic is for them to keep on winning silver in Scotland and to be something in Europe once again. His other interests are cricket and drama. He is 70, a retired teacher of Classical Languages, married with three children and five grandchildren. He now travels on the Joseph Rafferty bus from Kirkcaldy. He also loves Forfar Athletic.

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