By Piers Barber
In 2012, backdropped by snowy mountains in the Norwegian city of Molde, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer responded to a winning goal by launching onto his knees, fists clenched, suit trousers ruined, smile beaming into the night. For any watching Manchester United fans, it was a heart-warming sight. It is, after all, less than 15 years since the same man joyfully executed an identical celebration after scoring the winning goal in the 1999 Champions League final.
United’s favourite Norwegian continues to make history – just this time, he’s kitted out in a thick manager’s jacket and scarf rather than a red No.20 shirt. His achievements in management so far have been close to staggering: in his first season at Molde FK, the team United originally signed him from in 1996 for £1.5 million, Solskjaer led his side to their first league title in the club’s history, retaining the prize in his second year. Earlier this month, he wrapped up his third season by adding the Norwegian Cup to his ever growing list of honours.
Although the best managers are rarely those who boast illustrious playing careers, Ole seems destined to prove a notable exception to this rule. Solskjaer’s time at United will forever be synonymous with the instinctive leg he stuck out at the end of a match in Barcelona, yet his was no flash-in-the-pan career. He remained an important first team player throughout his time at Old Trafford, turning in a memorable run of performances as late as the 2006/07 season, when his abilities on the right wing saw David Beckham repeatedly benched during United’s title run in. Other memories – such as his hilarious, utterly unselfish tackle which earned him a red card against Newcastle in 1999, or his four incisive finishes in a 12 minute sub appearance against Nottingham Forest the same season – will live long in the minds of most United fans for many years.
Solskjaer’s undying connection to Old Trafford has already heavily influenced the path of his management career. Following a prosperous two years in charge of United’s Reserves, a tenure which resulted in four trophies, Solskjaer bought Richard Hartis and Mark Dempsey, friends from his days at Old Trafford, in as coaches to work with his new Molde side. His playing staff has also been bolstered by former United academy prospects, such as midfielder/forward Magnus Wolff Eikrem. Another recent United academy recruit, Mats Moller Daehli, has been compared by Ole to both Paul Scholes and Adnan Januzaj.
November’s cup triumph has provided some much needed respite for Solskjaer, whose side experienced a difficult third season. Molde had to wait until their fifth league game to register their first point, and their eighth before they finally notched a win. His team suffered badly from the loss of important players during pre-season, with dominating centre back Vegard Forren departing to Southampton, striker Davy Claude Angan heading to the Chinese Super League, and Eikrem leaving for Heerenveen.
Yet his stock as a new manager remains impressively high. On reflection, Solskjaer’s adeptness at management should come as little surprise: always a dedicated team man and keen student of the game, Ole famously utilised his time on the Old Trafford bench to eagerly analyse the weaknesses of his team’s opponents before being sent on. As Molde boss he has developed a reputation for identifying young talent, whilst has also showed signs of achieving that elusive balance of skills so vital in a manager: measured and approachable as a coach, but also a fierce competitor, a figure with intense authority and ultimate command over his charges.
The narrative of his time at Molde has altered from a jubilant homecoming by a former player to a serious project led by one of Europe’s finest emerging young managers. With his name linked to available Premier League jobs with increasing frequency, Ole’s next steps should be followed closely by United fans. Although he still has unfinished business in Norway, a return to England seems increasingly likely. Indeed, the idea of Ole one day occupying the Old Trafford hot seat may yet prove to be far more than just a romantic and unrealistic fantasy.
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