Rosenborg and the golden years: 13 consecutive titles and some memorable Champions League scalps

Rosenborg and the golden years: 13 consecutive titles and some memorable Champions League scalps

On the 30 October 2004, during the final round of fixtures of Norway’s then-named Tippeligaen, Rosenborg, in search of their 13th consecutive league title, were winning 3-1 at home to Lyn. Despite seemingly cruising to a routine victory, Ola By Rise’s men were pouring forward at every opportunity. As though channelling the Norse berserkers of old, Rosenborg were assailing the Lyn goal with frenzied abandon. 

Only six minutes earlier, news had filtered through that Vålerenga had gone 3-0 up against Stabaek, courtesy of a late strike from Daniel Fredheim Holm. With this goal, the Oslo outfit had leapfrogged Rosenborg to the summit of the table by a single goal. For the first time in over a decade, Norwegian football was on the cusp of crowning new champions. As the clock at both games ticked inexorably towards the full-time whistle, what was once the unthinkable was fast becoming the inevitable. 

Yet, in the 89th minute, the ball was hurried forward to the left wing where a low, fizzing cross was swung into the box towards the far post. Stealing in ahead of the static centre-half was Rosenborg’s leading goalscorer, Frode Johnsen, who had already plundered two goals in the game and 18 overall in the league. The sandy-haired striker flung his wiry, six-foot-two frame at the ball, diverting it into the bottom corner of the Lyn goal past a crestfallen goalkeeper. 

The Lerkendal erupted as Johnsen sprinted off in jubilation, breath steaming in the crisp night air as he was mobbed by jubilant teammates. With Lyn vanquished, so too were the hungry wolves of Vålerenga banished from the door. Rosenborg returned to the top of the Tippeligaen by the slimmest of margins; equal on points and with a matching goal difference, Ola By Rise’s men clinched their 13th consecutive crown by virtue of goals scored. 

However, while the Troillongan partied deep into the early hours of Halloween, far more ghoulish spectres were already gathering in the shadows. Less than a decade earlier, Rosenborg were winning the title by 15 clear points – now, they were relying on goals scored. It should have served as an omen for things to come. The gap between Rosenborg and the rest – Molde, Brann, Vålerenga – was finally beginning to close, much to the relief of everyone outside Trondheim. After 13 years, the dominance of the finest football club Norway had ever produced would finally come to an end the following season, in 2005.  

Limping home to a seventh-place finish, Rosenborg’s vice-like grip on the Tippeligaen slipped at last. It was a disconsolate end to a saga that had spanned two decades. 

Despite the club’s renewed success in recent years – Rosenborg would begin a new run of championship successes between 2014 and 2018 – this remains the era remembered by many with wistful fondness. This unprecedented run, bettered only by Latvian side Skonto and Gibraltar’s Red Imps in the whole of European football, might well have come to an end, but, as with all ends, there has to be a beginning. And this beginning began way back in 1992, in the new surroundings of the rebranded Tippeligaen. 

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Considering the Tronheimans had only won the old 1. Divisjon three times in the previous 25 years, few could have foreseen the enormous success Rosenborg were destined to enjoy at the lofty summit of Norwegian football. Except, maybe, for one man: Nils Arne Eggen. By 1992, the former defender was starting his third spell in charge of his beloved Rosenborg. This was a man who would guide Rosenborg to its greatest triumphs, but he was also a man who had plumbed its lowest depths; his second spell in charge commenced in 1978 when the club were struggling in the ignominious surroundings of the Norwegian second tier. 

However, by the time his third spell came around in 1988, Rosenborg were a club undergoing major upheaval. Having been professionalised in 1985, Eggen seemed to have little problem guiding them to the double in 1988. With the advent of the Tippeligaen, Rosenborg were primed to mount an assault.

Indeed, with fresh investment, Rosenborg had won the inaugural Tippeligaen only to surrender the title the next year to Viking, who, at the time, were Norway’s most successful club. Yet, like their axe-wielding ancestors, Viking would eventually give way to the onslaught of progress – not in the form of the conquering Normans but in the guise of a similarly ambitious Rosenborg. 

Guided by Rinus Michels’ Totaalvoetbal philosophy, Eggen sought to revolutionise Norwegian football. Formatively, Eggen’s Rosenborg sides became renowned for being greater than the sum of their total parts. In the early-90s, when 4-4-2 was still king, Rosenborg initially set up in a progressive 4-3-3 formation, with an emphasis on a solid backline that acted as a base to mount rapid counter-attacks. Though the league would be remoulded over the years, Eggen was resolute in his belief of promoting young, ambitious talent. 

