Ole takes first steps on long road to Old Trafford
It is, of course, a romantic notion that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could one day manage Manchester United. After all, the odds are firmly stacked against the 38-year-old former United striker who scored 126 in 366 games for the club. The ‘Assassin’, no longer so baby-faced, is one in a long line of Sir Alex Ferguson protégé’s to start out on the lonely management road. Yet, Solskjaer’s managerial career has begun in the most positive fashion of all after his Molde FK side claimed an inaugural Tippeligaen championship on Sunday.
This is a title more than 100 years in the making. Solskjaer returned ‘home’ last November and steered the club to almost immediate success. Tiny Molde, Norwegian champions in the club’s centenary year. Backed by a strong former-United coaching contingent, Solskjaer’s achievement is all the more remarkable for a club that finished 11th last season and was languishing in the second division just four years ago.
And where his contemporaries Roy Keane, Steve Bruce, Paul Ince and Bryan Robson have largely failed to succeed in management, Solskjaer has achieved silverware at the first time of asking. It has his fans dreaming of a return to Old Trafford, where as a player Solskjaer enjoyed 11 trophy-laden seasons.
First, the celebrations after Molde secured a point for the title as nearest rivals Brann Bergen crumbled to a heavy defeat.
“The club has waited 100 years for this,” said the former United striker.
“We have been close several times so this was well deserved. When Brann went 4-1 I realised we had done it. It was a good atmosphere in the dressing room and we will enjoy ourselves tonight. The main reason for our success has been the players. They have shown quality during training and several players have performed better than expected on match days.”
“I want to thank my support team. My coaches, Mark [Dempsey], Rich [Hartis], Erling [Moe], Stig [Aambø]. They’ve made a great difference. And then I have the best players in Norway. It’s the players that deserve it, they’ve done it themselves, it’s them that have played the best football in Norway.”
This is false modesty perhaps from a true gentleman of the game but one, so word has it, who is ruthlessly demanding of excellence from his players. The Solskjaer analytical touch, it seems, has worked in double-quick time for the perennial bridesmaids of Norwegian football.
Indeed, Molde had previously finished second in Tippeligaen on seven occasions, the last in 2009 when Swede Kjell Jonevret’s side narrowly failed to top the table in a campaign where striker Mame Biram Diouf scored 17 in 30 games. The performance eventually earned Diouf a move to England but Molde’s wait for glory continued. Two seasons on and the club can celebrate after moving eight points clear with just two games remaining in the Norwegian season.
Small though the club is in English terms, with no more than 11,800 packing into the compact Aker Stadion on matchdays, Molde has benefited from Kjell Inge Røkke’s benevolence in recent years. Former Wimbledon director Røkke part-financed the €20 million stadium construction, while pumping in enough money to attract top coaches, including Solskjaer, and former Reds Mark Dempsey and Richard Hartis. Indeed, while Molde was undoubtedly home, Solskjaer had already developed a burgeoning reputation in charge of United’s second string under Ferguson’s leadership at Old Trafford.
The question now is where Solskjaer goes from here, with Portsmouth reportedly willing to take the inexperienced coach back to England. It is unlikely to be the only offer for a coach whose star is certainly in the ascendency. In the short term Solskjaer will surely relish a crack at the Champions League next season having narrowly failed to qualify for Europe in August. Molde lost 5-4 on aggregate to Stuttgart in the Europa League third qualifying round. Molde hasn’t qualified for the group stages of European football since 1999-2000, when the team lost five games out of six against Porto, Real Madrid and Olympiacos.
If Solskjaer’s career is on the rise that of messrs Keane, Bruce, Ince and Robson is certainly not. Keane finds himself out of work, turning his hand to punditry in recent months following sacking by Ipswich Town last season. Bruce, meanwhile, is under increasing pressure at Sunderland where Niall Quinn quit as chairman this season after heavy summer spending. Ince, the ‘big-time charlie’ whose ‘Guv’nor’ tag so infurated Ferguson has been sacked by Blackburn Rovers, Milton Keynes Dons and Notts County in successive seasons. It is a career in ruins, much like Robson’s, who resigned as coach of the Thai national team in June.
There is little evidence for it yet, but Solskjaer’s determined but measured approach seems built for the very top level. Certainly, former team-mate David Beckham believes so.
“Congratulations to him, he’s such a great guy,” said Beckham.
“He was a great player but an even better person. It couldn’t have happened to a better person. He’s a gentleman and was one of the best goalscorers in the world, so congratulations to Ole. Maybe he will be Man United manager one day, that would be nice. But for now, I think United are happy with Sir Alex Ferguson. But in the future, who knows? He’s a winner, he loves Manchester United, so you never know what might happen.”
Solskjaer would certainly be a popular appointment with United fans whenever Ferguson eventually calls it a day. Nobody knows when that will come, least of all it seems Ferguson himself. In the meantime Solskjaer can continue the business of building a career that already bears the hallmarks of greatness.