THERE IS AN old Norwegian proverb that goes something along the lines of ‘A friend is known in need, like gold is known in fire’, and it’s hard not to imagine that it wasn’t coined with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer very much in mind.
Many famous names have entertained the fans in front of the Stretford End since Manchester United was first formed; players like Sir Bobby Charlton, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney and many more besides. The list is a who’s who of some of football’s most recognisable names and it serves as a regular reminder of just how infatuating their football has so often been.
Every generation has its heroes and so many of these stars have been described as the beating heart of the club. While it might be a bit of a stretch to use the same tired metaphor for Solskjaer, it’s definitely not inaccurate to describe him as one of the primary arteries that helped keep them going through good times and tough.
Throughout his time in the north-west of England, the Norway international bagged as many as 126 goals in all competitions – a tidy sum of strikes that reflects nicely on the work and effort he put in for the team. Nobody is going to remember him as the most prolific goalscorer of all time, but to be fair to him he often wasn’t given the minutes to aim for that objective under Sir Alex Ferguson. Because of his adept ability at popping up at crucial moments to score important goals, Fergie inevitably wound up saving the natural-born winner for the special moments.
In many ways, then, Solskjaer was the ace in the hole that became reserved for the key moments; a player who was often used sparingly, but super-effectively.
It can’t have been an easy role to become accustomed to. For so many of the game’s best-paid combatants, the bench represents frustration, confinement and stagnation, but the Norway international turned those preconceptions on their heads and learned how to embrace his fate.
Getting back to that proverb, the ‘baby-faced assassin’ truly did become a comrade in arms for the 13-time Premier League champions. Viewed as a genuine hero of the club, he was a source of genuine optimism for the fans. When the going got tough, he plastered on his warpaint and knuckled down to serve up important goals time after time. When they required his services, he was more than happy to answer the call and, more often than not, he didn’t let them down – something his gob-smacking 29 goals as a substitute clearly confirms.
He was nothing short of a miracle worker, and during his 11 years as a player with the club, he more than earned a reputation as one of the most reliable performers the game has ever seen. Significantly, he knew when to bide his time on the bench and if he ever threw a strop for not getting selected in the starting line-up more often, we’ve certainly not heard of it.
Beginning his career in his native Norway, Solskjaer started his trek to stardom with small-town outfit Clausenengen, setting in motion a journey that would one day see him reach the highest peaks of club football.
However, in the cold, unflattering, light of day, there can’t have been many scouts who would have tipped him for greatness when he started out with the amateur side back in the early-1990s. He didn’t come from a family of footballers (his father was actually a professional wrestler) and there was little about his meagre frame that promised brilliance but, as it would soon transpire, this was merely the start of a personal trend of defying expectation that he would keep with him for the remainder of his goal-laden path.
Football is a gamble for even the most naturally gifted of player but as a teenager he managed to learn how to thrive on what came his way better than even he himself could possibly have imagined; a trait he quickly learned how to master and call upon on cue as his simple love for rustling the net grew into an instinctive gut reaction.
It’s widely believed that he collected 115 goals with the lower-league side in 109 appearances, a breath-taking return that rightfully earned him the chance, in 1994, to impress at Molde in the Norwegian top flight, the club that really gave him the platform to shine as he bagged 31 goals in 42 matches.
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At the time, the former Norway international was a nobody in world football and even after he was eventually snapped up by Sir Alex Ferguson in 1996 for a mere £1.5 million there was still a lot the fans and pundits didn’t know about him.
If anybody had done a little digging they would have seen his impressive rate of return, but he was far from the household name United fans had come to expect at the club, and while he had promise, there was no real expectation placed on his shoulders.
Minimal fuss was caused upon his arrival, but things would soon change as he began his career with the Red Devils as he meant to continue it – by coming off the bench to score a goal on his debut.
It had been all about Alan Shearer during the summer of 1996. Transfer rumours swirled around with more gusto than a blustery British breeze, newspapers printed speculation of an imminent move away from Blackburn Rovers with more rapidity than people could read them and two gigantic clubs engaged in a silent battle to win one of England’s most sought-after talents.
It was a captivating clash of characters between wannabe champions and veritable victors. A titanic tug of war raged on for weeks as public opinion swayed from one preference to the other, back and forth. There was mystery, intrigue and apprehension at every twist and turn of the saga.
