Martin O’Neill was in his first season as Celtic manager at this time, and his side topped the SPL, when the season resumed after a four week winter break. O’Neill’s Celts were hoping to continue the good form they had shown in the first half of the season and they returned after the break to face a difficult trip to Tynecastle, and the Celtic fans fretted that the team’s recent inactivity may make their heroes a little rusty.
On a cold winter’s Sunday evening, it was obvious that Celtic were in the mood as they took the game to Hearts and opened the scoring after just four minutes. Alan Thomson swung in a cross from the left and Henrik Larsson rose superbly, to bullet home a typically powerful header. This was his 29th league goal of the season and he was very much a man in the peak of his form.
In the second half Hearts had forced Celtic back without creating much and in 68 minutes Larsson struck again. Thomson again was the provider with a forceful run down the left flank, and he angled a hard, low cross towards the penalty spot. Larsson was on to it like a flash, and whilst running at speed, deftly flicked the ball away from the despairing dive of Hearts’ keeper Anti Niemi for a terrific goal. Larsson’s movement, anticipation and execution were truly outstanding and this goal was a thing of beauty. The Celtic fans behind the goal celebrated joyously, as the bold Henrik ran towards them with his trademark ‘tongue out’ celebration.
Celtic continued their pressure on the Hearts goal and, somewhat predictably, Henrik clinched his hat trick shortly after. Larsson’s goals for Celtic are well documented but he was also a fine footballer, and he proved this when he cleverly made space in midfield and ran across the park, to provide a fine pass to send Didier Agathe running down the right hand side. When Agathe’s cross came over, Larsson was already in the box, and he took a touch before volleying another fine goal past Niemi.
Snow fell in the cold night air as the Celtic fans roared out their appreciation of their star Swedish striker. The game was a 6.05 evening kick off for the benefit of live television and millions more watched on TV as Henrik Larsson took centre stage.
This was a typical performance from O’Neill’s Celts, full of authority and drive, together with a ruthless streak when they were on top, which allowed them to ram home their superiority. Hearts had not played badly but it was clear that this Celtic team was now a class apart in Scotland.
The 2000-01 season was reckoned to be Larsson’s finest in a tremendous career and he went on to score a stunning total of 53 goals during that remarkable campaign. He had helped to get Celtic back on the rails after the winter break and a memorable treble of domestic trophies would not be long in coming.
Henrik Larsson remains an iconic figure in Celtic’s history and the Celtic fans who happily trooped out of Tynecastle on that snowy night, were in no doubt that they were truly in the presence of greatness.