Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is more than just a super sub; he’s a super guy and Manchester United legend
- The Norwegian was the only player who gave Peter Schmeichel problems during training
- He would study opponents while on the bench, ready to torment them once he was brought on
The Ole Gunnar Solskjaer love-in will continue among Manchester United fans for as long as his team play well. There’s relief from fans – 80 per cent of whom, according to one poll, wanted Jose Mourinho out in the week before he went.
Solskjaer is a club legend at United. Not quite a top level hero who’d be considered for a statue like Edwards, Law, Best, Charlton, Giggs, Robson, Cantona or Keane, but in the highly esteemed tier below.
Diego Forlan, another former United striker, is clear how important Solskjaer, who was not a regular starter, was. “He played in that great United team which won treble in 1999, with Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham in attack,” said Forlan.
“Four strikers playing for two places and all four were needed throughout the season. If one combination wasn’t working then there was always other options.”
It was Solskjaer, signed in the summer of 1996 after United lost out on Alan Shearer, who scored the near-miraculous treble-winning goal in Barcelona. Yet he was almost unknown when he arrived at Old Trafford as one of five foreign signings in the summer of 1996 alongside Ronny Johnsen, Jordi Cruyff, Karel Poborsky and Raimond Van Der Gouw.
United paid Norwegian club Molde £1.6 million – and the response was initially underwhelming. Some players actually thought he was a competition winner who’d won a prize to play with the team.
“I didn’t think he was old enough to play for Manchester United,” remembers Cole. “I thought he was about 15. But what a finisher. His impact from the bench was phenomenal. He’d get crucial goals – goals which would make him a United legend.”
“The only player who would consistently score in training past Peter Schmeichel was Solskjaer,” Cruyff, another ex-teammate, recalls. “He was like a player in a computer game and would hit every shot with incredible accuracy. Solskjaer was Schmeichel’s nightmare.”
The childhood Liverpool fan spent 11 years at United and scored 126 goals – one fewer than Brian McClair and one more than Cole.
His appeal reached where others could not. John Taylor is one of the main Cockney Reds – United fans from London – and went to every single United game home and away including friendlies.
He wasn’t one for wearing club colours or asking for autographs, until he found out I was spending time with Solskjaer to write his website with him.
One-to-one Solskjaer is as nice as his public persona, but he also had a far better understanding of fan culture than most footballers and knew about United’s fanzines and supporter groups.
John asked if I could get him to sign a picture of his goal in Barcelona with the message “Who put the ball in the Germans’ net?”
Ole Gunnar smiled when I asked him, but said it was disrespectful to write that, adding instead: “To John, I hope you enjoyed this moment as much as me.” Far better and a measure of the man himself.
“I’m delighted that Ole Gunnar has legendary status among United fans,” fellow Scandinavian and United teammate Jesper Blomqvist later told me. “He had several offers to leave United and earn money and a guarantee of playing every week elsewhere, but always chose to stay put.”
Blomqvist and Solskjaer were good friends. They both suffered extensively with articular cartilage problems and spent too much time on the bench.
Forlan also warmed the bench with Solskjaer on several occasions. “A good substitute can change a game as Ole Gunnar regularly did for United. We’d sit together on the bench and he’d study the opponents he knew he was coming up against later in the game. It served him well.
“I was sad for him later in his career when I felt he should be starting games but he was either not picked or injured.”
That goal in Barcelona will forever be Solskjaer’s playing highlight, when he came on the pitch for Cole after 81 minutes. “Ole and Teddy did it for us, no question,” said Cole.
Solskjaer also played a role in United signing Cristiano Ronaldo. “Roy Keane and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer were the most vocal in the dressing room,” Forlan reveals.
“They told Sir Alex Ferguson that he had to sign the young Portuguese kid. Even John O’Shea, who’d had a night he wanted to forget against him, agreed.”
And how about this, from a conversation I had with another Norwegian striker, Jan Age Fjortoft, in 2011, when Solskjaer was being praised for taking Molde to the first of their two league titles.
“What’s most impressive is that he’s hardly spent any money at Molde and hasn’t made major changes at all. He took over a team which did well in 2009, but had then struggled in 2010 until they were saved from relegation by [former Man City striker] Uwe Rosler.
“Ole Gunnar also lost one of his best strikers to Copenhagen so he’s done a remarkable job and his team play good football.
“Ole Gunnar was a sub when I was in the national team and he told me that he would watch me closely to see how I played,” Fjortoft explained. “I thought he was taking the mickey out of me like footballers do, but he was serious and always wanting to learn.
“I think that Ole Gunnar will manage Manchester United in the future. I don’t think he will replace Sir Alex Ferguson, but he’ll manage later on because he has the United spirit, the link with the club and the popularity with the club’s supporters.”
Those supporters will not get carried away, but his appointment has certainly lifted the mood around Old Trafford and Carrington as, in the words of the song which United fans have resurrected, he makes people happy when skies are grey.