In the end, of course, Shearer wound up joining the Magpies but it was what happened next that furrowed more than a few brows as Ferguson turned his attentions to the relatively unknown potential of Solskjaer.
When the fuss eventually died down surrounding the destination of the player who would go on to become the Premier League’s top-scorer of all time, United fans quickly realised they had hit the jackpot with the arrival of their mystery marksman, and although some greedy fans could ruminate over the multitude of scenarios that could have played out had they got their number one choice instead, the romantics know all too well just how kind the football gods had been to them in reality.
Making his first appearance against Blackburn Rovers, he set a trend in motion by coming off the bench to replace David May to score as United secured a valuable point. His debut season saw him rack up as many as 18 league goals, becoming the club’s top scorer in the process as his team secured the Premier League title. It was a whirlwind start to life in the big leagues and if the fans hadn’t known much about him before his arrival, they were quickly singing his praises as the confetti settled on another trophy win.
Bouts of injuries were an unwanted characteristic of his career and as a result he was forced to miss a few months’ action in the 1997-98 campaign as well as towards the tail-end of his stint, but he was always amongst the goals when fit and it was for this reason that Ferguson kept faith with him and made sure he held on to him for as long as he could.
A number of classic examples stick out but it’s undoubtedly his famous winner deep into stoppage time of the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich that is most fondly recalled by United fans.
Despite the fact it was such a gargantuan goal that immortalised him in club folklore, it was typical of the man and it was what he had been doing season after season for the Red Devils ever since he had joined. For him, it was time to shine as a sub yet again. Unperturbed by the size of the task facing him, he was there to do his duty and he did it to perfection.
It was a goal made for him and it was a chance only he could have taken.
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If it had been written in the stars, he had read it the night before and he was ready for his moment. His own words on the build-up to that special few minutes tells us pretty much everything about it, the sort of player Solskjaer was and how his quiet confidence meant he was always ready to dive in and help get his teammates out of a tricky situation.
“In the second half, I was just waiting for him to give me the nod. I was warming up and warming up, waiting and waiting to catch his eye. I was thinking: ‘Why don’t you put me on?’ because I had come on and scored against Liverpool and Nottingham Forest [four times in 18 minutes] and I had a premonition I was going to do something that night.”
It was a match they needed to win, not just because it would become an integral part of their famous treble-winning foundations but because they were pitted face-to-face against one of their oldest and most bitter of rivals: Liverpool.
It’s a fascinating feud that has long epitomised the frankness and physicality of British football. Nowadays the spectacle that’s televised is a bastardised version in many ways, more associated with pride than an obstacle to silverware due to the waning influence of both clubs, but there is little doubt it will one day return to its roots as one of the most entertaining fixtures in the football diary. It just might take a while. Until then, there’s always nostalgia.
As a spectacle during the 1990s and early-2000s, it was a collision of behemoths that always offered value on the field, and there was generally a sense of occasion in the air. January 1999 was no different, and with the 20th century entering the home stretch the fourth round of the FA Cup offered both outfits the chance to become top dogs on derby day, to get one over their nemeses and to really rub their noses in it; gentlemanly conduct was clearly out the window and a certain Norwegian striker was ready to prove his worth.
Obviously, the idea of even winning a treble was as far from their minds as Solskjaer was from nailing down a place in the starting line-up – but that didn’t matter because this was all about winning a match, a mentality that used to ensure the club rarely strayed away from the pragmatism of picking up points, navigating towards finals and scoring goals. While Old Trafford is fondly known as the Theatre of Dreams, back in the heydey of Fergie’s rule there was little room for snoozing players who relied on hope, merely space for battlers who inspired certainty as much as is humanly possible.
After seeing the Reds take a first-half lead through Michael Owen, United were forced to wait agonisingly until the last two minutes of normal time before they finally nabbed a foothold in the tie when a familiar duo combined as Andy Cole unselfishly set up Dwight Yorke to level the scores. The crowd lost itself in the moment and you can be sure more than enough of them would have been happy to force a replay at that exact moment. It was vintage United, who always seemed ready to deal a deadly blow at precisely the most unexpected moment, but the script still had a few key lines to run and like any good plot twist, this one was all set to shell-shock.
