Pål Arne Johansen is as well placed as anyone in Norwegian football to share his memories of Erling Haaland.
Now Head Coach of Odds BK in the Eliteserien (Norwegian Premier League), Johansen, known better by his nickname ‘Paco’, was the Norway Under 18, 19 and 20 coach that Haaland played under for two years as his reputation as one of Europe’s most exciting talents went from promising to sensational.
Regarded as something of a golden generation of Norwegian footballers, the players born in 1999 and 2000 are now blossoming in the national team, with the recent Nations League form (three wins and one draw in four games – two of those wins against Scandinavian rivals Sweden) an illustration of how Norway is once again dreaming of major tournament football.
Spearheading that drive is City's new signing, Erling Braut Haaland.
“I took the job of coach for the Norwegian national team at Under 18, 19 and 20 level on 1 January 2017 and since we didn’t have a training camp until March, I travelled all around Norway and parts of Europe to look at possible players to play on my national teams,” recalls Paco.
“I had the boys that were born in 1999 – Erling was born in 2000 – and went to watch a game at Bryne FK to scout two other players. I was already aware of Erling because he was going to play with Norway Under-17s at a tournament in Croatia the following May, but he wasn’t a guaranteed starter in that side because he was one of three very good strikers along with Erik Botheim and Jorgen Strand Larsen.
“He played sometimes from the start and sometimes off the bench with the other two alternating.
“At the first two training camps I held, we didn’t really have a striker we could use in our year group, so in the autumn, we needed to pick one of those three born in 2000 to step up and it was very close between the three of them.
“Erling ended just edging it because of his performances for Molde's first team that summer, and once he joined our squad in September, he was soon playing regularly for us.”
Paco vividly recalls the very first time he watched Haaland play.
Though, at the time, he was not quite the imposing presence we see today, the young Bryne FK striker had other attributes that the Norwegian coach quickly picked up on – and the weather conditions that evening could easily have been Mancunian!
“So, the first time I saw Erling play was at Bryne FK and it was a cold and rainy Norwegian winter night with the game played on Astroturf, but I wasn’t there to really watch Erling," said Paco.
“That said, it was impossible not to notice him because he was so happy!
"Every time his team scored, he celebrated by running around with his arms in the air, whether he scored, or his team-mates did – you could see he just loved scoring goals and being part of a team that attacked and scored a lot.
“That was the first thing that caught my attention – his passion for goals – and that made me think that if he progressed to become a good player, he had something extra which sort of separated him from the others.
“When you have a national team, you don’t have that many sessions over the course of a year, so the main focus when you do get together is on team structure for the next game, but I had two assistant coaches, and they divided the players between them and the guy who worked most with Erling was called Håkon Wibe-Lund.
“He showed him how to improve his movement in the box, how to improve his finishing with his right foot and his left, how to head it better and they were quite close – Håkon was an important person for Erling during the two years we worked together on the national team.”
Ironically, when Erling moved to Molde, the head coach was Manchester United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and Paco acknowledges it couldn’t have done the teenager any harm having a former Norway international as his manager.
“Ole Gunnar has a lot of experience at a high level and with international football and even if they are not that similar as players, of course, it is an extra help if the head coach once played in your position,” says Paco.
“But when I worked with Molde, I talked mostly to his assistant coach as he had responsibility for the younger players – and they did a very good job with him, not least the medical and physio team because he was growing very rapidly, and he became very tall, very quickly which can bring a number of potential physical problems for a young footballer. They managed that really well. The whole staff at Molde were fantastic for him as he developed both as a player and physically.”
Though Paco, (pictured above) is certain Haaland would have become the player he is today sooner or later, he believes there was a crucial turning point in 2018 during the UEFA Euro Under-19 Championship Qualifiers.
It had been many years since Norway made an impact at youth level, so when they travelled to Germany for a group game, it was expected to be the end of their journey and another tournament missed for a nation that is football crazy.
Erling had other ideas.
“The big break for him, in my opinion, was when we went to that Euro qualifier in Germany,” recalls Paco.
“Norway hadn’t featured in a European U19 Championship for 13 years and we were in a group with Netherlands, Germany and Scotland.
“Only the winner went through, so for a small football nation like us, it was a big challenge. We lost our first game against Netherlands, even though we played quite well. Erling should have scored three goals in that game, but he was lacking a little match sharpness.
"But in the next game we beat a Germany side that included Kai Havertz. We won 5-2 and it should have been 10-2! It was a great game and Erling scored twice – though he should have scored five. It didn’t matter because his ability to get into big scoring chances was amazing in that game.
“He had some amazing actions during the match, where he dribbled through the whole German defence with speed and power and I was sat there thinking, ‘wow, he can be a really top player.’
“That was in March in 2018 and in the next game we beat Scotland and he scored three goals including two penalties which qualified us for the Euros, and then we qualified for the Under-20 World Cup which was our first time in 26 years.
“He was in a team that was making history and by that time, he was also playing regularly for the senior Norwegian team as well, so it was all starting to happen for him.
“But the game that convinced me he could play in one of the top five European leagues was that performance against Germany – who had some good defenders at the time – but they just couldn’t stop him.
“I’d guess that was also the tournament that made other clubs outside Norway really sat up and take notice. He finished top scorer in the Euros and then at the Under-20 World Cup a year later.
"People were aware of him before then, but after that, I think a lot of people thought he could really be something – and yet just 10 months before he hadn’t even been a regular for our Under-17s team.
