Erling Haaland may be a rarity in the brand-conscious world of blockbuster transfers: a superstar signing whose professed love for Manchester City is actually genuine. Where many footballers kiss the badge and cite being childhood fans of Club A, Haaland is the 22-year-old centre-forward whose father, Alfie, played for City, was popular with teammates and staff and would take his infant son to the champions’ former stadium, Maine Road.
Roy Bailey was City’s physiotherapist when Haaland Sr was at the club for three seasons from 2000. “I remember him bringing his young lad Erling in when he was injured on a Sunday morning,” he says. “He had the freedom of Maine Road. I’d see him as a toddler when he brought him into the treatment room and he let him run about on the pitch. Alfie was very fond of City.”
Bailey treated Erling’s father when he suffered the infamous high tackle by Roy Keane during a 1-1 draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford on 21 April 2001. In the 86th minute, Keane lunged at Haaland’s right leg, doubling the defender over. It was a revenge act, the Irishman angry about an incident four years earlier during a match at Alfie’s then-club Leeds. After Keane fell to the Elland Road turf injured, the Norwegian had stood over him and accused the midfielder of faking it. Keane had actually suffered a ruptured cruciate ligament and, as he documented in his 2002 autobiography, waited for his moment to pay Haaland back. “I fucking hit him hard,” Keane wrote. “The ball was there. Take that you cunt. And don’t ever stand over me sneering about fake injuries.”
Erling has grown up understanding his father’s reluctance to speak about the episode. But while a second autobiography published in 2014 had Keane insisting he had no regrets, Bailey reveals that the Irishman showed concern about the challenge, for which he was sent off. “It was a bad tackle, I know that,” Bailey says. “But in fairness to Roy Keane he did catch up with me straight after the game and asked me about him. I just said: ‘Don’t worry about him. We’ve iced him and he doesn’t look like he’s got any serious problem with the knee.’”
Bailey remembers running on to treat Alfie that day. “It was lucky Alfie saw him coming” he says. “When I saw the tackle with Roy on Alfie, I knew he was going to catch him with his foot. It’s a good job he did anticipate because if you’re standing on a stationary leg and somebody catches you like that, you damage your knee seriously.”
Tony Grant, a midfielder who played alongside the Norwegian at Old Trafford, says: “Alfie was a well-liked person – he worked hard, was a great fella – that was the main thing about him really. Going back to those days it’s not like it is now – we’re all more educated, we all know there’s eyes everywhere, social media has increased [the scrutiny] tenfold.
“But Roy obviously held in his brain what happened [at Elland Road]. Roy didn’t take many prisoners, did he? He held something close and he did what he did – that was retribution. Terrible. Roy was an exceptional footballer and he also had the other side of him as well. But I don’t think it was anything personal. I think again, you are, how would you put it? Not touchy, but if you got a bad injury and someone’s goading you, you can’t wait, especially if you’re that way inclined. It was purely a professional thing.”
Although Haaland could finish the derby, by summer 2003 he had retired aged only 30 because of an injury to his other knee. Bailey says: “Roy spied his chance and caught him with a nasty tackle, but I doubt that finished Alfie Haaland’s career.” Haaland Sr has, though, suggested that Keane did, citing how he never again played a full 90 minutes, featuring only once more for City that season – 68 minutes in the following week’s draw with West Ham – plus four substitute appearances during the next campaign.
Erling’s father, who considered legal action against Keane but decided he did not have a strong enough case, recalled the saga years later. “He tried to tackle me and I got the free-kick,” Alfie said of the incident. “He was lying on the ground and I just told him to ‘get up’ as you normally do with players – nothing more than that. I wasn’t trying to intend anything against him, but he took that very hard.”
Of Keane’s horror challenge, he added: “For eight years I wasn’t injured. Coincidence or not, that was my last 90 minutes in England. Is that a coincidence, or isn’t it? If you’re in the ground and someone hits you in the right leg, you can still twist your other leg. It can get injured and that’s probably what happened [to my left knee]. I haven’t played a full 90 minutes after that incident, that’s the hard fact. And people can judge whatever they want.
“I found out afterwards that it was with intent and he was seeking revenge and all these things. I think that’s a bit sad. Sad for football and it was not good for me either at the time.”
On retirement, Haaland Sr moved the family back to Bryne in south-west Norway where he served on the local council. Erling, starring for youth-age sides, began his stellar trajectory there.
Haaland Jr’s reputation in Bryne is exemplary – he is viewed as a pleasant character, just like his father. Erling’s only moments of dissent were when, as a teenager, game-time could be limited to manage his development.
From Bryne Erling went to Molde in 2017, where Ole Gunnar Solskjær was his manager, and there he began piling up the goals – 20 in 50 appearances – before moves to Red Bull Salzburg (2019) and Borussia Dortmund (2020) proved perfectly timed. The No 9 arrived at City with 135 goals and 36 assists in 166 appearances for his three most recent clubs.
He arrives back at the club his father would take him to as a toddler and, later, to watch when Alfie had departed, City remaining dear. The family bond now deepens with Erling preparing to make his Premier League debut for Pep Guardiola’s champions at West Ham on Sunday.
“There are not a lot of players who do not feel that way,” Bailey says of those with connections to City. “Once you’re a blue, you’re a blue. Alfie was a good guy. He would work hard in training, did rehabilitation whenever he needed to do, and was a first-class athlete. Whenever you’d give Alfie things to do, he did them properly. He turned up early for treatments and early for training, prepared himself correctly. He was a super guy for us. Now Erling has signed – fantastic.”