For almost 20 years, Clive Tyldesley’s famous words, “And Solskjaer has won it!” have been carved indelibly into the minds of every Manchester United fan lucky enough to witness that fabled comeback at the Nou Camp in 1999.
The Norwegian forward was integral to one comeback, and now, nearly 20 years on, the hopes of an entire club have been hoisted upon his shoulders once more. With the departure of Jose Mourinho, who yet again failed to make it past three years at a club, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been plucked from the peaceful realms of southern Norway and installed as Manchester United interim manager in a time of gargantuan instability.
The trouble is, with a chaotic dressing room that practically runs itself, a squad lacking in serious quality and a chief executive that would sell his own grandmother for sponsorship, can Solskjaer really snatch any sort of victory from the proverbial jaws of defeat, just like he managed nearly two decades ago?
Unblemished though his reputation at the club is, Manchester United’s interim manager could be on the verge of risking his perfect legacy by accepting a job that has become something of a poisoned chalice of late. Since Ferguson retired, a series of cataclysmic blunders that emanated from boardroom level have seen the club’s stock plummet in both financial and footballing terms.
The departure of Mourinho was inevitable, but perhaps the timing was somewhat less predictable. Now, bereft of long-term leadership, Ed Woodward has gambled on Solskjaer.
Ed Woodward is not a popular man inside Old Trafford. In fact, only the Glazer family, reviled for so long by the Manchester United faithful, can claim to be even more unpopular than the man who has been ridiculed for his obsessive pursuance of shirt sleeve sponsors and official toilet-roll partners.
Could Solskjaer’s appointment be something of a double-edged sword? Providing (potential) short-term solidity on one hand, while appeasing an increasingly more impatient fan base on the other. For what else could endear Woodward to the Old Trafford faithful more than appointing a genuine club legend?
On paper, the appointment appears viable. A popular, well-respected figure who was entrenched for 11 years in the winning culture fostered by Sir Alex Ferguson; someone who will provide the much-needed short-term stability that will allow the board to secure a long-term solution come the summer. Yet, even with this Ed Woodward master plan (note: heavy sarcasm) in place, there are a few snags.
First off, Solskjaer is walking into a club with a vastly different atmosphere to the one he enjoyed as a player. This current United side features a number of enormous egos, and while the United of old certainly did feature a lot of supremely self-confident footballers, the stars of yesteryear could actually justify their arrogance.
Too many of United’s side seems to play with an entitlement they just haven’t earned. Paul Pogba is a world-class bottler, Romelu Lukaku has the first touch of a literal trampoline, Nemanja Matic can only pass sideways, and Chris Smalling and Phil Jones could put themselves forward as a comedy duo and would receive no complaints.
In short, Solskjaer has a difficult squad to work with, one which contains precious few gems and rather a lot of duds. Given that he is only the interim manager – and that Manchester United still have no sporting director – there seems little scope for a change in personnel. Therefore, Solskjaer somehow has to get this squad bloated with deadwood into some semblance of a football team.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Solskjaer’s own managerial record isn’t exactly sterling. His work in Norway began brightly enough when he clinched Molde’s first ever Tippeligaen title and then followed it with their second. But, following a disastrous spell at Cardiff which yielded only three wins and saw the Bluebirds relegated, his second spell at Molde has seen his side languishing in the shadow of the impressive Rosenborg.
Critics will quite rightly point out that he hardly possesses the best credentials.
However, for a side that, despite Mourinho’s increasingly more desperate protestations to the contrary, are already out of the title race, and for whom even a top four place seems unlikely, the parameters within which Solskjaer has to work are quite favourable. There is far less emphasis on the results of his labours. Instead, Solskjaer has already been deemed the man to bring attacking, Manchester United-brand football back to the club. You know, old-fashioned four-four-two with rampaging wingers and box-to-box midfielders.
Good luck getting Paul Pogba to break into a sprint back towards his own goal, Ole.
For Solskjaer to become United’s saviour for a second time, he only has to steer the ship far enough away from the rocks so as not to founder it. There’s less pressure on the baby-faced legend than there is on the players under his stewardship. For Solskjaer, the return to Old Trafford is born out of his love for the club. For the players who contributed to Jose Mourinho’s downfall, there is no longer a scapegoat to hide behind.
It is thus in his man management where the Norwegian will want to justify the faith placed in him. Solskjaer cannot afford to pander to the desires and demands of United’s pampered stars. In what will be a brief tenure, Solskjaer has nothing to lose. He has a job in Molde to return to in the summer and, unless he somehow gets the club relegated, his Old Trafford legacy should remain unmarred. So, why not ruffle some feathers? Put a boot up the arse of a few of United’s more lackadaisical stars. Perhaps go easy on Phil Jones though. A stiff boot up the arse could cause him to pull a hernia.
In essence, whether Manchester United make the top four – or even the top six – seems immaterial right now. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is back and with him, surely the good times will follow.