Enter Solskjaer to write the match-changing events that would arguably become the spark to ignite United’s season and alter their fate from nearly-men to immortalised icons.
With around 10 minutes to play, Ferguson made one final throw of the dice by introducing Ronny Johnsen and Solskjaer to give them a much-needed boost. What followed next really was typical of the former Molde man as he pounced to produce a quintessential super-sub finish past the despairing David James.
With a long ball pumped in the direction of Liverpool’s 18-yard box from the boot of Jaap Stam, it was more in desperation than concrete brilliance that the hosts created chaos and confusion for Gérard Houllier’s rear-guard. Paul Scholes managed to get on the end of the flying piece of leather but he couldn’t quite control it and with the ball squirting loose inside the penalty area, there was only one man to the chance.
Three touches later and Solskjaer had placed the ball neatly in the back of the net with a lovely left-footed effort that squeezed through the legs of the defender. United were on their way to the fifth round and had done so by way of a characteristic smash and grab – amazingly, it was his only goal of the tournament, but what an important one it turned out to be.
Wrapped up in all sorts of delirium, the strike was an embodiment of the sort of player he was. Always alive to an opportunity, he trusted his teammates to carry out their roles, but he supported them too. The amount of times he would smash home a rebound, reach a loose ball first or tap in a colleague’s shot that had been parried by an opposing goalkeeper was extraordinary.
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Floating in the background, waiting in the wings for his opportunity to pounce, if match day was a movie, Solskjaer was the scene-stealing extra and it was a recurring role only he could play with such facility.
United is a club that has often been at the epicentre of so many wonderful moments that have helped shape the beautiful game. For many, they have best epitomised what football is all about as they’ve struck fear into the hearts of opponents, won matches with authority and snapped up silverware with regularity.
It means different things to different people, but at its most basic, football is surely all about enjoyment and entertainment; it’s a medium of expression for the players and a source of genuine inspiration for its followers and fans. By bringing fire, heart, passion and skill to the sport, it’s little wonder the Red Devils are one of the most widely supported clubs in the world.
In the rhythm of what flows, they have generally been more than capable of keeping their heads above water – when others might have panicked at nerve-wracking moments they have often pulled through to maintain their position as a true super-power. It’s not through sheer luck or blind fortune that they’ve done so, of course, and their historic superiority.
Under the inimitable stewardship of Sir Alex Ferguson, they underlined just how special they were. Back then, they asserted their self-belief with unshakeable enterprise, whereas today they can only dream of it.
However, while the manager was the undisputed leader, their empire was expertly built in equal part thanks to a special type of player – the guys who leave their mark on the field in a tangible, visceral way and who contribute to a lot more than the 90 minutes of a football match.
So central to what excites the global game for so long, it’s ironic, then, that one of their most impactful players lived on the fringes for so much of his time in the north-west of England.
Quickly, and permanently, his moniker as the most assured of stand-ins stuck. He might have sat on the bench regularly but he most certainly wasn’t there to warm it, and there was no substitute for just how potent he could be when he was called upon by Fergie. The majority of the time, when he was summoned to take to the pitch, there was a sense of anticipation that something special was about to happen.
Solskjaer was a player who exhibited tremendous patience and control throughout his time with the club, and although he’ll be remembered as the greatest substitute to have ever pulled on the famous red jersey, what people will surely remember even more about him is that he gave them memories that will last a lifetime. Contributing just as much, if not more, to the success of the club than some of his more revered peers, he really made the most of his experience and managed to become a cult icon in the process – a measuring stick for the high standards set by the club.
In all, he netted 17 top-flight goals after coming on from the bench, which puts him alongside Nwankwo Kanu and just shy of Jermain Defoe in the Premier League standings, but he won so many more titles than either player and managed to bring his talents to the highest reaches of the continental game in the process.
As current head coach of Molde, he has already guided them to three titles and has further boosted his image as a man who always strives to do his best for the fans, the excitement of the game and its integrity.
Not much has changed since he hung up his boots back in 2007 because, while he has been retired from playing for a decade, he remains a key figure in European football.
The days of emerging from the trenches into the heat and mayhem of battle like a true war hero are well and truly gone but it shouldn’t surprise us to see him create a few more memories on his managerial journey – after all, he’s always been pretty good at making an impact from the bench.
By Trevor Murray @TrevorM90