Erling Braut Haaland, 19, has been linked with Manchester United and faces Liverpool with RB Salzburg in the Champions League this week, but his footballing education was an unconventional one
Wednesday 2 October 2019 18:24, UK
With his first-half demolition of Genk at RB Salzburg's Red Bull Arena earlier this month, Erling Braut Haaland became the first teenager since Wayne Rooney to score a hat-trick on his Champions League debut.
The goals - a first-time toe-poke with his right foot, a side-footed finish with his left and a poacher's effort from inside Genk's six-yard box - took him to 17 for the season. He has only played 10 games.
The hat-trick was, remarkably, his fourth of the campaign, a feat which has propelled his name into headlines across Europe. And that's before we even consider the nine goals - yes, nine - he scored for Norway in their 12-0 win over Honduras at the U20 World Cup at the end of May.
In the immediate aftermath of that game, the striker, son of the former Leeds, Nottingham Forest and Manchester City player Alf-Inge Haaland, was asked by journalists for his reaction. "I think I should have scored 10," came his reply. "It's a shame, but in the end I'm happy with nine."
To those who know him best, it was classic Erling: fiercely driven but good-humoured too. Haaland is a giant, brutish figure on the pitch, broad shouldered and well over six-feet tall, but he plays with a smile on his face and he has been that way since he was a boy at Bryne FK in southern Norway.
"He smiled a lot and scored a lot, from day one," Alf Ingve Berntsen, his coach from the age of six to 16, tells Sky Sports with a chuckle. "That's Erling," adds Tord Salte, a former team-mate. "Some journalists get a bit surprised when he answers in that special way, but it's just his humour. Some might think he's a bit cocky but he's just having fun."
The fun-loving kid looks destined for the top now - Manchester United are said to be interested and there are rumours of super-agents circling - but it was in the humble surroundings of Bryne that the seeds were sown for his future success. "Without my upbringing at Bryne," he said in a recent interview, "I would not be where I am today."
It owed a lot to what Haaland described as a "special environment" at the club. His talent was apparent right from the start - he played up a year from the age of six - but he was not afforded any special treatment and nor was anyone else.
There were 40 players in Haaland's age group. But unlike in an elite academy environment, where the best prospects rise to the top and the rest are ruthlessly cast aside, there was no hierarchy. The group included one girl and ability levels varied greatly between players. They all mixed together, though, and stayed together too.
"In the big academies, everything is always talent driven," explains Berntsen. "We decided to do it in a different way. In that group of 40, some players were very good and some were not so good, but they all trained together for a 10-year period."
"Everyone trained at the same time every day," Salte tells Sky Sports. "They separated us for matches but the principle was that we were all equal. It pushed all of us. The best of us got good and even the worst ones got much better because they had better quality and good coaches around them. In the end, we had a very big squad of good players."
The dynamic also strengthened the group as a collective. Their strong bonds helped them on the pitch and brought them together away from it.
"We had a great spirit and we were all great friends," says Salte. "My brother also played in Bryne's youth department but in his age group the first team were cocky and didn't speak to those who were on the second team because they weren't training together and they felt they were better.
"With us, every time there was a second-team match, the rest of us would go and watch the game. If they won, we were all very happy. It was a big difference."
Berntsen adds: "It meant they played a lot together in addition to their training as well. At the weekends, they met up in an indoor hall in the town and played for many hours together without us grown-ups. It's like the street football you have in England. You can compare it to that. Both good players and poor players playing together every Saturday and Sunday."
Haaland believes the inclusive dynamic helped to keep him grounded. "It contributed towards me not thinking I am something special," he said recently. And the enjoyment factor was just as important.
"We tried to be serious when we trained but the main idea was for them to have fun and enjoy their football," says Berntsen. "As they got older, the serious side became a bigger part of it each year, but you can still see the enjoyment side in Erling now. He just loves to play football."
Haaland is not the only member of the group who has gone on to become professional. Salte now plays in midfield for Viking FK in the Norwegian top division having had a spell in Lyon's youth academy. The girl, Andrea Nordheim, won the Swedish title with Pitea IF last season.
In fact, until Haaland reached his mid-teens, he was not even considered the best player there.
