That time Northern Ireland U16s came up against Erling Haaland and (almost) kept him quiet

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Malone Playing Fields on a cold November afternoon with no more than a handful of spectators in attendance isn’t the typical scene you’d set for a future global superstar – but it was Erling Haaland’s reality.

Now used to breaking all sorts of records with his perfect combination of speed, physicality and pure finishing instinct at Manchester City, a little-known Haaland (outside of his family connections) led the line for Norway U16s in two 2015 international friendlies against Northern Ireland U16s.

The first encounter was a thriller. It ended 4-4 after Norway had taken a 2-0 lead only for the hosts to come firing back through goals from Leo Brown, Paul O’Neill, Harry Robinson and Alex McIlmail before the Scandinavian nation nicked a draw.

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Haaland did score that afternoon – a deflected shot which left goalkeeper Rory Brown little chance – but Darren Murphy, who was manager of the young Northern Irish side admits he could never have predicted the level of stardom the opposition striker would go on to achieve.

Manchester City striker Erling HaalandManchester City striker Erling Haaland
Manchester City striker Erling Haaland

"I wouldn't say he was a nobody because of his father,” he recalls. “I was only into the job a month and the fixture had come up.

"Norway started the game very well and went 2-0 up. He scored a goal - it was deflected and I can't remember much about it.

"At that stage did you see a centre-forward playing on the pitch for Norway that was going to be a global superstar? Probably not.

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"What he has done from there eight years on shows how quickly your life can change when you're a 15-year-old boy coming to Northern Ireland to play in that type of game to all of a sudden scoring five in a Champions League fixture. It's incredible to think in eight years you can do that.

Darren MurphyDarren Murphy
Darren Murphy

"The two standout players in the Northern Ireland team during that time were Jordan McEneff and Ethan Galbraith - one went to Arsenal and the other went to Manchester United. At that time two boys from Northern Ireland going to clubs that size was brilliant.

"What's pleasing to me is when you look back at it we had Caolan Boyd-Munce and the likes of Rory Brown, Paul O'Neill, Harry Robinson, who is the son of Stephen Robinson - you did have a lot of players coming through.

"Galbraith at the minute is flying (at Salford) and seems to be playing the best football of his career which is brilliant because Ethan always had the talent.

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"You also have the other side of the game where those kids at 16 have everything ahead of them and for some it just hasn't worked out and a few are out of the game.

"A lot of it is down to getting a break - once you get the opportunity and the break comes then you take it and your life can change. You just have to look at the boy who played in Belfast that day - his life has changed completely.

"Sometimes you tend to forget that you've been involved in something like that and you're not sitting there saying to yourself he's going to be the next big thing.

"There are some players that people will throw their hat on, even in Northern Ireland, of being the next big thing and it just doesn't happen.

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"I would say a lot of it is down to the mental strength of the boy, the family he comes from and the clubs that he has worked with. He's now with one of, if not the best coach in the world who is going to nurture his talent even more.

"You probably tend to forget what age he is. He's 22 - it's scary to think. It just shows how quickly your world can change."

Two days later, Northern Ireland and Murphy achieved something that has quickly became one of the hardest tasks in world football – stopping Haaland from finding the net.

Another manager that has also solved the conundrum is Glenavon boss Gary Hamilton with Haaland blanking in a 2018 European clash against the Lurgan Blues while at Molde under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

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"Hammy's was certainly more impressive than mine because mine was U16s and his was in a European fixture!” added Murphy. “It just goes to show how a global superstar was at Mourneview Park - it's phenomenal. He would have been a young boy then too.

"You don't appreciate it when you're there yourself or take time to savour those moments - I can still remember the game vividly and that was eight years ago. The game goes so quickly and disappears from you."

Not all young players with dreams and ambitions of making it in the professional game go onto achieve them and Haaland’s case is a rather special one.

Only four of the squad across those two games against Norway are playing in the Danske Bank Premiership regularly, Caolan Boyd-Munce signed for Scottish Premiership side St Mirren on Wednesday and Jordan McEneff is starring for Derry City.

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"At that age they all have dreams of being the best and all want to make it,” said Murphy. “Football is a beautiful game but a horrible business.

"They don't all make it and that's why when I was fortunate to be involved in that youth programme that I expressed to the players to embrace and enjoy the moment because you never know when it will be your last or where it'll take you.

"You're a 16-year-old boy going to England on a two-year scholarship and then you come back home, have been thrown out of the game, come back into the Irish League, struggle with that because there were no pathways and structures when they came home. That's thankfully been rectified and getting better.

"NIFL deserve a lot of credit when you see the structures they have put in place - the U18 and U20 Development Leagues where players coming back home now have an opportunity to revamp their careers and go again.

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"It shows the strength of the league when you look at the amount of Northern Ireland internationals that are coming to the latter stages of their career that are coming home to play and pass on their experience of what it takes to be a professional footballer and that is really good for those coming through.

"Northern Irish football is in a great place and having Michael (O’Neill) back will give everybody a lift and a big push."

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