This feature is part of Virtuoso
The instructions from coach Jim Ryan were simple: the game’s buried, take it easy, we don’t need any more goals. That was in the 72nd minute, when Ole Gunnar Solskjær entered the field of play. By the end of the game, he’d made history.
It’s safe to assume that Ryan wasn’t too well-versed in the Norwegian proverbs that parents pass onto their children, less he’d have heard these words: ‘D’er inkje greidt aa gripa aalen um sporden’ or ‘You might as well try to hold an eel by its tail’, such was the hopelessness of commanding the affectionately named “baby-faced assassin” not to score goals. Quite simply, that’s exactly what he did.
Nottingham Forest were already 4-1 down in February 1999 when the Norwegian came on, their season a spectacle with manager–cum-caricature Ron Atkinson allowing his behaviour to overshadow the club. As Solskjær walked back down the tunnel a mere 18 minutes later, it was 8-1, with every subsequent goal coming from him. There were already wounds and Solskjær was an enormous sprinkling of salt.
After opening the scoring in the second minute, unknowingly setting the tone for the rest of the game, Dwight Yorke left the field to be replaced by the super-sub, Solskjær, for the final 18 minutes. The nickname was one that he earned and one that stuck. They’re two words that remind us of so many iconic occasions, although perhaps only one ranks above this.
Though gratefully self-conscious of the compliment, he remained equally conscious not to be pigeonholed as an impact player only. Solskjær made the sidelines his laboratory, carrying out mental gymnastics in consultation with his manager to strategise how best to take on opposition defences. He astutely and studiously observed the game, pinpointing weakness in players and unearthing tactical blind spots. When the calculations were done, Ferguson would give the command and the fourth official’s board would flash to signal what was oncoming.
After being on the field for eight minutes, Solskjær opened his account, connecting with a Gary Neville low-cross at the back post. It wasn’t a highlight-reel finish, as is often the case with Solskjær, but it was his trademark. He saw their frailty and exploited it.
His second, a further eight minutes later, in the 80th minute, found him on the end of another Neville ball. This time Phil played the precise pass, beating Forest’s high offside trap, and young Norwegian was there to collect. Although his first effort was stopped, he picked up the change and managed to buy another chance. This one, naturally, he didn’t squander.
In the game’s 90th minute, Solskjær again found himself in space inside the box. A typically perfect pass from midfield stalwart Paul Scholes reached the striker who had time to cushion the ball on his left and smash a right-footed half-volley past Dave Beasant. The hat-trick was complete.
The crescendo of his virtuosic display came along in injury-time. As the dying embers flicked with fleeting life, Solskjær found himself with a bit of luck as Nicky Butt’s pass fell perfectly for Scholes who mishit his strike, bobbling the ball up for the Norwegian to finish. That was it. Four goals in a flash. Home and away fans had held their breaths for the entirety of his display. The whistle blew and the stadium collectively exhaled.
Himself a manager in the making, he didn’t need much instruction. Pull up a video of United from that era and you’ll see the bulletproof concentration on his face from the dugout. It was an aspect of his game that he had honed, but also one that he had a natural proclivity for. Some of us are viewers, some of us are doers – Solskjær was both.
What do we think of players on the bench: not quite good enough to start? Not got the legs for the full 90 minutes? It’s a place for stagnation, a place that breeds frustration. It’s a hotpot of duelling wills and a trust issues. Like the finest artists, capable of reinvention, Sir Alex Ferguson and Ole Gunnar Solskjær reimagined what the bench represented. To them it was an extension of their tactics – as much a part of the game as the grass was. Instead of a boarding house for egos and tempers, it was a tactical thinktank where the only real question wasn’t if Ole would come on but when.
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Under Sir Alex, United were known as a side that would do things the hard way, meaning they’d often concede an early goal and then go on to win. A part of this stemmed from the tactical malleability of Fergie’s philosophy. For him, perfection was the unreachable idea that he never stopped searching for.
If anyone thinks of United’s bench, they’ll think of Solskjær. He is synonymous with Ferguson’s ability to turn his squad’s fortunes around. Substitutes were always a nearly there position, or a not enough role. Solskjær thought instead that he’d make it all his. As such, he became something of a poster-boy for United’s dominant era of success under Fergie, cast most often in the role of the guy you sent in to clean up the mess or to throw mud on the casket.
On the scales of impact, it’s impossible to decide which side carries more weight for Solskjær; the minutes spent watching the game or the minutes that he played off the bench. It’s as a substitute he became known and as one that he will be remembered, at least for now. Unsurprisingly, considering his obsessive note-taking under Ferguson, his legacy as the super-sub may change.
Although not the club’s top-scorer, he is the record holder for scoring most goals coming off the bench. His tally of 28 over 11 seasons is impressive but not quite as impressive when you realise that one-seventh of that record was achieved in a single evening in Nottingham. That game against Forest had only 10 shots on target between both teams, with nine of them goals, registering the highest shots-on-target-to-goals ratio ever. It was also the largest away win in the English top tier’s history and Manchester United’s fastest ever four goals.
It’s hard to imagine that Fergie would have resorted to the hairdryer treatment for this beneficial manifestation of disobedience. Solskjær recently lauded the Scotsman by crediting him with passing his legendary knowledge of the game down: “Everything I know about managing top footballers I learned from him.” Things look bright for the Norwegian’s future – let’s just hope that his players pay more attention to their instructions than he ever did.
By Edd Norval @EddNorval
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp