There is something in the water in Molde, the modest municipality in Norway’s Møre og Romsdal county where, every 25 years or so, a global football superstar germinates.
Until fairly recently, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was the most famous name to have worn the blue of Molde FK, a few years before he scored one of European football’s most iconic goals on a spring night in Barcelona in 1999. First as a player, then as title-winning manager, he put Molde on the football map of Norway and, in legacy terms, of the world.
For now, Solskjaer remains the most decorated export to have left the Aker Stadion for one of Europe’s major clubs.
But in 2019, another striker was sold by Molde, younger than Solskjaer when he embarked on his career abroad and already saddled with the faint expectation that he could become Norway’s greatest-ever player.
That Erling Haaland will eclipse Solskjaer’s goalscoring record – a mightily respectable 282 in 529 games – feels inevitable. One man knows both legends of Norwegian football – one past, one future – better than most.
The current Molde boss, Erling Moe, was number two to Solskjaer here from 2015-2018. For two of those years, Haaland led the team’s forward line, his first experience of top-flight football.
“It’s great for the club that we have guys like this to have played and managed here,” says Moe.
“Part of the secret is that we’re not the biggest club, we’re a town of 26,000 people, but it’s only football in this town. Everything is set up for youngsters to do well here. They [Solskjaer and Haaland] were both extremely young when they came to us. They get time to develop properly at Molde.”
Solskjaer first came here in 1995, plucked from tiny Clausenengen in the coastal town of Kristiansund. His strike rate there rivals Haaland’s at that age, averaging more than a goal a game during his five seasons at the club, but it was at Molde where he came to international attention.
A Cup-Winners’ Cup goal against Paris Saint Germain in 1995 was his first in Europe before Manchester United beat Hamburg and Cagliari to his signature a year later.
His homecoming as manager 14 years later ushered in a whirlwind romance. Molde won a first-ever Eliteserien title within a year, followed by their second the following season.
The team he left behind made it three in four years after he departed for Cardiff City in 2014. When he returned the next year, Moe served as his number two until Manchester United came calling in 2018.
Haaland was a different kind of prospect. Brought in aged 16 from Bryne, he had scored 18 goals in his first 14 senior games playing in Norway’s fourth tier. During his days at Molde a nascent sense of a truly special, one-in-a-generation talent started to emerge.
Whatever it is that happens to young players here, happened, and it happened quickly. The goals came – 16 of them in 32 games in his second season, still aged just 18 – before an €8 million transfer to Red Bull Salzburg in 2019, a staggering fee for a teenager whose only football experience had come in Norway’s modest Eliteserien.
The gears that had eased Solskjaer towards his eventual status as one of Europe’s iconic strikers 25 years earlier were turning again.
“The only thing they have to worry about here is football,” says Moe. “That is a really good environment to develop players in, to bring them on to the next level. It’s hard to point the finger and say ‘this is how we have produced two such amazing players’. But the environment in the town is right for this kind of thing.
“These two stand out, but there have been more. Last year we sold Marcus Holmgren Pedersen to Feyenoord, he’s done really well there and become a Norway international. A lot of our players have left Molde and taken the step out into the big world.
“We don’t think first and foremost about formations and tactics here. Our focus as a club is always on the development of young players, making them ready to go abroad. We’re a club that has to sell players to keep the books balanced. This is our economic model. That’s our priority, to make individuals so good that we can make money and survive.”
Moe’s present dilemma concerns turning around Molde’s less than blistering start to their Conference League campaign – the domestic title is all but wrapped up, with a 15-point lead held over second-place Bodo/Glimt.
After collecting just a point from the opening two games against Gent and Djurgardens, the fate of their European season will be dictated by the result of back-to-back games against Shamrock Rovers, beginning tonight at the Aker Stadion.
“If we lose this, we’re in a really difficult position,” says Moe. “We’d have to win our last three which will be extremely tough. Thursday is vital if we want to be in Europe after Christmas. We have to win these two games.
“But Irish football has come a long way. We got a real surprise when we played Dundalk a few years ago. I think Shamrock play a much more European way of playing, keeping the ball on the ground, seeking to use the ball to play through the opponents. Irish football has really changed its direction. There seems to be confidence to trust themselves.”