Erling Haaland’s first coach remembers the moment his former prodigy burst into the wider footballing consciousness.
The forward had been scoring goals for Red Bull Salzburg in Austria but announced himself on the European stage with a superb first-half hat-trick on his Champions League debut against Genk in September 2019.
“Whoosh!” says Alf Ingve Berntsen, the man who gave Haaland his first senior start for Bryne in the Norwegian second tier aged just 15.
“That was the trigger for really being a person everyone knows about. Even I, his old coach from the early days, noticed this was something different.”
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Haaland would go on to score in his first five Champions League group games, becoming the first teenager to do so, and left for Borussia Dortmund in the January transfer window having got 28 goals in 22 league games that season.
“I have seen Erling score the same goals for many years,” Berntsen tells BBC Sport. “But it is not common when you grow older that you keep scoring. He is always just taking the next level and the next level.”
Now he is on the move again, with a protracted pursuit finally leading the 21-year-old to Manchester City.
It is a huge moment for a player considered one of world football’s most exciting attacking talents.
Bryne is a small town of around 12,000 people in the south west of Norway. It is where Erling’s dad, Alf-Inge Haaland, began his career and where the family returned after the midfielder left Manchester City in 2003.
Erling, who was born in Leeds, was three at the time and Berntsen began to coach the young forward when he was moved up a year group at the age of eight because of his obvious promise.
“In a way, we could predict he was something special because in football you develop your skills in four basics,” explains Berntsen. “Tactical, how smart you are and movements; technical, how good you are with the ball; physically, if you have speed, endurance and so on; and mentality.
“When top clubs are scouting, they are looking at if you are really good in two of these four areas or quite good in three or four, but Erling from quite an early age was very good in technical, tactical and mentality.
“But he has a brother [Astor] who is five years older and he is big and strong and fast, so we knew the missing part in Erling’s play would maybe become his biggest strength. In a couple of years, we knew he would have four out of four.”
Haaland, whose mother, Gry Marita Braut, was an athlete, was part of a talented group at Bryne, with four of the 40 players Berntsen coached going on to play for the national team at various levels.
“He had a passion for football but many kids have that,” says Berntsen. “He had what you in the UK call grit. He had something special and when he was on the pitch he was totally focused on football.
“He learned from an early age how to behave as a footballer, how to behave in the dressing room, how important it is to have fun but to practise a lot.
“He had perfect genetics and his family was also very good to let him think in a football way.
“We began to talk quite early, from when he was 12, that he was something special because tactically, technically and mentally he is never afraid, he has enormous grit and we knew that in a few years, when he was strong and fast, this would explode. But you never know, he could have got bored of football.”
Training was always competitive but the young forward stood out and scored goals at a regional and national level. In fact, the only time in his career he struggled to find the net was in that first season with the senior team at Bryne.
Haaland had been scoring for fun in the reserves and was given 10 minutes of first-team action before Berntsen was named caretaker boss in May 2016, going on to play 16 times that season without getting off the mark but nevertheless earning a move to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Molde.
“He was just 15 and he was quite tall but very skinny,” adds Berntsen. “He learned important lessons – you had to train, you had to develop your physics if you are going to score against the adults.
“He played against big, strong men. He developed more robustly and that is quite important. You have to have some struggle to become good – if everything is going too smooth, it is too easy.”
Team Haaland – and a series of ‘very clever’ moves
Haaland’s move to Molde was what Berntsen calls the first of a series of “very clever” transfers that have since taken him to Red Bull Salzburg and then to Borussia Dortmund.
Former Norway striker Jan Age Fjortoft, who spent a large part of his career in England, had no doubt Haaland and his team would make another wise choice when it came to his latest move.
“In general it is good for every athlete, every human being, to have a good team, especially when you are doing all these things Erling is now doing, step by step, bigger and bigger. It is good to have a dad or a person who has been there before,” says Fjortoft.
“As I know Team Haaland, I see how they have chosen his clubs before and they use a method. They go through every aspect of every club – that’s why he said no to Juventus when he was at Salzburg and that is why he said no to Manchester United when he went to Dortmund, because it didn’t fit his career.
“When they do the decisions now they are a team, they discuss these kind of things.”
Former coach Berntsen is confident Haaland will settle in his new environment, having watched the forward move as a 16-year-old on his own to Molde and then to Salzburg two years later, before having to deal with the Covid pandemic while in Germany.
The 6ft 4in striker has been so sought after because of his sensational goalscoring ability – he has 85 goals in 88 games in all competitions for Dortmund.
“The Germans used to call him a machine. I don’t think you should call a human being a machine but he is as close as you get,” says Fjortoft, who now works as a journalist.
“Haaland is a tall, blond Norwegian as you would imagine a Viking coming to the UK thousands of years ago but he is peaceful, he can score goals, he is strong and his technical abilities are great. He is a great, great goal-getter.
“There was a time when the big number nines were a bit out of fashion but now a lot of clubs see that they need that kind of striker – when you have all these quick players in and around the box, you need also this big number nine.
“He is not only very strong and a typical number nine, he is also very quick. So he has the ability to play in behind a back four or back three of any team – and in modern football, where counter-attacks are very important, he also fits that bill.”
Why Haaland can take Man City to next level
Berntsen says the world’s top clubs were slow to appreciate Haaland’s potential when he was at Salzburg, although Dortmund has proved a great place for nurturing his talent.
“I said when he was at Salzburg that if the big six or seven clubs in the world don’t buy him, they will be making a big mistake,” he says. “I don’t think they knew how good he was. He took everybody by surprise, but when we saw he was scoring that much at Salzburg, we thought the sky was the limit.”
Now Fjortoft believes the Norway international is one of the few players who can take Manchester City to another level.
“Pep Guardiola never liked to play with a big number nine,” says Fjortoft. “But I think you have seen at Manchester City in the last couple of seasons that to take the next step, you need that too.
“He will also see the players he can play with. With Bernardo Silva, Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and all these kinds of players, it is lovely for a striker to have those services.”
Norway’s biggest star and ‘one of the guys’
Haaland’s life has changed beyond recognition since he made he first-team debut at Bryne six years ago and despite Norway failing to reach this year’s World Cup, the 21-year-old is being talked about as one of his country’s finest ever players.
“We have had some great number nines in Norway but in the history of football in our country, we have never had anyone so close to the top of the world,” explains Fjortoft.
“At his best, as he has shown in the Champions League, he can compete with his generation’s best players, so I think he has already passed the best we have had in Norway.”
Despite his huge profile, Haaland still manages to find some quiet time when he returns to Bryne to be treated as “one of the guys”.
“When he is with his friends, he is one of the group,” says Berntsen. “But it is more and more difficult for him because we have never had such a famous big sporting star like Erling and he is just 21, so normal life is something he can’t do any more.
“We had Solskjaer in the late 90s but he was big as a player before social media. Now the pressure and interest in Erling is enormous.
“Because he is from this town, it meant a lot to him to have his debut on the first team and he is still a supporter of the team. When he has some weeks off, he is still back home with his friends and family.
“In Bryne, our little town, he will have some kind of peace, but not in other places – he will be recognised forever. If he comes home and is having a chat or relaxing with his friends, he will be one of the guys.
“Of course I am proud; we all are. I am proud of all this group because they have become a very good, decent group of people. That is what is most important.”
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