Wednesday 21 August 2019

Norwegian boss Halle has high hopes for Irish reunion

Former Oldham Athletic and Leeds United player Gunnar Halle is enjoying his stint as Norway’s Under-19s manager. Photo: Nigel French/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images
Former Oldham Athletic and Leeds United player Gunnar Halle is enjoying his stint as Norway’s Under-19s manager. Photo: Nigel French/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

John Fallon

Like most Irish people, Gunnar Halle has long forgotten that World Cup game against Norway of 25 years ago. And he played in it.

The defensive solidity synonymous with the Jack Charlton era was personified on that sultry afternoon; Ireland extracting the scoreless draw they required to edge the Scandinavians for a place in the knockout phase.

Compounding the desire for Halle to erase the memory was the bit-part he contributed at the Giants Stadium. A niggling pre-existing injury forced him off just after the half-hour mark.

"I prefer to remember that World Cup campaign for our qualification victory over England that knocked them out," he says with a hint of mischief, fully aware of the inquisitor's audience.

His awareness of the rivalry with the Auld Enemy is no sound bite. Wherever Halle went during his 11 years in English football there was an Irish link.

He was the unknown Norwegian whom Oldham Athletic bought in 1991 to fill the vacancy left at right-back created by Denis Irwin's departure to Manchester United. Then, five years later, his status was enhanced by a move to Leeds United, only there he had to compete with Gary Kelly for the full-back slot.

And his exit from Elland Road was hastened by a decision of Dave O'Leary to offload him just one season into the Irishman's tenure. "There was no bad ending," he notes. "I got on well with all the Irish. We had fun times together."

Halle, now 53, has once more got Ireland on his mind. He'll be leading the Norwegian team into battle against the Boys in Green in their opening U-19 European Championship finals game today.

"Ireland against Norway at a major tournament in hot conditions again," he muses, once more exhibiting his dry sense of humour. "This is different. I'm the manager of the national team. Losing the first game would put us into trouble."

Golden

Expectation levels in his homeland mean that scenario isn't being contemplated. Norwegian football is developing a golden generation to rival the era of the 1990s when Halle and his peers overcame the disappointing campaign at the finals in America by beating Brazil at the next World Cup.

Real Madrid's move for Martin Odegaard four years ago suggested a nation with a similar population to Ireland's was getting its act together for producing talent. It proved no fluke. Norway have enjoyed a regular presence at major tournaments since. Halle led their U-17s to the Euro quarter-finals last season, while the U-19s finished fifth in their equivalent tournament.

That secured them a spot at the recent U-20 World Cup in Poland and, in the process, robbed Halle of four starters for this tournament.

The scale of absentees doesn't compare to Ireland's but the discrepancy could be attributed to the functioning domestic system that the Norwegians enjoy. Only two of his 20 players, Manchester City defender Colin Rosler and RB Leipzig striker Noah Holm, play their club football outside of the Eliteserien league.

A collegiate dose of patriotism comes to the fore when players are representing Norway.

"There had to be discussions with some clubs because we're in the middle of the season in Norway but they were happy to release the players," explains Halle. "The team did really well to come out of the elite group. After drawing against Hungary, we beat Germany and Croatia.

"We know what to expect from Ireland. They will be well-organised and can be physical if they want. We will have to watch them from set-pieces."

That familiar trait of Irish teams was reinforced to Halle when he sat down on Thursday night to see how his home teams fared in the Europa League. Shamrock Rovers grabbed both of their goals through that route in the 2-2 draw against SK Brann.

"That was a disappointing result," he admits of a game in which he spotted another former Leeds associate, Stephen McPhail, on the Rovers bench.

Still, that setback had nothing on the level of unease he was feeling about his own team's preparations. While his team arrived into Armenia during the week, their luggage didn't.

"We had to buy some items in the local shops to help us train," he explained. "It took a few days but we finally got everything back on Friday. There will be no excuses."

His assertion harks back to another Irish figurehead from his heyday.

Roy Keane bossed the all-conquering Manchester United of the time but, as fondly as Halle recalls their duels, it was the sparring with another Norwegian that goes down in Premier League folklore.

Alf-Inge Haaland and Keane were involved in a couple of incidents which left both with serious injuries.

"We had many battles against Roy Keane and he was in charge of those battles," he says with a giggle.

"There was nothing wrong with getting stuck in and I would have wanted Roy on my team.

"It was my team-mate Alfie he had the problems with. I played in the match for Leeds in 1997 when Roy first got his injury."

Haaland and Halle remain close, with Haaland's son, Erling Braut Haaland, one of the quartet unavailable to him this week.

The Red Bull Salzburg starlet won the golden boot at the U-20 World Cup. All nine of his goals came in the 12-0 hammering of Honduras.

Like Mohan, Halle prefers to talk about the players available to him in Armenia.

"Norwegian football is going in the right direction," he asserts. "Some age-groups are better than others and I'm confident about this group."

This time, heat, injury or Charlton won't be getting in his way of creating history.

Irish Independent

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