As a UCD fan I instinctively know that when it comes to following League of Ireland teams in Europe, it is not the despair that kills you but the hope. The last time UCD welcomed European club competition on campus was in September 2017, when the reward for winning the Airtricity Under-19 League was entry into the Uefa Youth League. Molde, Shamrock Rovers’ Conference League opponents on Thursday night, were the opposition.
At the Belfield Bowl the visitors quickly took a deserved lead through captain Leo Ostigård (now at Napoli) only for UCD to score twice within a minute just before half-time, going on to win the first leg 2-1. Molde went 2-0 up in the second leg before a goal by substitute Jack Ryan levelled the tie at 3-3 on aggregate and had UCD fans believing that the students were about to create an extraordinary shock against their fully-professional opponents.
However, the Norwegian club had one trump card still to play. For obvious reasons the Uefa Youth League rulebook strictly prohibits a club from fielding an older player, but it remains silent on using a younger one. After an hour Molde introduced a 17-year-old whose prodigious abilities had already seen him play for their first team at 16 having debuted for his home club, Bryne, at just 15.
The subject of this tactical demotion was Erling Haaland.
The now Manchester City phenom capped his only ever appearance in the Uefa Youth League by scoring a penalty in a shoot-out that Molde won 5-4. One Shamrock Rovers player who will recall that dramatic evening is Neil Farrugia, who converted his spot kick for the students.
That shoot-out is as close as any side have come to upsetting Molde’s perfect record against League of Ireland sides in Europe. In 2013 Sligo Rovers made their Champions League debut against a Molde side then managed by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in front of a full house at the Showgrounds. The Norwegians ran out 1-0 winners on the night, 3-0 on aggregate.
Sadly, when Molde returned to Ireland in 2020 they played before an empty house in Tallaght Stadium, beating Dundalk 2-1 in the group stage of the Europa League. The return match ended with a 3-1 victory for Molde, enabling the Norwegians to progress to the knockout stage of the competition behind group winners Arsenal.
Perhaps more encouragement can be taken from the night in July 2018 when Haaland visited this island to make his debut in senior European club competition against Glenavon. Amazingly, Haaland not only failed to score at Mourneview Park but ended up being substituted as Glenavon secured a remarkable 2-1 victory.
One week later normal service was resumed as Molde won 5-1 to advance 6-3 aggregate.
A key part of the Molde business model is developing and quickly selling on emerging talents. Haaland was still just 18 when he moved in 2019 to Red Bull Salzburg for €8 million.
Their most successful transfer remains Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who moved from Molde to Manchester United for €1.7 million in 1996. The undoubted highlight of Solskjaer’s decade long stay at Old Trafford saw the Norwegian come on as a late substitute to score an injury-time winner against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League Final to complete a historic treble.
More recent exports to England have failed to scale such extraordinary heights. In 2009 Mame Biram Diouf moved to Manchester United for €4.6 million but only made a handful of first team appearances. But even that was a huge success compared to Vegard Forren who signed for Southampton in 2013 and failed to make a single appearance for the club before returning to Molde six month later.
Four years later, Forren signed for Brighton but the invisible man of English football again left quickly without playing a match.
Since December 2018 Molde have been managed by Erling Moe who succeeded Solskjaer when he left to take charge at Manchester United. Moe has done an excellent job with his hometown club; Molde currently top the Eliteserien by 15 points and are almost certain to be back playing amongst the European elite next season.
The most exciting prospect at Molde is teenage striker David Datro Fofana who has already been capped by the Ivory Coast. Fofana’s most recent appearance in the Europa Conference League proved eventful as he both opened the scoring and got sent off in a 3-2 defeat to Djurgardens.
Should Shamrock Rovers find themselves winning at the Aker Stadion on Thursday, or in Tallaght next week, they can at least be assured that Erling Haaland will not make an unexpected cameo appearance off the bench. But there is another prolific 18-year-old striker signed from Bryne who scored 64 goals in 37 matches for the Molde youth team and subsequently netted minutes into his debut for the first team aged 17.
His name is Albert Braut Tjaaland. He is a cousin of Erling Haaland.