It’s one of those memories that I’ll never forget. Not just that goal, but to be part of that season and that achievement felt great. It was something that meant so much to the Birmingham fans and the people in the city.Seb Larsson.
Sean Cole caught up with the former Blues winger who recently won his first league title at the age of 33, playing back in his Swedish homeland...
The last 12 months have been particularly eventful for Sebastian Larsson. After helping Hull City to survival in the Championship, the midfielder returned to his native Sweden, bringing a 17-year spell in English football to an end. He also won his 100th international cap and led his country to the quarter finals of the World Cup.
Their best performance at the tournament since 1994 was eventually cut short by England, as Gareth Southgate’s side moved on to a fateful meeting with Croatia.
“Whenever you get knocked out it’s going to be disappointing. We can’t argue that England deserved to go through on the day, but nobody expected us to go as far as we did,” says Larsson.
“I’d been part of three major tournaments before with Sweden where we’d left in disappointment having been knocked out at the group stage. Obviously, this time around it felt a lot better, having made people proud and gone all the way to the quarter-finals.”
Larsson decided against retiring from international duty and his impressive form for AIK kept him heavily involved in the Swedish set-up for their Nations League campaign. Playing senior football in his homeland is a novel experience for the 33-year-old, who left his local team, IFK Eskilstuna, to join Arsenal at the age of 16.
A potentially daunting move to one of Europe’s biggest clubs presented some challenges, but also enabled Larsson to learn his craft in a system shaped by Arsene Wenger. “It was exciting, but pretty quickly you realise that you’re away from home and away from your comfort zone – your family and friends. The first six months were quite tough. Not when you were at training, but more when you were home in the afternoons and evenings. But gradually it got easier and easier as time moved on.
“You knew that the whole Wenger philosophy was implemented all the way down the academy and you could really feel that throughout the football club. In that sense it was great. I’ve always said that I don’t think I could have got a better football education anywhere else. I’ll forever be grateful for that.”
Arsenal’s manager always had remarkable faith in young players and gave Larsson his debut at left-back against Manchester City in the League Cup in October 2004. Eleven more first-team outings followed but sustained game time proved difficult to come by. Together with Fabrice Muamba and Nicklas Bendtner, Larsson moved on loan to Birmingham City at the start of the 2006/07 season.
“I’d got to the point where it was time for me to start playing first-team football more regularly,” he says. “The opportunity came when Steve Bruce was the manager. He phoned up to ask about taking me on loan and the club thought it was a good idea. I went up to meet Steve and decided to jump on the opportunity.
“That played a major part in the career I managed to have in England because at some point you have to move on from the fringes and start playing first-team football on a regular basis. Obviously when you get that chance you have to try to make the most of it.”
Blues had just been relegated from the Premier League and Bruce was looking to revitalise his squad with younger players who had a point to prove. The three Arsenal loanees had an immediate impact, becoming key members of the starting line-up, and Larsson signed on a permanent basis for £1 million in the January transfer window.
That season was the making of him, as he made 50 appearances in all competitions and scored nine goals, including a decisive one in the penultimate game against Sheffield Wednesday at St. Andrew’s. With Blues 1-0 up but down to 10 men, Larsson secured victory with a stunning solo goal, carrying the ball from his own half past two defenders before beating the goalkeeper.
“It’s one of those memories that I’ll never forget,” he says. “Not just that goal, but to be part of that season and that achievement felt great. It was something that meant so much to the Birmingham fans and the people in the city. On that day, scoring that goal, made it even more special. It will forever stay in my memory, of course.”
Promotion was confirmed the next day as Derby County lost their game in hand to Crystal Palace, but Birmingham’s stay in the Premier League was to be a short one. Alex McLeish came in to replace Bruce and was unable to steer the club to survival. A 4-1 win over Blackburn Rovers on the final day proved insufficient.
Another promotion followed and Blues consolidated their position in the top flight, with a 12-game unbeaten run contributing to a remarkable ninth-place finish. Unfortunately, the next season was one of extreme contrasts, as a League Cup win at Wembley was undermined by a terrible run of league form that saw Blues fatally slip into the bottom three.
“It was Villa in the quarter finals,” recalls Larsson, of the cup run. “I scored a penalty and Nikola Zigic got the second. It was great to beat our biggest rivals in a cup competition like that. I remember Gards [Craig Gardner] scoring a good goal in the semi-final to put us ahead in the tie and we managed to win it.
“To be able to go to Wembley for a cup final, in front of a full house, was obviously a dream come true. How the day ended just made it so much sweeter. We were major underdogs, and nobody really believed we were going to win the game, but we found a way to do it. On a personal level it was special for me as well because it was for Birmingham, against the club I’d first joined in England.”
However, the euphoria of claiming a first major trophy since 1963, and just the second in the club’s history, was soon tinged with an element of regret as Blues lost seven of their last 12 games to suffer an eminently avoidable relegation. A nerve-shredding afternoon at White Hart Lane decided everything.
“In the position that we were in, we should have been fine. It’s not an excuse as such but there was a lot of stuff that started going on behind the scenes with the change of ownership that had happened previously. People started realising that it wasn’t what had been promised. Ultimately, those things do have an effect. Maybe not during the end of that season but long term it makes it difficult to be successful on the pitch as well,” says Larsson.
“I remember that final day. It was tough to take. With 10 minutes to go we were safe but a couple of goals here and there and we were down. We spoke about the joy of promotion and winning the League Cup, the devastation of getting relegated after that is tough to take.”
Out of contract and keen to remain in the Premier League, Larsson signed for Sunderland and was reunited with Bruce. He spent six years at the Stadium of Light, during which he played regularly and built on his reputation as one of the division’s best set-piece takers, but it once more ended in relegation. A volatile club which underwent several managerial changes in an attempt to stay afloat, the almost constant upheaval eventually told.
“There weren’t any dull moments,” laughs Larsson. “Things happened with different managers and people behind the scenes coming and going as well. We had some great times there – getting to a League Cup final, which unfortunately we didn’t win but was another fantastic memory – but we didn’t manage to stay in the league.”
A year with Hull followed before Larsson realised the time had come to return home. “It was a decision that me and my family gradually came to. We started speaking about it during that season. We’ve got kids who have grown up in England, and loved it there, but we always had the idea that we were going to move back to Sweden one day and we didn’t want to wait too long. On the football side of things, I didn’t want to come back and feel like I had nothing to offer.”