Rooting for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: the good egg living his dream

John Nicholson

Whether he is up to the job or he isn’t, Johnny Nic reckons we can all get behind a decent guy like Ole…


Who’s this then?
Ole Gunnar Solskjær is the 48-year-old manager of Manchester United and a former striker for the club. Born in Kristiansund, Norway, he started his career in his country’s third tier in 1990 with Clausenengen, immediately making an impact scoring 115 goals in just 109 games. This took him to Molde for 200,000 Norwegian Krona in 1995 (about £16,000 in today’s money). His first season there saw him net 29 times in 34 games. In his second, he scored 12 in 20.

At this point, the club knew they had a potentially valuable asset on their hands. There was interest from Germany and Italy, but the club offered him to both Everton and Manchester City for £1.2 million, but they turned their noses up at this unknown Norwegian. Manchester United were made of sterner stuff though, found £1.5 million down the back of the sofa and pushed it over the desk to Molde, possibly saying “here, take it all, it’s yours”.

When he arrived at Old Trafford, few knew anything about him, nor how to pronounce his name, which led Barry Davies to say it in a very odd way indeed. However, he was an immediate success and walked away from the 1996-97 season with 18 in 33 League games, 19 goals in all 46 games, making him the club’s top scorer ahead of Eric Cantona with 15 and David Beckham with 12. The ‘baby-faced assassin’ legend was born.

However, the next season was a setback, scoring just nine in 30 and starting to play what would become his traditional role as a substitute. 1998-99 was more successful with 18 goals, but that does not tell the story. His last gasp winner in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich sealed his immortality for United fans.

The image of him sliding on his knees, arms in the air, became iconic, not just of that win, but of Manchester United itself. It became a symbol of their ability to rescue apparently hopeless causes and, in winning a league, FA Cup and European Treble, a symbol of their dominance of English football. It is argued that in some perhaps almost metaphysical way, it is what won him the managerial position of the club.

In 2001-2002 he had his best season for goals, scoring 25 in 47, the only time he passed the 20-goal mark. The following year he played his most games in a season – 57 – scoring 15 times. And then it all went a bit floppy. Injury laid him off for much of the next two and a half seasons with knee-knack, returning in the 2006-07 season for one last hurrah of 32 games and 11 goals, but there was more knee-konk-outage and his last game was a losing FA Cup final to Chelsea.

His international career had seen him play 67 times for Norway and score 23 goals.

From 2008-10 he looked after Manchester United’s reserves winning a couple of cups and a couple of league titles in doing so. From there he took over Molde, won a couple of league titles and a cup from 2010-14.

There was a nine-month interlude at Cardiff City which went terribly. They got relegated and for some reason he was kept on until September, by which time, things hadn’t got any better, and was given the tin tack. Then it was back to Molde for three more years, getting them up to second in the league. And there he would likely still be. His contract ran until 2021 when United turned up on the doorstep looking sheepish and asking if he’d fancy being the caretaker manager after Jose Mourinho had made the whole club smell very bad indeed.

He said he would for the rest of the 2018-19 season, promptly won his first eight in charge and won Manager of the Month. They lost 2-0 at home then won 3-1 away at PSG in the Champions League making them the first team in the history of the European Cup to advance after losing the first leg at home by two goals or more. Having won 14 of 19 games in charge, he got the job full-time.

Then it all turned brown for a while, then got better, then worse again, then better, then worse, then better, then worse with a 6-1 hammering by Daniel Levy’s circus of horrors, Spurs, but then much better as they finished second last year and had started playing attractive football again.

He goes into the new campaign with an already expensive, highly-talented squad boosted by the arrival of Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho and he signed a contract extension to 2024. Everything is finally coming up Ole.


