Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s initial success as Manchester United manager has its origins in plenty of different factors and circumstances. The percentage which can be attributed to each of those can be debated.
What is undeniable, though, is that somewhere in the mix is the profound emotional connection he has with the club and its supporters, a common ground created by Solskjaer’s remarkable playing career at Old Trafford, a career which saw him make the journey from unknown to cult hero to club legend.
In the summer of 1996, United were riding high. Having overhauled Newcastle United’s lead at the top of the Premier League and beaten the Spice Boys of Liverpool in the FA Cup final at the end of the previous season, they were reigning double holders.
Alex Ferguson, as was his wont, decided to strengthen the side while they were on top, adding top level quality in Ronny Johnsen and squad depth in the form of Jordi Cruyff and Karel Poborsky. In addition, he decided to take a punt on a 23 year old who had already scored 41 goals in 54 appearances for Molde, a club in Norway’s top flight.
In Ferguson’s 1997 book “A Will To Win, The Manager’s Diary,” he wrote “We had been watching him for some time at Molde in Norway, and monitored all his international matches when he was suddenly thrust into the Norwegian national team. Les Kershaw, our chief scout, watched him and the last report was from – then reserve team coach – Jim Ryan. Jimmy saw him score twice and came home with the message – just sign him, you can’t miss with this one. So we got him for £1.5m”.
In 2008, Ferguson said he had initially signed Solskjaer as a prospect for the future and he started in the reserves. “But after two games,” said Ferguson, “Jim Ryan said I needed to put him in the first team. We made him a substitute against Blackburn the following week. He scored and was never out of the first-team squad after that.”
What a debut it was. As Ferguson wrote, “The Norwegian’s first goal sounds the bell that there is another player coming to Old Trafford who is going to be a real star. He amazes me.”
Rather than one for the future, Solskjaer would be United’s top scorer in 1996/97 with 18 league goals and one in the Champions League. During a reserve game with Liverpool, Andy Cole suffered two broken legs as a result of a Neil Ruddock tackle, and his absence allowed Solskjaer to occupy the spot he did, but he made the best of it, forming an effective partnership with United’s main man, Eric Cantona.
The summer of 1997 saw that partnership come to an end with Cantona’s retirement. Teddy Sheringham arrived and the Norwegian found himself second choice to a partnership of Sheringham and Cole. He made the best of it, scoring 9 goals from 19 starts and 11 substitute appearances in all competitions, as United failed to defend the Premier League title thanks to Arsene Wenger’s resurgent Arsenal.
Better lay ahead, although the signing of Dwight Yorke in the summer of 1998 may have caused some consternation for the Norwegian. There were now three other players vying for the same spot and Yorke and Cole established themselves as the first-choice partnership. However, while Yorke, Cole and Sheringham are inextricably linked with the 1999 treble, no player is more inseparable from it than the man who finished the job.
The Champions League final was not the only crucial late winner he scored on the way to the treble. Long before Bayern Munich in Europe came Liverpool in the FA Cup fourth round. Behind at Old Trafford from the second minute of the tie thanks to a Michael Owen goal, United fought hard, finally equalising through Yorke in the 88th minute. In injury time, as the BBC reported at the time “Paul Scholes burst into the box, and laid the ball to Solskjaer, who provided the killing blow with a low left-foot shot past James.”
It was more than just another goal. It was a goal which established the never-say-die spirit of that ’99 side, and a goal which foreshadowed the single most important goal in the club’s history.
Around two weeks after beating Liverpool, United travelled to Nottingham Forest for a routine Premier League fixture. As was often the case, Solskjaer found himself on the bench. In the 72nd minute, with his side 4-1 up after a brace each from Yorke and Cole, Ferguson decided to make a double substitution, bringing on John Curtis for Roy Keane and Solskjaer for Yorke. By the time Paul Alcock blew his whistle at full time, the score was 8-1. The Norwegian super sub had scored four goals in his 20 minutes on the pitch, all of them after the 80th minute. “I thought the finishing was magnificent,” purred Sir Alex. “Solskjaer was amazing.”
He certainly was.
He started the FA Cup final as already-league-champions United wrapped up phase two of the treble. He didn’t start the Champions League final, though, and at half time, with United trailing both in scoreline and on the balance of play to Bayern Munich, Ferguson spent a good deal of time speaking to Teddy Sheringham, who was also his first choice of substitute, coming on for Jesper Blomqvist in the 67th minute. Solskjaer has spoken about how fired up he was by this, wondering why his manager hadn’t spoken to him and keen to prove him wrong. In the 81st minute, he got his wish, coming on for Andy Cole. In spite of Bayern having dominated most of the game, Sheringham equalised a minute into injury time from a David Beckham corner. Three minutes into injury time, from another Beckham corner, Solskjaer won it. prodding in at the far post to shatter Munich.
He continued to be a vital rotation option in the seasons which followed, perennially linked with a move away, to Tottenham Hotspur in particular, but always happy to be at United, always contributing. In a surprising development, a player known as a fox-in-the-box poacher had a long run in the side on the right of midfield, replacing a first-injured-then-sold-to-Real-Madrid Beckham in that role. Indeed in 2002/03 he made 40 starts in all competitions playing mainly in that position, the most of any of his seasons at the club.
Sadly in September 2003, he sustained a serious knee injury playing against Panathanaikos in the Champions League. He made it back for the end of the season, featuring in the FA Cup final, but in the summer of 04 had an operation which kept him out for the whole of the following season, and most of the one after. All in, he battled the injury for almost three years.
There was a final act, though. In 2006/07, he made 15 starts and 17 substitute appearances in all competitions, scoring 11 goals.
The most memorable of those was the first. On the 23rd of August 2006, having missed the vast majority of three seasons, Solskjaer came off the bench against Charlton Athletic at The Valley in the 82nd minute. It was his first Premier League goal in three years.
He celebrated by bowing in thanks to the away support, a gesture of appreciation for the backing he had received throughout his injury. The away support, of course, bowed back. The fans appreciated the player at least as much as he did them. Whatever struggles and whatever success he goes on to have as manager, he knows his name is written in United folklore for good.