Handball and spuds helped to mould Erling Haaland into player he now is
Perfect genes and the relentless mentality to improve set star striker on the journey from rural Norway to being Pep Guardiola’s chosen frontman
Former Norway international, local football legend, great-great-uncle to Erling Braut Haaland, and farmer of pigs and potatoes, Gabriel Hoyland is sitting on his blue 1961 Super Dexta tractor telling a story about the goalscoring prodigy about to sign for Manchester City.
We are just outside Bryne, a town of 12,000 near Norway’s chilly south-west coast. The smell of pigs is in the air and from Gabriel’s farmhouse, you can see the floodlights of Bryne FK, the club at which he and his famous young nephew played.
Erling’s private jet often lands at the nearby Stavanger airport. He has a yacht in Marbella and is about to become part of the billion-pound Manchester City project, but his roots are here in Bryne, where he moved, aged three, when his father’s playing career in England ended in 2003.
Gabriel’s son Geir Dahle Hoyland, a footballer himself, is a friend of Erling and the pair still enjoy messing around on the farm.
“While I was away recently they told me that they were taking the tractor out,” Gabriel says. “I told them, ‘Forget it, I’m the only one who can handle that tractor’.” He sighs. “They didn’t listen. They also didn’t get any potatoes. Instead of digging them up, they had just pushed them down. When I got home what I could see in the field was a big hole.”
Like everyone else in Bryne, Gabriel (67) has a quiet admiration for the 21-year-old star who comes from the town. Erling was born in Leeds where his father, Alf Inge Haaland, played between stints at Nottingham Forest and Manchester City. Before that Alf was a Bryne FK player.
When he returned from the Premier League to Norway, his investment would save the club from financial oblivion in 2004.
The sporting prowess flows just as strongly from Erling’s mother, Gry Marita Braut. She was a heptathlete, while her great-uncle Gabriel is a Bryne FK legend, with 596 games and 165 goals as well as 23 caps for Norway. He was an unused substitute against England at Wembley in 1980 and goes off to another part of the farmhouse to forage for the shirt he got that night.
“It’s No 14,” he says, emerging with that original white jersey. Gabriel swapped with an England midfielder who had only four caps at the time –the 22-year-old Glenn Hoddle. “They used to say his style was not dissimilar to mine,” Gabriel says.
Gabriel never left Bryne, playing there for 16 years – a period when they twice finished second in the Norwegian top flight. It was hard to get a move overseas in those days and anyway, he says, it would have been difficult to leave the farm given his father’s health problems.
Thirty years after he retired in 1986, Erling was to make his Bryne FK first-team debut aged 15. Now at Borussia Dortmund, his third major club after Bryne, Erling has the precocity to become one of the all-time greats.
In 2001, Bryne agreed a performance-related £2.5m deal to sell defender Ragnvald Soma to West Ham. The local boy, then Norway U-21 captain, flopped in east London but Bryne had already spent the money they hoped to earn as Soma progressed. They may well have been made bankrupt had Erling’s father Alf not helped bail out the club. Alf also opened the town’s first nightclub. Lastly, and just as important, his youngest son joined Bryne’s academy.
At the club, we meet the architect of Erling’s early career, Bryne coach Alf Ingve Berntsen (57) and his colleague Aleks Midtsian (39) in whose U-19 side Erling first played at the age of 14.
In the small clubhouse behind the main stadium of Bryne FK, whose men’s first team are currently bottom of the Norwegian second division, the discussion is how one best develops great potential. From a very early age there was no question that Erling was an exceptional talent – but they had seen those before. The question was: how to help him flourish?
“Erling started playing when he was five and by the time he was seven he was too good for his own age group,” Berntsen says. “He had to have more of a challenge but we did not want to take him away from his friends.”
At eight, Erling, born in July 2000, was moved into the cohort of 1999-born players, one year older. It was a strong group that eventually produced five professionals and staying in it meant Erling could form lasting friendships.
“From the genetic point of view he was perfect,” Berntsen says. “The start-stop nature of football, being strong to compete and defend the ball – he could do that.” But just as crucial, he says, was Erling’s mentality.
“It’s that which sets him apart,” Berntsen says.
“I don’t think he cares who he plays against. He has an ability to learn and to go up new levels.”
Erling was an exceptional handball player too, and was told by famous Icelandic coach Thorir Hergeirsson that he could have a career in that sport. The Bryne academy philosophy under Berntsen, also a schoolteacher, was that the club’s players should play different sports to improve their movement.
“The handball court is smaller, the game is quicker and you have to think a bit faster,” Berntsen says. Also important was time to play football on Bryne’s indoor pitch during the winter, independent of the coaches. Every Saturday, Erling and his friends would play for hours.
In club football, Erling and his team-mates first played three-against-three games, building up gradually to nine-against-nine. He did not play 11-a-side until he was 12.