For the three seasons following Viking’s 1991 title win, the outcome of the Tippeligaen was far from certain. Although Rosenborg would claim a hat-trick of crowns, they did so with stiff competition. Kongsvinger ran them close in 1992, while Bodø/Glimt finished within two points of the top spot in 1993. Yet, it was with the dawn of the 1994 season and the return of a certain Harald Martin Brattbakk that Rosenborg began to widen the gap between themselves and the rest. Until then, Rosenborg had been hard to beat; they had been defeated in the league only seven times in the previous two seasons, but their goal output had been unspectacular for a title-winning side. 

Brattbakk, a Rosenborg academy graduate, had left in 1992 owing to a lack of first-team opportunities, but, after propelling Bodø/Glimt to within a hair’s breadth of the title, he was promptly re-signed by the champions and unleashed on a hapless Tippeligaen. Within the year, Rosenborg had clinched the title by eight clear points while their goal output rose from 47 to 70, thanks in no small part to the 17 plundered by their new striker. In fact, he would go on to score no fewer than 30 in all competitions in only 33 games.  

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Equipped with the prolific striker they had been missing at the start of the 90s – Gøran Sørloth, father of Alexander, had been the only Rosenborg player to break into double figures in 1992 and 1993 – the juggernaut began to ramp up its operations by the middle of the decade. They were rapidly on the ascent, their fortunes married inextricably to the lethal abilities of Brattbakk.

In four seasons, he’d claim a staggering 146 goals for Rosenborg as the club made winning the Tippeligaen an annual formality. In 1995, they extended their margin of victory to 15 points and by 1996 it was 13, a feat made all the more remarkable by the club’s extraordinary foray into the knockout rounds of the Champions League.

Having previously made the first round of the old European Cup, 1996 marked the first occasion that the Norwegian champions progressed further than they had any right to do. Much to the surprise of curious European onlookers, Rosenborg made it through the group stages at the expense of the mighty AC Milan. On an unforgettable night at the San Siro, with the Rossoneri only needing a draw to progress, Eggen’s men completed the ultimate smash and grab. Vegard Heggem’s 70th-minute winner saw Rosenborg leapfrog their illustrious opponents into the second qualification spot.

A last-16 3-1 aggregate loss to Juventus would follow, but that was almost inconsequential: Rosenborg had become the first Norwegian side to ever get to the knockout stages of the Champions League. Riding this crest, the 1997 season began and with it, Rosenborg went in search of their sixth straight title, having already broken Viking’s record of four-in-a-row in 1996.

As if having the league’s deadliest striker wasn’t enough, they doubled their threat with the signature of Tromsø’s Sigurd Rushfeldt. Between them, Brattbakk and Rushfeldt reaped 48 league goals, with the pair unsurprisingly occupying the first and second places in the race for the golden boot.

Rosenborg would lose only once all season, while their well-organised raiding in Europe continued, too. Though they wouldn’t progress past the group stages after finishing runners-up to Real Madrid – thanks in no small part to the best runners-up rule UEFA were trialling – Eggen’s men claimed a famous 2-0 victory over a Los Blancos side that boasted the likes of Raúl, Redondo, Mijatović and Seedorf.

On a frigid November night in Trondheim, where snow was gathered in drifts around the pitch, an uncomfortable-looking Real, more accustomed to the balmy climes of southern Europe than the apocalyptic cold of western Norway, were made to pay for their lethargy. After a neat near-post header from Roar Strand opened the scoring, unsurprisingly, Brattbakk made it onto the scoresheet with a storming half-volley to put the game beyond the visitors before the hour mark. In fact, Brattbakk and Rushfeldt were as lethal in Europe as they were on Norwegian shores, scoring four apiece throughout the campaign, including goals against Real, Porto and Olympiacos.

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However, Rosenborg fans would only enjoy this devastating strike partnership for a single season. Brattbakk would join Celtic in 1998, and, temporarily at least, Eggen – citing the need for a much-needed sabbatical – stepped down from the managerial role, handing the reins to long-time assistant, Ola By Rise. Yet it hardly seemed to matter. Rosenborg were unassailable and Rushfeldt shouldered the goalscoring burden with aplomb, registering 81 goals in a mere 83 appearances until his own departure for Racing Santander in 1999. 

Again, with Eggen back at the helm after his season-long hiatus, the Norse champions embarked on another European raid, this time ransacking Feyenoord, Boavista and Borussia Dortmund, while the league championship was duly wrapped up with two games to spare.

By the new millennium, Rosenborg had won nine championships on the trot and the end seemed no nearer in sight than it had been when they’d broken Viking’s 30-year record in 1996. The unthinkable – ten straight championship victories – felt more like inevitability than hope, and so it was. Seven points clear, they romped to the title.  

