Solskjaer clocks up 10 years
Stuart Brennan profiles Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
REDS LEGEND: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
HE put the ball in the Scousers’ net, he put the ball in the Germans’ net, and he even put the ball in Nottingham Forest’s net four times in 11 minutes.
But those feats of goal-scoring glory only make up half of the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer legend.
Solskjaer, who celebrated 10 years at Old Trafford last weekend, is the longest-serving foreign player in United’s history.
And yet it almost seems disloyal to give him that “foreign player” tag, because he has been welcomed into the hearts of Red Mancunians without reservation.
When United fans saw Solskjaer back on the pitch last Christmas, as a substitute against Birmingham and then starting against Burton Albion in the FA Cup, the emotions were churning.
It was great to see the baby-faced assassin back on a football field, when it seemed like we had seen the last of him. Even Sir Alex Ferguson had believed the player would never pull on the red shirt in earnest again. It appeared that only Solskjaer himself had the belief and unswerving dedication to make it happen.
Even then, it seemed like these were the last throes of a stunning career – a career studded with golden highlights and shot through with a vein of loyalty and commitment to the cause, in an age of mercenary footballers.
And yet, here we are on the brink of another season and Ferguson has enough faith in Solskjaer to cite him as one of five strikers vying for a place in the first team. Now he is in line for a return to the Norway squad for a friendly against Brazil later this month. Perhaps his career will have a deserved Indian summer, after all.
United fans took to the lad almost immediately. Just six minutes into his debut as a sub against Blackburn in 1996, Solskjaer scored. The fresh-faced kid from Norwegian champions Molde netted five goals in just 233 minutes of football, with just one start, and the super-sub tag, which would irritate him throughout his career, was fashioned.
Solskjaer bagged 18 goals in that first season, as United retained the Premiership title, but could not nail down a place in the starting-up.
But with Teddy Sheringham arriving at Old Trafford to replace the retiring Eric Cantona, and then Dwight Yorke scorching into town the following summer, Solskjaer was again destined to be frustrated.
Solskjaer, however, would not be denied. The ultimate professional, he saw the subs’ bench as a challenge and an opportunity.
In the summer of 1998, inevitably, another club was ready to pay big money for his services. Tottenham offered £5.5m, United accepted the bid, and it was down to Solskjaer.
No-one could have blamed the lad if he had taken the money and run, especially with Yorke’s £12.6m arrival meaning his opportunities would be further restricted.
Solskjaer would have none of it. He took the view that any move away from United was a step down, and that view was all the encouragement Ferguson needed.
It set the tone for the incredible events of the following season, culminating in Solskjaer’s roof-lifting, knee-sliding, tear-jerking injury-time winner in the Nou Camp. The image of Solskjaer, all alertness and reflex, watching the ball bulge the roof of the Bayern Munich net, adorns many a Manchester chimney breast.
Solskjaer’s own contribution to the mother of all seasons was immense, with 18 goals in 18 league games. His four goals in 11 minutes after coming on as a sub in the 8-1 win at Nottingham Forest was breathtaking.
And, of course, it was that season that he stuck the ball in the Scousers’ net, an injury-time winner against Liverpool in the FA Cup fourth round.
It all led to that wondrous night in Barcelona.
But while some players allowed their games to slide after that ultimate achievement, Solskjaer was hungry for more.
In December 1999, he was at it again, scoring four against Everton in a 5-1 Old Trafford thrashing, and netting twice as the Reds beat Sunderland 4-0 to break the Premiership `goals for’ record with five games to spare. He even nabbed a goal as the Reds secured the title again with a 3-1 win at Southampton.
Another outstanding memory came the following season at Charlton. Ryan Giggs’ audacious lob from half-way sailed high into the murky south London sky.
Goalkeeper, players and spectators all stood in open-mouthed awe and suspense as the ball dropped on to the crossbar. It appeared that the only movement in the ground, apart from the arc of the ball, was a flash of red darting into the goalmouth as Ole volleyed the rebound into the net. It was a goal that summed him up – alert, quick and too smart for dumb defenders.
And still there was no guarantee of a first-team place.
When David Beckham was injured in 2002, Solskjaer popped up on the right wing, and brought grace and devotion to his new role and scored 16 goals.
Everything began to unravel the following season when he was injured against Panathinaikos which led to extensive knee surgery. Even after his comeback last Christmas, the future was still gloomy, and at one stage Ferguson appeared to prepare the media for the news that supporters had dreaded.
Then Solskjaer popped up at a training session, a spring in his step, a twinkle in his eye, and United backtracked.
Even when a fractured cheekbone sustained in a reserve team game in March added to the supporters’ fears, Solskjaer was not giving up the ghost.
Ferguson responded by handing him a new two-year deal and outlining his intentions to keep him at OT for as long as he could, as a coach and an ambassador.
It’s not the end for Solskjaer, or even the beginning of the end. There is no end to legend.