“The two strikers who he’d been up against - Erik Botheim and Jørgen Strand Larsen - have also gone on to do really well, and I think you could say it was a very special group of players and they are still all very close friends today.
“He then had a good season with his club side Molde and was playing football in the Champions League before he moved to Red Bull Salzburg at the start of 2019.
“I got to know his father Alf Inge Haaland because of Erling as he often came along to the training camps, but he was a very good parent who was there to support and offer tough advice if needed. It was the right support he needed to help him progress, but Alfie stayed mainly in the background – he was there, but not that visible when we trained. He knows Erling has to first of all listen to his coaches and play the way they want him to play, but he’s also there to listen, support and give him feedback.
“I got to know him as a very good football father and somebody who had played international football for Norway as well as club football abroad with City, Forest and Leeds and it’s been important for Erling that he can get that honest advice if and when he needs it.”
But if the football world had been mildly aware of Erling Haaland’s potential before the Under-20s World Cup in Poland, one game in particular during the tournament jettisoned the blossoming teenager to the top of many wish-lists of top European clubs.
Norway were struggling in their group stage matches and needed a victory of five goals-plus to have any chance of progressing to the knockout round.
It was a challenge Haaland seemed to personally take upon his shoulders, as he unleashed a devastating display of finishing against the Hondurans, scoring nine goals in a 12-0 victory.
“The thing that I recall most from that game is that he was quite annoyed he hadn’t scored a tenth goal!” smiled Paco.
"I remember in the dressing room he was holding up nine fingers and he was quite annoyed he couldn’t hold up ten! He had 10 chances and scored nine of them that evening as well as having one goal disallowed, but he was still frustrated he hadn’t managed double figures, which tells you a little bit about Erling Haaland!
“We needed to win that game by at least five goals to have the best chance of advancing and I remember him collecting the ball out of the net after his ninth of the game and sprinting back to the centre circle with it to get the game going again. I think he enjoyed that football match and it was important for him confidence-wise.
“He had signed for Salzburg in January that year, and he only started one or two games – the last of the season when they had nothing to play for and played for just 70 minutes. Aside from another appearance off the bench in a cup game, that was it. When he came to the national team for the World Cup, he had hardly played any games at all. He played two games against Uruguay and USA without scoring or playing very well, so he was a bit frustrated and a bit annoyed going into that game against Honduras. But he more than made up for it and though we didn’t go through, he ended top scorer in the tournament as a result.”
Paco says that, despite his star quality and the publicity he has had to get used to living with, Erling Haaland has a humbleness about him that will serve him well in years to come.
His grounded nature ensures he always makes sure those who have helped him know how important they have been in his career to date, and it is an attribute his former coach believes will help him become everything he hopes to be.
When Haaland’s two years with the Norway U18s, U19s and U20s ended, he took time to personally thank Paco and the coaches he’d worked under.
“He wrote to me afterwards and thanked me for everything we’d done as a group,” revealed Paco.
"There was a special bond between those players, and I think they will be friends forever. He was thankful for the two years we spent together, and he was appreciative of everything we did and everything he learned with us.
“He is a very humble person and he promised he would keep on working hard. Part of his secret is that is a very hard worker and a very humble guy, who always listens to advice from coaches and former players. He told me in his letter he was going to have five days’ vacation and then go straight back into training.
“When the new season started for Salzburg, he was in the first team and was scoring in the league and again in the Champions League. Even if the opponents hadn’t been very good on the day, that game against Honduras was so important for him confidence-wise and I don’t think he has ever looked back since then.
“He is the biggest star in Norwegian football and the Premier League is huge to Norwegian people – as you know, many Norwegian fans travel to England to watch games regularly. People think Norway is a skiing nation, but it is football first. We are interested in our own league, but we are one of the nations who watch the most football on TV and especially the Premier League.
“Erling is one of our top athletes at the moment and part of a new generation of Norwegian players who are doing well around Europe. We beat Serbia and Sweden home and away in the Nations League recently and that’s a long time since we have had results like that, and we hope to qualify for the European Championships and World Cup soon because we need that that as a nation.”
So how does Paco think Haaland will progress under one of the best coaches in club football the world has ever known?
“I have respected Pep Guardiola for many years, and he has been a big influence on my career as a coach, so I think Erling’s choice of club was quite wise,” he said.
“First of all, his father played for City, and he has a strong knowledge of the club. City were probably the only top club in Europe that didn’t have a traditional striker last season.
"City can play in many ways, but they haven’t had this kind of striker for many years, so I think it will change the way you play football, but I think it will also develop the team even more, and Erling as a player.
“He’s not just a goal-scorer – he is a good combination player, and he can go in behind or come short for the pass. He can do a lot of things and the way Pep, and his team play football, it will bring additional abilities out in Erling. City now have a focal point who can turn many of those passes into goal assists and it will be fascinating to watch how Pep uses him, but I think City have to play a bit differently when he plays, too. Pep and his teams have always been at the front of developing the game, but I will be watching how City evolve with Erling being part of the squad with great interest.
“What can the City fans expect? I think they will quickly see his love for the game and his love for scoring goals will shine through. First and foremost, he is a very humble guy who loves the game. Expect to be drawn into that kind of emotion because that what comes to me when I see him play.
“It is a pure love of playing football and scoring goals.
"With all the politics, money and all the influence that modern football has, to have such a purity is quite a beautiful thing to have.”