‘We were pioneers’: the Norwegians who transformed the Premier League before Erling Haaland

<span>Photograph: PA Images/Alamy</span>
Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

When Alf-Inge Haaland made his Nottingham Forest debut in February 1994, featuring in a resounding win over Leicester, it was the latest step in a quiet revolution that helped define the Premier League’s course. Haaland and his compatriot Lars Bohinen were heavily involved in Forest’s return to the top flight that spring and, back then, neither player could have predicted where Norway’s influence on English football would lead.

“We were kind of pioneers at the time,” says Bohinen, who joined Forest from Young Boys that season, of the influx that crossed the North Sea. “We didn’t make any waves, we were just constantly being professional and producing performances. I think that’s why we had so many players doing well in England.”

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Erling Haaland became the 74th Norwegian to play in the Premier League upon debuting for Manchester City last August, following in his father’s footsteps 28 and a half years on; should he fire them to Champions League success and a treble on Saturday he will match the achievements of Ronny Johnsen and, famously, Ole Gunnar Solskjær in 1999. The English league’s primacy will be underlined if City win and there is a clear lineage back to the days when Norway’s exports helped it on its way.

“We were a decent generation of players but we were also able to adapt quickly,” says Bohinen of the 1990s brood. “When one succeeded then so did the next, and the third. It became a sort of snowball effect.”

Before the Bosman ruling opened up Europe’s transfer market, Norwegians were the Premier League’s must-have foreign accessory. Between 1992 and the end of 1995 their representatives totalled 13; Swedes and Danes, by contrast, accounted for eight apiece. Cultural similarities helped, as did English football’s increased awareness that it needed to look outwards; the high performance of Egil Olsen’s international side held attraction, too. The Forest pair achieved quick success after promotion with a third-placed finish in 1994-95 – “a special team to be part of,” Bohinen says – and forged a bond that remains strong.

Ole Gunnar Solskjær scores Manchester United’s winner in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich in 1999

“We didn’t know each other well before he came but we were quite similar,” Bohinen says of Haaland. “We brought the hardworking outlook that I think was the main reason we succeeded, because there was a bit of a different mentality among the English players at the time.”

It is not unreasonable to extrapolate that, much as Arsène Wenger is feted for altering attitudes towards diet and conditioning, the Scandinavian school of the early 1990s encouraged a greater seriousness among their new peers. Bohinen and Haaland have passed that down to their offspring, too. Just as Erling was born in Leeds during Alf-Inge’s time there, Bohinen’s son Emil lists Derby on his birth certificate. Emil, now at Salernitana in Serie A, dovetailed with Erling at youth levels for Norway and played when the latter scored nine goals against Honduras in the 2019 Under-20 World Cup.

“Just like most of the guys in my generation he’s been self-driven and only needed guidance here and there,” Bohinen says. “But the benefit we have as fathers in the game is that we know the pitfalls and challenges that can occur. We have experience to guide and give them solutions, and can help them maybe more than a regular father can, but they have to have that inner drive.”

Norway’s modern vintage have returned to its football a credibility that wavered after those early Premier League days. Solskjær’s heroics in Barcelona were never topped even if new arrivals in England remained semi-frequent. Bohinen is reluctant to state that he and his colleagues directly paved the way for the excellence Erling and Martin Ødegaard are now producing on these shores. “They are world-class and would have got there anyway,” he says. “But I think they might be trailblazers for other Norwegians in their generation, and below, to play in the top five leagues.”

Erling Haaland scores against Arsenal in the Premier League on 26 April

In Erling he sees the unmistakable influence of two sporting parents: the striker’s mother, Gry Marita Braut, was a well known heptathlete. Does Erling retain any elements handed down by Norwegian strikers of bygone years? Bohinen detects a few, rolled up into a modern bundle that defies definition.

“He has his father’s speed and running style,” he says. “And a mixture of physicality from his father and mother. As a player he’s got the whole package, he’s something out on his own. There’s the finishing technique of Solskjær, some of the skills of Tore André Flo and Jan Åge Fjørtoft, some of Jostein Flo’s physical presence. He reads the game incredibly well too and it’s a mixture of everything that makes him so difficult to stop. He’s unique and you don’t see many of those players.”

Bohinen, who is manager of the Norwegian top-flight side Stabæk, will text Haaland Sr if all goes smoothly in Istanbul. “I congratulate him when Erling does well so that’s more or less all the time.” They meet up in Oslo when diaries permit and were reunited at Bohinen’s 50th birthday party. The legacy to which they and their contemporaries have contributed speaks for itself; the wish now is that Erling’s exploits help deepen it.

“I think we should be really proud of it,” he says. “In some way we helped open up the English game to foreign players at the time. After that everything else opened up, and maybe that will happen again now for Norwegian players. I hope it raises awareness of their quality.”