Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: Charming, bashful, the right fit…

Date published: Friday 8th February 2019 1:01

This week, Johnny’s positive look at our managers and how they perform on telly and radio arrives at everyone’s favourite twinkly-eyed Norwegian. That’ll be Ole Gunnar Solskjær, then…

 

Who are ya?
Started his professional career at Clausenengen FK in Kristiansund for whom he scored 115 goals in 109 games, which is really rather good. Moved on to Molde and notched 31 in 42 before Manchester United came calling. Would they buy a striker from Molde now, I wonder? Certainly not for a mere £1.5 million. Buying players for a relatively low fee is routinely called ‘lack of ambition’ in these insane days where the higher the number, the better the player surely must be.

Set the pattern for his stellar career at United by scoring six minutes into his debut as a substitute against Blackburn Rovers on 25 August 1996. And it was a typical Solskjaer strike. Sent through on goal, he took one touch, had a powerful shot, had it saved and buried the rebound. Cool and calm as you like.

You can watch all his goals here  and they make for a wonderful half-hour. He’s just so bloody cool in front of goal. Because he was in such a brilliant side, maybe he was a tad under-rated as a finisher. Seeing these now, it strikes me he’s as good as anyone around today, if not better. And I must say how great it is to see those United sides again. It leaves me with the feeling that United in 98/99 especially would still win the league in 2019. A perfect blend of mental strength, robust physicality and outrageous skill.

He also scored in the first game he started. Across 11 years he scored 91 in 235 appearances, as well as 23 for his country. Throughout that career, can reasonably said to be have been a scorer of really important goals, none more so than the one to win the Champions League in 1999, a moment that has become iconic not just in United’s history but European football more broadly. “And Solskjær has won it!!” screamed Clive. “Bayern don’t know what’s hit them, Manchester’s hit them!” screamed Alan Green. Lord, what a moment that was.

And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer fella, could it? Blessed with an easy-going, unruffled temperament which did not betray the inner steel that he certainly possessed. To be able to so routinely come off the bench and score a winner or a crucial equaliser was not mere luck. He kept his concentration and his focus while on the bench, keeping his powder dry, ready to pounce when, even with just minutes to go, he was brought on.

The perfect super sub, he obviously stayed so long because he loved the role he was given. It was no more or less important than any of the first team regular. Big stars were made, came and went from Old Trafford but Ole stayed and stayed and in doing so made himself the stuff of legend. Eleven years a player, four years a coach, the Baby-faced Assassin nickname as on the money on his last day as his first.

He is one of those chaps who, when 18, looked 12. Well into his late 30s he still appeared to be about 22. And now, about to turn 46, he could pass for 29. Slightly curled fair hair, now turning to grey and white, is the only sign of the passing years taking any toll. If the eyes are the gateway to the soul, Ole’s soul must be very nice because he’s got lovely eyes, as frost blue as a winter sky, they’re set in a face which finds it easy to smile and, in exactly the same way he played the game, always seems unfussed and unfazed, always calm.

Not for Ole celebrating goals with a too-cool-for-school frown, fingers to lips, no daft hand jives or corner flag erotic dancing that other more ostentatious strikers might indulge in. No, Ole was just very happy to have scored, really, really bloody happy and his unpretentious joy was shared by the rest of us. The classic photo of him, on his knees, arm out wide after scoring the Champions League winner his face set in surprise, delight and wonder, must still give many the feels today. It is cheering to the soul, certainly.

 

Cunning linguist?
Like many a handy Scandy, he speaks fluent, flawless English, now with a splendid Mancunian twang. If not quite the full “you’re twistin’ my melon man…call the cops” Shaun Ryder, he nonetheless could pass for someone from Sale. Given that our accents are usually set in our childhood, the fact he talks like this is all the more remarkable and he’s not the first from Scandinavia to thoroughly adopt their club’s local accent. It always endears them to a certain English mentality that likes people who make an effort to absorb the local ways and fears foreigners who don’t.

His whole approach seems to be open, thoughtful and honest. He’s careful not to give too many hostages to fortune and is always keen to say he and Mike are only there to until the summer. This means he comes across a little like a replacement teacher who the kids think is cool. If there is any pressure on him, or if he feels any pressure, he doesn’t betray it at all. After the witless, not to say, pointless, machinations of his predecessor, it really does feel like having a human in charge. There has been a tangible relief about this from broadcasters’ interviewers, press people and obviously the players.

