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Spaghetti-legged to supernatural: Erling Haaland’s early years as told by those that were there

There’s something unmistakably supernatural about Erling Haaland.

His movement leading up to a goal is calculated to the extent that it appears pre-programmed. His technique when finishing is so clinical and free of emotion that it appears robotic.

Finally, as the ball hits the back of the net and 80,000 Borussia Dortmund fans transform Signal Iduna Park into a chaotic frenzy of yellow and black, Haaland sits down and assumes the lotus position.

Yogi Bear

Yogi Bear

Haaland is at his most peaceful when everyone else in the stadium is at their most manic. If he’s an alien trying to do a passable impression of a professional footballer, suspicions are starting to be raised.

One thing that isn’t up for debate is the numbers. Haaland’s strike against Werder Bremen was the 40th goal he’s scored for Red Bull Salzburg and Dortmund this season. Ninety-two percent of his Bundesliga shots have ended up on target, while he’s averaging 42 minutes between his nine league goals in Germany.

The 19-year-old also became the first teenager in Champions League history to score 10 goals in a campaign when he thundered a shot past Keylor Navas, who presumably missed PSG’s following fixture against Bordeaux with shell shock.

But Haaland wasn’t always so glamorous and prolific. His journey started out in the humble surroundings of Bryne FK, tucked away in the second tier of Norwegian football.

“The first time I saw him was in a reserve game,” Patrick Byskata, an experienced midfielder at Bryne when Haaland was breaking into the first team, remembers. “I think he was 14 then. He looked so young and thin, like a piece of spaghetti when he ran.”

“He got into Bryne’s first team in the summer when Gaute Larsen was sacked and replaced by Alf Ingve Bernsten, who had been coaching Erling and some of the other younger guys during their junior years.

“At first nobody would have said that he would go on to become as good as he is now. He was a clinical goalscorer, but I’ve seen more clinical players, so in that sense he wasn’t particularly outstanding. He didn’t have the best touch or dribbling skills either.

“But what he did have was a desire to score every chance from every angle, even when it was not possible to score. I really admired how angry at himself he would get if he had not scored. He was just living for the goals.”

The stadium where Haaland would make his first-team debut

The stadium where Haaland would make his first-team debut

That insatiable thirst for goals was evident from an early age, according to Adrian Bernsten. Bernsten has a better idea than most of what makes Haaland tick, having grown up with the striker before breaking into Bryne’s first team during the same season.

“We first started training together when we were around seven or eight. Back then his best qualities were offensive one-on-ones, due to his quickness and acceleration over the first couple of metres. When we started playing on bigger pitches it was his smartness and timing of runs that created space and gave him double digit of chances every game, even back then,” Bernsten recalls.

“His winning mentality and love of scoring goals stood out straight away. Even when we were leading by three or four goals, he wouldn’t be happy until we’d scored seven or eight. He was also very stubborn in the way that he never gave up when he wanted to improve something. One example is his right foot, which has improved a lot over the last couple of years.

“When we were playing for Bryne’s second team together we won almost every game. He was crazy about getting more goals every game, no matter what the result was. I think he scored a hat-trick three games in a row at one point.”

But the goals that drove Haaland weren’t initially forthcoming in senior football. Haaland made his debut on 16 May 2016, aged 15, playing the full 90 minutes as Bryne lost 1-0 to KFUM-Kameratene Oslo in front of 1,649 spectators. Although Haaland was back on the bench for Bryne’s next two games, manager Bernsten clearly believed in the youngster, as he demonstrated when he handed him a start against arch-rivals Sandnes Ulf.

As you can tell from this picture, Haaland became Bryne’s youngest ever debutant after making his senior bow

As you can tell from this picture, Haaland became Bryne’s youngest ever debutant after making his senior bow

Ingve Bernsten’s willingness to throw Haaland in the deep end may well have had something to do with what Byskata recalls as the striker’s mastery of the dark arts from a young age. “He used to elbow the older guys and let you know he was there,” Byskata laughs.

“He ran a lot, pressing from the front and defending after he’d lost the ball. He really cared about the team, and earned a lot of respect for that. He played very maturely for his age, always elbowing, stamping on toes, tackling and winning his duels. Him being a dick on the pitch was one of the reasons why he was so good.”

A 1-0 win against Sandnes secured the first three points of the 15-year-old’s burgeoning career, although it proved to be a false dawn for both Haaland and manager Ingve Bernsten. Despite the win against Sandnes, Ingve Bernsten was replaced by Ole Hjelmhaug. The decision proved fatal for Bryne’s season, with an immediate run of ten games without a win making relegation to the third tier of Norwegian football an inevitability.

Haaland started the first two games of Hjelmhaug’s reign, but was consigned to the bench or left out of the squad altogether for the following 17 games. The sporadic nature of his appearances meant Haaland finished the campaign with no goals from 422 minutes of senior football and a relegation on his CV.

With Bryne’s relegation confirmed, the youngster departed for Molde at the end of the season, linking up with Ole Gunnar Solkjaer, who he’d later reject in favour of joining Dortmund.

But Haaland’s lack of goals at Bryne weren’t indicative of a poor attitude. Team-mate Sondre Norheim remembers: “The two of us did a finishing drill together on one of our days off. I could clearly see his working mentality.

“I learned that day that his biggest talent wasn’t scoring or his physicality, although they were both obviously impressive, it was his mentality. If he missed from a certain angle, he would take another five attempts from the same position in order to get it right. He might seem like a natural talent, but he’s spent hours perfecting his craft.”

Byskata and Bernsten lay no part of the blame for Bryne’s demise on the goalless Haaland’s doorstep. “Erling was only 15. He had to fight against stronger guys, and at times it was just too much. They also put him on the wing, which was just the wrong position for him. I’m just sad for Erling that we couldn’t help him enough to score,” recalls Byskata.

Bernsten agrees, adding: “The whole first team struggled during the period that Haaland played. He was also played out of position, either at no.10 or on the wing. Maybe it was a bit early for him, considering his age, but it was very important for his development that he tested himself so early against good players and players that were physically superior to him.”

One thing Byskata, Bernsten and Norheim can all agree on is that there’s no ceiling to Haaland’s talent. “He is one of the best players in the game right now, and he will just keep growing,” Norheim enthuses.

“Erling believes in himself all the time, so for him it wasn’t a surprise. His body language is telling other experienced that they need to raise their game and give him the ball all the time. He is in a flow and he loves life right now,” Byskata adds.

Bernsten sums up Haaland’s ascent, finishing: “It was difficult to imagine that it would happen so fast, but he has everything he needs to be very, very good.”

He might have been goalless in Bryne, but Haaland is more than making up for lost time in Dortmund.