Their 11th followed soon after, but it would come at a price: Eggen stepped down at the end of a season where, for the first time in half a decade, Rosenborg were made to sweat, topping the league by a single point from Lillestrøm. The bedrock upon which Rosenborg’s vast hall of triumphs had been built, Eggen had been instrumental in turning the Trondheim club into an all-conquering outfit capable of transcending the sometimes insular world of Scandinavian football. Their run of Champions League group stages appearances, from 1995/96 to 2002/03, was a record at the time. Yet, just like how the man in the proverbial driving seat had hardly changed in over a decade, the same could be said of the passengers. 

Rosenborg’s incredible success was just as attributable to a core of long-serving, homegrown players, often procured at the expense of foreign imports. Legendary midfielder Roar Strand, who would go on to represent Rosenborg 562 times across 21 seasons, was present for 12 of the club’s 13 titles, while defender Erik Hoftun was with the club from 1994 to 2005, winning ten. Ably supplemented by the likes of the long-serving Ståle Stensaas, Bent Skammeslrud and Bjørn Otto Bragstad, the core of this eminent Rosenborg side remained unchanged, and it was this stability that was key to the sustained success.

However, though this core group stayed loyal, throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, Rosenborg were summarily preyed upon by Europe’s larger clubs and saw a wealth of talent leave Norwegian shores in search of greater riches and prestige. At the passing of the millennium, Rosenborg’s annual expenditure on salaries barely topped £300,000. Thus, Øyvind Leonhardsen, Stig Inge Bjørnebye, Vegard Heggem and John Carew were all plucked from the perennial champions by the likes of Liverpool, Wimbledon and Valencia. 

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By the time the 2003 season dawned, Rosenborg were a regular fixture in the Champions League and had proved something of a successful conveyor belt of homegrown talent. However, new head coach Åge Hareide asserted his belief that the club needed to be refurbished if it was to continue the enormous success it had enjoyed under Eggen’s stewardship. Somewhat controversially, he began the process of renovating the ageing squad, beginning with the highly unpopular decision to release club legend Skammelsrud.  

Despite this initial turbulence, the departure of Eggen seemed, on the face of things, to have had little effect on Rosenborg’s fortunes. Under Hareide, Rosenborg clinched their 12th consecutive Tippeligaen title by 14 points, their largest margin since 1997. Brattbakk had returned from his forays into Europe with Celtic and FC København and was now partnered by the gangly Frode Johnsen. As a pair, they continued to harass the defences of the Tippeligaen.

Unfortunately, 2004 was to be a period of turbulence for the Norwegian champions as they were forced into seeking a new manager. It was as sudden as it was disruptive; the unexpected departure of Hareide, who had been at the club only a little over a season before he accepted a position as the Norway national manager, had surprised the club. Rushing to mitigate the damage, Rosenborg promptly installed Ola By Rise, Eggen’s former assistant and one-time caretaker manager, as boss – but he was dismissed after just a single season, despite clinching the title on a dramatic final day against Lyn. 

Rosenborg were facing the prospect of a fourth manager in four seasons when they made their most disastrous move yet. Per Joar Hansen was promoted to manager, with long-time coaches Bjørn Hansen and Rune Skarsfjord accepting roles at assistant managers, but, bizarrely, Hansen would have the considerable spectre of club legend Eggen looming over him, who was installed in an “advisory” role. In theory, the scheme seemed sound, but in reality, it was chaotic at best. A distinct lack of direction bred turmoil and both Eggen and Hansen resigned midway through an underwhelming campaign. 

In the end, it was a season to forget as the longest title-winning reign in Europe at the time came to a humiliating end. An indifferent start to the campaign threatened to hamstring their attempts at claiming a 14th Tippeligaen crown in a row, but it was a disastrous patch of form between August and September, during which they lost six games on the bounce, that plunged the club into the unfamiliar surroundings of a relegation battle. A run of four wins would follow, ultimately propelling them up to seventh, but when the 2005 season came to a close, Rosenborg found themselves 12 points off the summit.

Despite the bitterness that accompanied the withering surrender of their once insurmountable position on top of Norway’s Tippeligaen, Rosenborg had written a saga that even the Norse skalds would have been proud of. Across two decades, the Trondheim club had plundered 13 straight titles, completed no fewer than six domestic doubles, appeared in eight consecutive Champions League campaigns, and could boast famous victories over the likes of AC Milan, Real Madrid and Porto which belied their status as a regional, tight-knit, community club. 

Though the halcyon days of the 1990s are becoming but a distant memory, Rosenborg have since returned to their perch atop Norwegian football – and it is there that they intend to stay, perhaps for 14 seasons next time. 

By Josh Butler @joshisbutler90

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