In the meantime, Erling was at school in Bryne, a 10-year-old so sure of his destiny as a professional footballer that he told his teacher that schoolwork would have to take second place. “I said, ‘OK, if you are going to be a footballer you owe me a ticket to one of your games’,” said Erling’s year-five teacher, Andreas Vollsund. Erling made good on the deal and last month Vollsund (36), who is now the regional mayor, was in Dortmund to see an Erling hat-trick against Bochum.
“Last year he came to see me in my office and gave me a shirt,” Vollsund says. “He wrote on the shirt that I should increase local government funding for sport.”
By 14, Erling began to train with Bryne U-19s. “We put him in the team because the Norway under-15s coach was in town and wanted to see him play,” Midtsian says. “Inevitably, he scored.”
It was around that age that Erling’s extraordinary growth spurt began.
“From 14½ to 16½, when he left Bryne, he grew 25cm,” Berntsen says. Along with the technical, tactical and psychological strengths that Erling had developed, the physical aspect was not far off. His older brother Astor was already a big lad.
“Could we all tell that Erling would be a Champions League goalscorer? It would be b******* to say that,” Berntsen says. “But even by then we were quite sure he would have an international career.”
As for Erling’s parents, they were happy for Bryne to get on with the job.
“Not once did Alf interfere,” Berntsen says.
“It’s very unusual to have, as in Erling’s case, the whole package. We also wanted to teach him the importance of being on time, of behaving well on the pitch. We taught them all, ‘Be nice to your friends’. From that group we have Erling and five professional footballers.”
At 15, Erling made his Bryne FK first-team debut, playing in the second tier of professional football. He made 16 appearances, although, unlike his great-great-uncle, never scored for the club’s first team. But he did score plenty for the second team in Norway’s fourth tier.
He had become a star of Norway’s junior national teams. Playing for the U-15s against Sweden, he scored directly from the kick-off. Playing for Norway’s U-20s, aged 19, he scored nine goals in one game against Honduras.
He left Bryne FK aged 16. He chose Molde in part because the manager was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, his father’s former international team-mate.
“He could have moved 20 minutes up the road to Viking Stavanger but he wanted to challenge himself,” Berntsen says.
At Molde, Berntsen estimates that the skinny teenage Erling added 20kg of muscle and, as the goals came, all of Europe was watching him.
“He moved to Salzburg when he was 18 and did not play in the first team [for Red Bull] at first,” Berntsen says. “Then there was the hat-trick on his Champions League debut.”
Mino Raiola, Erling’s long-standing agent, died almost two weeks ago so it will fall to Alf – now separated from Erling’s mother, Gry, and with two more children with a new partner – to help oversee his son’s career. Alf has an office in Bryne and both parents are less keen on the media attention.
A mural of Erling on the wall of an old dairy opposite the train station is adorned with a quotation in the regional style from the young striker about letting his performances speak for themselves.
It is being painted by renowned local artist Pobel, a Norwegian Banksy, who has worked all over the world. Pobel starts work every night at 1.30am, painting with a repurposed fire extinguisher, and finishes around 5.30am.
Some locals have complained about the paint on the pavement but Pobel says that was intentional – symbolic of Erling’s energy.
“It’s about a young guy who was dedicated to his dream and has realised his goal,” Pobel says. “I think that’s inspiring and it could apply to anyone.”
There is another Bryne resident producing original Erling-inspired work.
In a wood behind his house, we find Kjetil Barane (52) with his chainsaws and rotary tools carving the trunk of an 82-year-old Norwegian spruce. He is on a commission to create a larger-than-life carving of Erling for a local business.
“He’s a local hero,” says Barane. The last wood sculpture he produced was of the King of Norway.
As a child growing up in Bryne, having come back from Norway, Erling had a soft spot for the three English teams his father played for but he supported Arsenal.
His real love, however – or so everyone in Bryne says – is Bryne FK. Back in the clubhouse, the current U-19s are gathering for training.
The dressing-rooms are off a corridor that features pictures for each year, of every team, at every age-group. Hundreds of smiling boys and girls in red shirts.
As I look for Erling among the faces, a couple of the players come out for a chat and to help me find him.
They consider him one of their own. (© Telegraph Media Group Limited 2022)
TRAGIC LOSS | Funeral hears Louth community ‘united in grief’ following tragic road death of farmer (80s)
detained | Barcelona cops arrest ‘drunken’ man after Irish festival goer sexually assaulted
LATEST | Man dies following single vehicle collision in Co Offaly
blaze | Three injured after fire breaks out at chip van at Rory Gallagher festival in Co Donegal
suspicious | Rioters filmed attacking police during security alert in Derry
lethal weapons | Woman and two male members of Birmingham drugs gang caught buying machine gun
REMANDED | Man (26) appears in court charged with murder of Catherine Henry in Dundalk
CLOCK TICKING | Dissident chief Carl Reilly ‘settling scores’ ahead of prison term, sources claim
HAND ACTION | Jamie Dornan gives the peace sign on set of The Tourist in Co Wicklow
final vow | Erik ten Hag refuses to pile pressure on his players in FA Cup final