He does have some speech idiosyncrasies. ‘Discussions’ becomes ‘Discooshuns’, ‘developing’ is ‘devellopink’, but he’s definitely got a Mancunian ‘u’ – deep and guttural.

When he talks in press conferences, he has a charming habit of looking rather bashful, his eyebrows raised and smiling broadly, nodding enthusiastically, the way a 15-year-old boy might if his girlfriend pulled off her top. Next time you see him, just imagine that scenario. It totally works.

It is unusual to the point of unique to see a manager at this or any other level actually look a bit embarrassed at being successful. But that’s what he does. There is definitely a little of the fan-in-the-dug-out about him but he’s never overwhelmed by it, never awestruck and just naturally knows how to hit the unique Manchester United groove. He knows what to day. How to act. What is right and wrong for the club. None of his predecessors knew how to do that. He does and it is innate to him, not an act or a calculation. It is perhaps his biggest asset. More charming still is the lack of self-aggrandisement, the lack of ego and self-regard. We can all think of managers who virtually choke on their own false modesty and can’t wait to tell us all how great they are and how their critics are full of ‘false lies’ (seemingly unaware that a false lie is surely a truth) Ole remains very classy, perhaps aware that today’s hero is tomorrow’s zero in modern-day football.

 

Media hit or miss?
A huge hit. Of course he is. The story is an irresistible one of the great player returning to the club and doing really well at a globally huge outfit. On top of that, he’s personable, friendly and charming. The fact he seems to know what he’s doing and the players totally love playing for him makes him look like a hero. It also plays well to the simplistic tabloid outlook on a complicated world which says never mind all the footballing poindexters and swots, just get in a great ex-player. Because that always works, doesn’t it? It also allows the brain-in-neutral crowd and owners of the football hive mind to say for the millionth time ‘he knows the club inside and out’ as though it means anything at all, and it allows them to feel like yes, they really do know what they’re talking about and are not just spouting cliches, mistaking their over-familiarity for obvious wisdom.

Sometimes it does feel as though there is a section of the media that wants him to get the job full-time, not for any hard football reasons, but because they want to stick it to those people who think appointing what they consider far more obscure, hipster foreigners like Ralph Hasenhüttl is a good idea.

Of course, the reality is that there are no generalisations to be made about such matters. It’s all a case of individuals and horses for courses. OGS might be ideal for United but it doesn’t therefore follow that Spurs next manager should be Steffen Freund.

 

Proper Football Man Rating: N/A machine still broken after blowing up trying to rate Klopp last week. You can’t get the parts these days, mate and someone seems to have put dog muck in it.
Tricky one for the boys this. They love an ex-player getting a big job because they all played the game and therefore could easily do exactly as well as Ole has. Any of them. Easily. Especially the British ex-players, because they know the club, y’see. They could’ve gone in and done a job. No problem. Because they’ve played the game, so it was obvious what needed to be done and they definitely, definitely could’ve gone in there and done as a good a job as Ole. And did I mention that they know the club?

Ole isn’t really a foreign either, not a Proper Foreign anyway like someone from somewhere they can’t find on the map. And he’s called Ollie. That’s an English name, Jeff. Having formed their opinion of Scandinavians via Confessions of a… movies in the 1970s, yer PFM is a big fan of saunas and au pairs and all things blonde.

But the problem is, Ole is being successful by being a positive, upbeat lovely chap. And the PFM hates that. He knows any decent manager worth his non-brewed condiment is an absolute swine and able to literally beat good performances out of player with his bare hands and you can both bring your dinner because you’re going to need it. That’s what players respect.

The fact that OGS has won nine out of ten games proves to the PFM that anyone can be a great manager and the only reason he hasn’t got a big job himself is because everyone is biased against Englishmen.

By now, they’re all a bit confused. But one thing they do know is the OGS isn’t one of the boys and won’t be found coming out of a northwest casino called Big Wangs with Ms Bolt Thrower and Welding Torch Red Hot Rear of the Year 1981, nor up for drinking some of Reidy’s patented digestive acid and advocaat smoothies served from a dead beaver’s gallbladder. And if the boys can’t trust a man not to go home to his wife before he loses his underpants, they can’t be his friend and, at the end of the day Jeff, you’ve got to say, United have gone foreign.

