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.
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Takk for 12 fine år i Bryne FK ❤
“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.
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“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.”