After taking a private jet from Kristiansund to Manchester on Wednesday, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer arrived at Carrington on Thursday with Manchester United sixth in the table, 19 points off the top and 11 points adrift of the top four. He will have to start winning games quickly, but first he will be tasked — alongside experienced No. 2 Mike Phelan — with bringing Paul Pogba and the rest of United’s squad back together.
Solskjaer already knows Pogba well, having won the Premier League reserve title in 2010 with the Frenchman in the team during a spell in charge of United’s second string.
“He has got a great nature and a great way about him,” former United teammate Quinton Fortune said. “Ole is a positive person. There will be positivity around the camp. His first job will be to change the mindset of the players because they have been in a difficult environment.
“The players will have respect for him. He knows the likes of Pogba and Jesse [Lingard] because he has coached these players before. The way the guy trained was very professional. He would be training on his own after sessions just practicing finishing. He was a machine. When he coached the reserves, the attention to detail was incredible. So was his desire to win.
“He has learned from Sir Alex [Ferguson]. He will want to play attacking football and let the players express themselves. He will want the players to play with a smile on their faces again. You will see a different Manchester United team.”
When Solskjaer was sacked by Cardiff City in September 2014, he found time at the end of his meeting with chairman Mehmet Dalman to recommend his successor.
“That’s the kind of guy he is,” Danny Gabbidon, who was made temporary manager on Solskjaer’s say so, tells ESPN FC. “It was very good of him. It was a difficult situation but he was still trying to help the club and conduct himself in the right way.”
Those who know the Norwegian best will not be surprised, and it was telling that in his statement announcing Solskjaer’s appointment as interim manager of United on Wednesday that executive vice chairman Ed Woodward said he believed the club’s former striker could “unite the players and the supporters.” It was as much a dig at Jose Mourinho’s divisive style as it was an assessment of Solskjaer’s own qualities.
But for all the talk that Solskjaer, a club legend for what he achieved as a player between 1996 and 2007, is the man to lift the gloom at Old Trafford, he is not here just to smile for the cameras and play nice.
“He is a winner,” says Fortune. “He can be very tough and that’s what people don’t see. He’s a great guy to be around but there is another side to him.
“He can be hard when he needs to be, and that’s what you need. He won’t pretend to be anyone else. All the players will love him, but if something is not being done the way he wants it, they will see the other side of him.
“He is super professional and down to earth, but at the same time, if something needs to be said he will say it. That’s the other side of Ole. He will have no problem in calling people out.”
Presented to the media for the first time on Friday, Solskjaer, slightly nervous, wore a smile you might expect from a man who has landed his dream job out of the blue. There is, though, another side.
Rio Ferdinand tells a story that during a keep-ball drill in his first training session at United in 2002 following a big-money move from Leeds United, he could hear someone over his shoulder questioning whether the England international was worth the £30 million Ferguson had spent. Ferdinand turned around expecting to see Roy Keane or Nicky Butt, only to find Solskjaer smirking back at him.
A shy, unassuming, baby-faced assassin who scored 126 goals in 216 games for United is one side of Solskjaer’s character, but he has never been afraid to speak his mind, either.
In 1998, United accepted a £5.5m bid from Tottenham and although the transfer was agreed, Solskjaer refused to go, instead choosing to fight for his place. He still has the fax he left unsigned. Told by Ferguson two years later he was set to be dropped for the next game against Chelsea, Solskjaer responded by telling the United manager he was wrong. Ferguson eventually accepted his argument and Solskjaer started the match at the expense of Teddy Sheringham — and then scored in a 3-2 United win.
In 2005, weeks before the controversial takeover by the Glazer family that saw supporters protest outside Old Trafford, Solskjaer became the only player to speak out, telling fans he was “absolutely” on their side. His stance prompted speculation he could even take over as manager of FC United of Manchester, the breakaway club formed in the wake of the Glazer’s leveraged buyout.
“He is someone who understands the culture of the club,” says Fortune. “Ole has been there so he understands the style of play of Manchester United. It’s weird that you have to mention that, but the last few years we haven’t seen it and it’s been frustrating. He knows how a Manchester United team should be playing.”
During two successful spells in charge of Molde between 2010 to 2014 and 2015 to 2018, during which he won two titles and the Norwegian Cup, Solskjaer earned a reputation as an attacking coach who likes to play with width from his full-backs and his wingers. It worked in Norway — Molde scored 63 goals last season compared to 51 scored by champions Rosenborg — but he found it harder to implement his ideas at Cardiff after being parachuted into a Premier League relegation battle in January 2014 following the dismissal of Malky MacKay.
“Under Malky Mackay, Cardiff were playing a very different style of football,” says Gabbidon. “He came in and maybe he tried to change too much too soon. It’s right that a manager comes in and stamps their authority on things, but maybe he tried to get the players playing in a way they weren’t accustomed to and it didn’t really work out. It was a difficult job.”
Off-field issues surrounding the ownership by Malaysian businessman Vincent Tan didn’t help, and Cardiff were relegated at the end of the season after winning three of Solskjaer’s 18 games in charge. He was sacked the following September with Cardiff sitting 17th in the Championship.
“The players were low on confidence following the relegation,” says Gabbidon. “The squad was oversized and there were players who wanted to leave. There were a lot of foreign players on big money and it was difficult to get them out. The players that came in, not all were his own doing, a lot of that was was owner led and agent led.
“It wasn’t the players not trying for him or not liking him. That job at that time was probably too much. Personality wise, he was brilliant. Calm, level-headed and thoughtful. As a manager, he wasn’t one to rant or rave in the dressing room.
“You could see he was heavily influenced by his time at Man United in the way he conducted himself. The training was very intense. He gave the players a lot of freedom to go and express themselves.
“It’s so poor, no? It’s so bad. It’s a shame because after one year-and-a-half Paulo kept a clean sheet against Arsenal for the first time at the Emirates, and he was fantastic yesterday.”
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