 

What the people say
Obviously United fans were always going to respond positively to my request for comments on the fella but what was interesting was how much it is his demeanour and attitude which drew their admiration. In an era where everyone talks ‘projects’ and ‘philosophy’, when the guts and glory of football has been sliced and diced down to so much statistical data, he’s projected none of that at all and seems to have pretty much just said, “you’re all great players, go out and play great” in the way legendary managers like Bob Paisley used to do. And so they have. It is so old fashioned that it feels very modern and intelligent.

‘A breath of fresh air that the club has desperately needed since the end of the Moyes brief period. Instead of the cold sterile play of LVD and Jose he’s given free reign to players who can play with panache in the “United way” but appeared scared to.’

‘Has a refreshing honesty & an easy rapport with the press. The Manc/Norse accent is a bonus. Seems to be living his dream and determined to make it a reality. Long may that continue.’

‘Long term at United he can name his price if the paying faithful are to be heard. The test will be when the drop in form, inevitable at some point and how he copes, especially if the media love-in he currently enjoys starts asking the wrong questions.’

‘He’s Bez, isn’t he? Not needing to do much, but definitely bringing the party vibe amongst all the strife. This is very much meant to be a compliment.’

‘It’s great to see a manager who is so genuinely happy to be managing a club. Like Klopp he is one of those people who it is hard not to like’

‘When he said in January over the short term job at Old Trafford that you have to ‘enjoy it’. Sometimes it’s just that simple.’

‘When Molde were playing HibernianFC earlier this season, he was always very respectful of the club and Neil Lennon. Walked off the pitch from our home tie clapping the home fans as well. Seems a decent sort.’

‘Has that marvellous Scandinavian trait of adopting the local accent when speaking English.’

‘The fact he’s pissing off Paul Ince immensely is reason alone to like him. Was the only Utd player from that era I had any time for due to not being a ref-hassling egotistical arse.’

‘Like an enthusiastic puppy, he’s loving the opportunity that he’s been given and comes across in interviews as the complete antithesis of his predecessor. Has the knack of saying exactly the right thing to enthuse the fans.’

‘The first Manchester United manager since Dave Sexton whom one can actually like.’

‘He has the sense to enjoy the job rather than be overawed by the role. He buys into the clubs ethos and vision. He’s exactly what the club needed – a Norwegian balm to a Portuguese burn.

‘His Scandi-Mancunian is almost as endearing as Jan Molby’s Scandi-Scouse.

‘A breath of fresh air. Someone who knows how to articulate what the fans are thinking without coming off as a suck up.’

 

How long has he got?
We live in a weird world. The orthodoxy right now is that a top club has to employ a ‘top’ manager. In other words, a manager that has already got a CV with lots of impressive trophies on. Not to do that is foolish, as David Moyes proved, so it goes. So how come Manchester United have won nine out of ten under a manager who isn’t supposed to be that good? Perhaps it is proof that some good sense, a good coach and a squad of world class internationals really just need to be psychologically nursed to perform. I hope this is the case because the idea that All We Need Is Love, very much appeals to me. OGS is one of the good guys and for too long in too many areas of society we’ve been sold the idea that the ruthless bastard or the over privileged ends up on top, to the detriment of the rest of us.

However, the feeling that the people who run United are over-promoted and don’t really know what they’re doing, is very tempting and the feeling that they want what’s best for themselves rather than the club, equally alluring and that doesn’t bode well.

They know if they stick with OGS and results drop off they’ll get it in the neck for not getting an experienced ‘winner’ in, but if they dump the Norwegian in favour of a big name, and results are not significantly better (and how could they be just now?) then they’ll look like they don’t know what they’re doing (which they obviously don’t) Either way it’s a gamble. But if it was down to me, why not go with the guy that makes everyone feel good? Feeling good is good and those who have the ability to deliver that are rare. You got lucky and found the right man for the right job. Just go with it. After all, we all win when the nice guy wins. And that’s most certainly what Ole Gunnar Solskjær is.

 

John Nicholson


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