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Why the love?
As a player he was lovable for many reasons. He scored important goals, none more so than in that Champions League final. He came off the bench and regularly made a big impact – easily the most dramatic way to do it. He holds the record for the most goals scored for Manchester United as a substitute: 28. He played for United for 11 years – a long time in the modern game – and never complained about being sub, instead working out how to be the best at the role.

When he did make it onto the pitch, he had great sense for which position to adopt, finding space where possible. He studied the defence from the sidelines before getting on the pitch, this may have been part of his success; he’d sussed out where weaknesses lay. That was his greatest asset along with a finisher’s unnerving instinct in front of goal. There was a feeling that this was best achieved later in the game when everyone was tiring. Hence his use as a sub. When he started the game, it rarely seemed to go as well for him.

Then there was the fact that he didn’t seem to age and always looked like a wide-eyed cute wee boy, which was endearing.

His tenure as manager really is one of the most peculiar in modern top-flight history because it confounds so many of the assumed wisdoms about football held too tightly as truths by too many of us. A club legend being parachuted in rarely works, let alone one who hadn’t managed at anywhere near this level before. He’s been accused of being too soft, of being an over-promoted PE teacher, of being a lackey for the owners, of being lucky, of being in charge of a group of excellent players who would do well anyway, of just lacking basic ability.

Equally, he’s been praised for engineering a great team spirit, of being tactically much more flexible and knowledgeable than he’s often given credit for and praised for restoring the club to centre stage of English and European football after the best part of a decade in the wilderness under the tutelage of a couple of previously very successful managers and David Moyes.

Even now, three years in, there is widespread doubt about his abilities. No-one who is any good gets beaten 6-1 at home by Levy’s modern day Fred Carno’s Army (one for the kids there) He seems to be forever three poor results away from the sack, but when those three poor results arrive, he doesn’t get sacked then goes on a long unbeaten run which suggests he’s actually rather good, before losing a couple and the cycle starts all over again

With Manchester United being one of the Earth’s biggest football clubs, everyone has a view. For the neutral it has been equally entertaining seeing both sides of the argument getting overheated about the pros and cons of their standpoint, neither able to make their view stand up for long before something happens to contradict it. The truth is, football is chaos, and will not surrender to simplistic notions for long.

There will come a point where the money has been spent and the results must produce a trophy or two. Or so you would think. An alternative view is that the club are happy to be found in the top four and continue to rake in the Champions League money. As long as he does that, it’s better to have a club legend in charge for morale and general good vibes.

There is no doubt that he is a nice fella and very much the beta male. This counts for him and against him, depending on how you view such character traits. However, this isn’t to say he doesn’t have inner steel. Being the boss of Manchester United isn’t like running your local play group. It takes real bottle. Just look at how an experienced manager like David Moyes was terrified by the role, often bearing the expression of a man who was peering into the bowels of hell.  Ole isn’t like that and hasn’t fallen into that trap. While there was initially too much talk of ‘This Is Manchester United’ and DNA etc etc, he’s definitely grown into the role and I personally love that about anyone. There’s no reason to assume someone will take on a job that is pretty much unique and assume they’ll know how to do it from day one. Growing on the job is an asset, not a weakness.

The club tried appointing so-called elite managers and it was something between OK and a disaster. Even when winning, it felt like it was all very fragile and without structure and vision a thin Greatest Hits compilation rather than a fully realised concept album. It has taken a long time to undo a lot of previous mistakes both in the boardroom, in the dugout and on the pitch.

But while the club is still well capable of finding a bucket with both feet (see European Super League debacle). Ole has done a clever job of dancing his way through the booby traps and now with two high profile and excellent signings, look set to really take a shot at the title.

I hope he succeeds, if only to prick all the ridiculous ‘not an elite manager’ and ‘not top class’ nonsense which has become a mind-in-natural default for some, but which bears very little scrutiny and holds little water. What truth it does reveal is only ever in hindsight, is no predictor of success and doesn’t allow for the many variables that are always in play at a club, a club the size of United especially so.


