The jury is still out on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
“And Solskjaer has won it.”
Clive Tyldesley immortalized these words on that fateful night of 26th May 1999 in Barcelona, after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had just scored a dramatic injury time goal in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich.
This goal certainly cemented Solskjaer into the folklore of Republic of Mancunia. Many people still will say that the goal was a fluke and before his flick was more of a natural reaction than aimed. It could be.
But the crucial chances always fall to the man who’s best prepared to take them.
This goal can’t be categorized as a mere fluke, but it rather the one that epitomized Solskjaer’s professional attitude, tremendous work ethic and a terrific tactical awareness.
The term often associated with him is a “Super Sub” that is because number of important goals he has scored after coming off the bench. Out of his 366 appearances for Manchester United, he came off the bench for 150 times and out of 126 goals, 28 were as substitute. Believe me none of those goals were meaningless.
Shortly after signing a fairly unknown forward from a Norwegian club Molde FK for £1.5m in 1996, he came off the bench on Aug 25 1996, equalising against Blackburn Rovers and maintaining United’s unbeaten home run (stretching it to 32).
On Jan 24 1999, he arguably triggered the momentum which climaxed in the Treble. Taking the ball from Paul Scholes, Solskjaer pounced with a late goal to knock Liverpool out of the FA Cup. A fortnight later against Nottingham Forest, he came off the bench to strike four times in 12 minutes. Then came the magical flick in the Champions League final. He scored his final goal for United on Mar 31, 2007 against Blackburn as well, that too as a substitute.
Although being taunted as a bench warmer, Ole never sat in dugout listening to music on iPod or playing games on iPad. He always sat watching the game with a hawk’s eye, analyzing the trends, understanding the balance shifts. His tactical insight gave him an edge over other substitutes. Due to such a strong study of the game, he was always mentally prepared to come on and do exactly what was required. He never sulked about being named as a substitute.
That’s not all.
Solskjaer also maintained notes of every game he played and every training session he took part in. That reflects his dedication to learn the game and also his attention to meticulous detail. He did not do this just because it was fun, he did it because he knew, this dedication and sacrifice will be turn out to be a major aid in the dream he had as a 10-year old kid, “To be a manager”.
These notes were not just stats and formations from the games or diagrams on how to run around the cones, these were notes of players around him, his own insecurities and what Sir Alex Ferguson said at various tactical meetings. Direct from the horse’s mouth.
Big 20 Seconds for OLE20GEND
A dreadful knee injury at the start of 2003-04 season meant he could play in only 24 games till the start of 2006-07. He signed a one year deal with United in 2006, which would allow him to develop his coaching skills and earn the required UEFA badges after he hangs his boots.
After failing to recover from another surgery, on 26th Aug 2007 Ole Gunnar Solskjaer finally surrendered to his damaged knee and informed Sir Alex Ferguson: “I can’t play anymore.”
It took just 20 seconds for Fergie to decide his fate. “Don’t worry,” Ferguson told Solskjaer. “You were fantastic, you had a great career, why don’t you join my coaching staff?”
Following his retirement, Solskjaer worked for Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, coaching the strikers on the first team for the remainder of the 2007–08 season.
At the beginning of 2008-09 season, Solskjaer was confirmed as a full-time coach of Manchester United’s reserve side. It was a perfect step for his managerial career. Ambitious boys of age 18-19, bubbling to burst into the first team were pitted with an equally ambitious coach who was ready to launch himself on the big stage.
Although first league campaign ended in a disappointment as United reserves finished 7 points behind Sunderland in Premier Reserve League North. But he guided them to win Lancashire Senior Cup by beating old foes Liverpool.
In his first season he nurtured fantastic youngsters like Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverly, Rafael, Fabio, Ben Amos and Magnus Eikrem (who went on to play a key role for Solskjaer later on).
Solskjaer’s second season for the reserves was historic. He made a winning start to the 2009-10 season by winning Lancashire Senior Cup again. His reserves side went on to win Premier Reserve League North comfortably. Biggest prize was sealed in the Premier Reserve League playoff final when they beat Aston Villa reserves on penalties.
Ole’s success and potential was rewarded when he was offered a role as a head coach of Norway. Without showing any greed, he made a rational decision to turn down the offer as he realised that this prestigious job was offered to him too soon.
Somewhere in the middle of October 2010, Molde FK where he began his professional career approached him to take over as a manager.
Under him Manchester United Reserves’ performance in the league was pretty impressive.
The year 2011 was Molde’s centenary year. Seven times in the preceding 99 years, Molde had been runners-up in Norway’s top flight. They had been runners-up in 2009 but slumped to 11th in 2010, prompting a change of coach for a new season when temporary coach Uwe Rösler left for Brentford after steering the club away from relegation.
According to the managerial path plotted by Sir Alex Ferguson, it was important to choose a club with an owner and people around are trustworthy. Solskjaer too thought it was a right time to move back to Norway, accepted the offer form Molde after lengthy discussion with Ferguson.
Solskjaer took former Manchester United coaches Richard Hartis and Mark Dempsey as his assistants. Reinforcing the United connection is one of Molde’s star players, attacking midfielder Magnus Eikrem, the Molde-born player who spent five years at Old Trafford before returning home with him.
The difference in being at Manchester United for 14 years and managing Molde must’ve been huge. At United you are protected from the media by the Manager who backs his players and you get accustomed to winning in front of 75,000 almost every week. To go from that to a small town whose population is 1/3rd of Old Trafford’s capacity and where the team have an average crowd of 8,000 is a big change, but Solskjaer was well equipped to handle the pressure.
