Manchester United produced plenty of heroes on the pitch during Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign but it may be fair to say that few were ever as popular as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Norwegian international was nicknamed ‘the baby faced assassin’ for his youthful looks that masked a killer instinct in front of goal.
Over 11 years at Old Trafford, he made some important scoring contributions but only one would write itself into Manchester United’s history. That late, late winner in the Champions League final of 1999 has ensured that Solskjaer will forever be mentioned as a club legend. His ascent to the manager’s chair in 2019 was, therefore, mixed with general approval but, just a few months into that reign, is Ole in danger of spoiling his status?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had enjoyed a productive playing career in his native Norway before he found his way onto Ferguson’s radar. His early years were spent at Clausenengen where he averaged more than a goal a game in the lower leagues.
A bigger challenge came when he signed for Molde in 1994. The club was a far more professional outfit but Solskjaer proved that the step up was comfortably within his reach. In two seasons with Molde, the striker scored 42 times in 51 full appearances and that was a ratio that made Manchester United take interest.
Over the next 11 seasons, Solskjaer’s goals to games ratio may have dropped but this was largely in keeping with the comparative strengths of English and Norwegian football. When the time came for Ole to finally hang up his boots in 2007, he’d recorded 126 goals in 366 games for the Premier League side.
In this section we have focussed on goal scoring but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wasn’t a target man in the traditional sense. He was frequently employed behind the front man as a link to the main striker and that is perhaps where United found him to be most valuable.
In fact, Sir Alex Ferguson found his player to be so versatile that he was, at one point in his Manchester United career, employed on the right wing. With injury striking down David Beckham in the 2002/03 season, his Norwegian team mate moved onto the flank and would subsequently start the following campaign as United’s first choice in that position.
For a while, Manchester United had a fearsome strike force in the shape of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole. In fact, the pair were first choice for such an extended period that Solskjaer was frequently linked with a move away from Old Trafford.
Those links appeared more frequently from around 1997 onwards but United fans will be forever grateful that the Norwegian chose to remain at the club.
The Goal Scorer
Of those 126 goals for Manchester United, one will stand out above all others. As he had done for much of his career at this point, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer started the Champions League final on the bench as Yorke and Cole started the game.
Even with United a goal down from the sixth minute, manager Alex Ferguson was reluctant to change things around. Solskjaer looked on as Teddy Sheringham came on for Jesper Blomqvist until finally, his chance came on 81 minutes. The Norwegian replaced Andy Cole and together, the two subs would make history.
The game reached second half injury time with United still trailing to that Mario Basler goal. Sheringham levelled things up before Solskjaer’s late intervention, blasting the ball into the roof of the net with virtually the last kick of the game.
Ironically, Solskjaer would set a number of records as a goalscoring substitute. He still holds the record of 28 goals as a Manchester United sub while his Premier League tally of 17 has since been passed by Jermain Defoe.
As a player, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer really shouldn’t be remembered as the scoring sub. He may be famous for one goal but 126 strikes is an impressive tally for any player and it’s one that will always make the Norwegian a Manchester United great.
Having called time on his playing career in 2007, Solskjaer’s managerial career actually started at Manchester United. Few people outside of the club will remember that the Norwegian took charge of the club’s reserves in a short stint that lasted from 2008 to 2010. It was a productive period but with former club Molde offering him the first team manager’s job, it was time to take a step up.
Things began successfully as the club won the Tippeligaen in Solskjaer’s first season in charge. Once again, this was a productive time but when the English Premier League started to take an interest, the Norwegian received an offer that he just couldn’t refuse.
Cardiff City was the destination but this time, Solskjaer’s time at the helm was not a happy one. The club seemed doomed for EPL relegation and the Norwegian couldn’t steer them clear of the drop zone. With a poor start to the Championship in 2014/15, Solskjaer left the Welsh side after just a few months in charge.
After a brief break, former club Molde were happy to have him back and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer signed a three and a half year contract with the Norwegian club in October 2015. This time around, there would be no trophies but the side were competitive and the two parties seemed to be a perfect fit.
The relationship continued until Jose Mourinho paid the price for poor results and dressing room unrest at Manchester United. In December 2018, Solskjaer was employed as caretaker manager at Old Trafford and was supposed to return to Molde when the new Norwegian season started. However, results were transformed at United and with a record total of 25 points in his first nine Premier League games, Ole was an obvious choice as the new permanent boss.
Unfortunately, that positive record hasn’t quite been continued. United finished outside of the Champions League places in 2018/19 and the new season started with dropped points against Crystal Palace and Southampton in the first four games. Can Ole recover and build a legacy or will the club need to look again for a long term replacement for Sir Alex Ferguson?