What the people say
The fact people like Ole goes a long way, and so it should. He is a direct connection to many people’s happy days and that explains partly why so many are keen to defend him and be on his side, I think. There’s also a feeling that any problems United have are caused by the club’s owners and officials rather than by the manager. It’s certainly true that they’ve made an almighty bollocks of things at times and wasted many millions of pounds on poor or inappropriate players. None of this is anything to do with Ole. So plenty of positivity poured in…

– He’s got a lovely smile. A ray of sunshine.

– The man has brought hope back to MUFC for the first time in years. Was a great player and hopefully will go on to prove himself in the management game.

– ‘This clawb’ I love his Norwegian Manc accent.

– He is just very nice person. not usual in current football.

– Probably lucky to get the Man U job, but who wouldn’t take it if offered? Making the most of the opportunity and living his best life.

– An underrated player – his finishing skills were evident but showed his overall ability in 2003 when moved to the right wing to cover for an injured Beckham & subsequently became first choice in that position for big games.

– As a manager, he probably isn’t ‘top top class’, but has turned into the best managerial appointment since Fergie left – the team is generally more enjoyable to watch & there’s a sense that he is building something more substantial/ sustainable that any other post-SAF incumbent

– “And Solskjaer has won it” still sends shivers down my spine every time I hear it.

– No wanky goal celebrations, just a brief handshake and back to the half way to try and get another. Always loved that.

– Pre-planned goal celebrations are a cancer on the game akin to VAR. Much cooler are uninhibited goal celebrations but perhaps even cooler than that was Solskjær.

– Playing on the right wing for a season and still being bloody brilliant would be my only hot take.

– As a manager he’s the best ever argument against the notion that ‘knowing the club’ isn’t just a bunch of Lampardian nonsense. Has United being enjoyable to watch for the first time since Ferguson retired, even if he’ll never quite shake the perception that he’s not good enough.

– As a player, his supersub reputation masks a huge contribution both as an excellent finisher, and a versatile hard worker. But if you come off the bench to score the most significant goal in the history of one of the world’s biggest clubs, it’s not a terrible legacy, is it?


Three great moments
Early promise from the young striker…


Off the bench to score 4 (four)!


THAT game, and those final two goals. And Clive. Never forget Clive…


Future days
The debate will continue. Is he really good, good, not very good, average, really poor or awful? Has he done anything? Is the success all down to the players, or has he done loads and made the best out of what he’s been given? The bigotry both against and for Manchester United guarantees there will never be a settled view and the armed camps will keep on squabbling. Finishing second, five points ahead of third but 12 off the winners, offers both a supportive argument.

This looks set to be a big season for United with a fantastic strikeforce, a strengthened defence and some creativity in midfield, they’re only a Declan Rice away from being a hugely powerful force, and the push is on to go one better than last year’s second place finish.

One thing that Ole’s performance so far tells us is that whatever any of us think, good, bad or indifferent, is irrelevant to how he goes about the job. There will continue to be doubters and there will continue to be supporters, neither wants to be proven wrong and somehow neither have. It really is a fascinating conundrum and one that for people like me who don’t mind either way, it will provide a season-long soap opera as each side turns itself inside out trying to prove itself to be right. So much has been invested by both in the validity of their viewpoint, how one or both excuse and rationalise the error of their ways will be eternally fascinating.

It’s nice to have a manager of a very big club who isn’t a scowling venom-spitting viper. There is nothing wrong with being a decent chap and no-one should be vilified or have the pish taken out of them for it. We could all do with some more civil decency in our lives and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer provides it.

If he does win the title in the next couple of years, he won’t be dislodged from his position for a long time. Turning around United is like trying to move that massive boat that blocked the Suez Canal, or like shifting a giant compacted stool from football’s colon. It takes time, effort, patience and a lot of heaving. It’s a big job, but someone’s gotta do it. Maybe that man really is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer … or, then again, maybe it’s not.