"He was always good when he was younger, he had qualities and you could see his talent," says Salte. "I used to play in midfield behind him and I used to hit balls for him. He was quick and very clever in terms of the timing of his runs and going in behind. He always had that… His problem was just that he was actually very small."
You would not guess it to look at him now, but Haaland was dwarfed by many of his team-mates at that age, the difference emphasised by the fact that he was a year younger. His size was a hindrance, in some respects, but it has served his game well in the long-run.
"It was maybe a good thing for him to be smaller," says Berntsen, "because when he was 11, 12, 13, he had to be clever in the box, he had to be smart to create chances, and we can see that today. Even though he is a big guy, he moves really well and his positioning is very good. Maybe that is from an early age when he had to play with older, bigger guys."
I remember I met him in the hallway at Bryne's stadium and I was like, 'What?!' Suddenly, he was so tall.
Haaland's coaches at Bryne always suspected it was only a matter of time before he began to catch up. His father is of average height, but his older brother, Astor, was already over six-feet tall at the time. Nobody could have predicted, however, just how quickly Haaland's body would change.
"I left Bryne for Lyon in the summer when I was 16, so Erling was 15," recalls Salte. "When I came back for Christmas, I remember I met him in the hallway at Bryne's stadium and I was like, 'What?!' Suddenly, he was so tall. He had grown many, many centimetres, but he was still very, very skinny."
Haaland broke into the Bryne first team soon after that, making his debut in the Norwegian second tier before he had turned 16 and going on to make a further 15 appearances before Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Molde swooped in to sign him in February 2017. His growth continued there and soon, thanks to some drastic measures, he was filling out too.
"In his first six months there, he gained something like 15 kilos," says Salte. "It was incredible. He told me he ate three dinners per day. That's how he has turned out to be a massive, massive monster."
Solskjaer said it was "all muscle" at the time - "and a lot of confidence," he added. Haaland would later talk up Solskjaer's "huge impact" on his life and career and the admiration was mutual. Given their close relationship, it is hardly surprising that Manchester United are now said to be interested.
Haaland was featuring regularly in Norway's top division within a few months of his arrival at Molde but his real breakout came in his second season, when he scored 16 goals in 30 appearances. In one meeting with Brann in July 2018, he scored four times in the space of 17 minutes. He was still only 17 years old at the time.
Haaland earned the nickname 'Manchild' at Molde. His hulking physique, combined with explosive pace and technical prowess, made him a nightmarish proposition for opposition defenders. It is something Salte, his former Bryne team-mate, who continued to play with him in Norway's youth teams, knows better than most.
"He is the worst player to play against," says Salte. "He was always quick and smart at Bryne, but now he has the physical side as well. You can't give him space because then he will run past you, but you can't be close to him because he just pulls you away with his strength. It's really hard."
Rene Aufhauser, assistant manager to Jesse Marsch at RB Salzburg, calls Haaland "impossible to defend against" and team-mate Max Wober agrees. "With his height, to be so nimble and have such command of the ball… you just have to foul him," he said after the Genk game.
Wober added that he expects Haaland to become "one of the best strikers in the world" and he is not alone in that view. But it has taken perseverance and professionalism as well as talent for him to get to this point. RB Salzburg paid £4.5m to sign him from Molde midway through last season, but it was several months before he featured at all.
There were no complaints from Haaland, though. Instead, he got his head down and waited for his chance.
"That period showed that he is also a hard worker and not a quitter," says Berntsen. "He has a very good sense of humour and he is relaxed off the field, but he is also serious about sleeping habits, nutrition and everything else. I would never be afraid that he will do something crazy on the weekend or anything. He is down to earth and he has always been that way."
Haaland is helped by the support and guidance of his father - "I never got the impression, even for a second, that he put pressure on Erling," says Berntsen - and his recent performances suggest he will need more of it soon. There were reports of 50 scouts watching him against Genk and there are sure to be more at Anfield on Wednesday night.
It will be the first test of his career on English soil and it is unlikely to be the last. Haaland was born in Leeds while his father was still a player there and has admitted he dreams of one day playing in the Premier League.
He will be especially eager, then, to enhance his burgeoning credentials yet further against Liverpool. Virgil van Dijk and the rest had better watch out. The boy from Bryne is not one for missing his opportunities.
Follow Liverpool vs RB Salzburg on the Sky Sports live blog from 7pm on Wednesday night; Kick-off 8pm