Unlike other managers, Solskjaer did not overhaul his first team. He took over the same squad from previous year but made a decent investment on young players from the futuristic perspective. He was very shrewd in the transfer market. Through his transfer dealings the club made 2.024.000 £
Although he didn’t bring in hoards of new players, what he brought in was a direct learning from the master Sir Alex Ferguson himself and maximum professionalism. From his 14 year experience at United, Solskjaer realized that if he wants to bring success to the club, he needs to make it a better place to work for the players. As a player, every little irritating thing in the dressing room or in the training facilities can take away your motivation and they can be easily fixed.
He focussed on smallest things like changing the dressing room design and office layout to the big things like changing the formation. With the available resources, Solskjaer adopted an attacking 4-3-3 formation. He also stressed on better training facilities, resources. In introduced better diets for the players and importantly, a dress code to unify them.
Molde’s Aker Stadion is situated on the riverfront and certainly is world’s one of the picturesque sight. It has a capacity of 11,800 people. When the news of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment as a manager broke out, the season ticket sales rapidly went up. Apart from the season tickets, average matchday attendance increased by 17.5% from 8355 in 2010 to 9817 in 2011.
The Season began on a shaky note. In Solskjaer’s first game in charge, Molde went down 3-0 to Sarpsborg 08 FF, a club which was merely 3-year old and was newly promoted to Tippeligaen. By 3rd weeks, Molde were 14th in the league and the clouds had started to hover above Solskjaer’s future.
There was already talk in the public that Solskjaer’s methods were better suited to the high-calibre professionals at Manchester United’s Carrington training ground than in Norway’s top flight.
But 4 victories and a defeat in their next 5 games saw Molde up to 4th place but only 2 points off the leaders.
Notes to the rescue
Molde next travelled to bottom placed FK Haugesund and were hammered 5-0. Morals were low morals in the gloomy dressing room when Solskjaer walked in. There he delivered a masterpiece straight from notes he’d taken Sir Alex Ferguson’s team talk.
‘If there’s anything about you now lads, I would take all your money, your mortgage, and put it on us winning the league because we will. You’ll never get better odds than now.’
He knew those words off by heart. They were said 15 years earlier during his first season at Manchester United when Sir Alex Ferguson tried to lift his players after an equally demoralising 5-0 defeat to Newcastle and 6-3 upset at Southampton.
United bounced back and went on to win the league by 7 points, and Solskjaer wanted Molde players to respond in the same manner.
Well, the words did hit the bull’s eye as Molde thumped IK Start Kristiansand 5:1 at home in a typical Manchester United style backlash. When Strömsgodset IF were beaten in the next week, Molde gained a top spot which they never relinquished.
A 2-0 win at Tromso at the beginning of October put Molde in the driving seat, but they made it difficult for themselves, drawing their last three games and conceding a last-minute equaliser at home to Stromsgodset when the title was more or less in the bag.
Molde FK were confirmed as Norwegian champions for the first time in their history after SK Brann’s 6-3 victory at Rosenborg BK left Molde eight points clear with two fixtures remaining.
Down to earth approach
Humility has always been a core DNA of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. He’d always maintained that rather than him, quality shown during training and several players consistently surpassing their own standards has been a main reason for their success.
Strenght, determination and skills of Goalkeeper Espen Bugge Pettersen, defender Vegard Forren, midfielder Makhtar Thioune and forward Davy Claude Angan found a perfect match with the flair of Magne Hoset and Magnus Eikrem to ensure that Molde were the most consistent team as they grabbed 8 out of 15 away wins in the top flight.
In an Interview given to Norwegian TV station NRK he said, ‘The players have won the league for the first time in a hundred years and when I see my skipper lifting the trophy it will be amazing, I used to play with him here at Molde. He’s always been at this club and he’s never won the league so, for me, that’s fulfilment.’
Return to England?
Ole has kept no secret of the fact that he would love to manage a top team and despite few offers from England, Ole is content to wait at Molde for some time till he feels he’s ready for the big step. He did not guide them to their first ever League title in their centenary year, Molde now have the opportunity to play in the Champions League, joining the competition at the second qualifying round next season.
Not only this, but already Mancunians are predicting and wishing for the super sub to take his place in the United’s dugout only as a Manager.
United defender Rio Ferdinand seemed to think so, writing on Twitter that: “He will be a premier league manager very soon + a top 1 too.”
Former team-mate David Beckham also got in on the act, telling Norwegian media that Solskjaer was “a great player and an even better person. Maybe he’ll be Manchester United manager one day,”
In truth, it has been an inconsistent season for the new champions, and Solskjaer knows that patchy form by the other frontrunners have contributed majorly towards this feat. If Solskjaer is to be seriously considered as a long-term replacement for Ferguson, he’ll need to learn the fine art of picking up points even when his side is not playing well.
Winning title for the first time but to win it again is a massive challenge.
It was a case of “Under Promise – Over Deliver”. Nobody had predicted Solskjaer to win a league title in his first year. But now there are new expectations to repeat the title and do well in Europe.
To do it all over again is a classic trait of his mentor Sir Alex Ferguson, and that’s what he has to achieve, till then the jury’s verdict will still be pending.
The above article has been published in May issue of ‘90 Minutes‘, India’s first and finest Football magazine.