“We always know that it’s possible and with this club, it’s what we do – that’s just Man United.”
There was no mischievous smile, no mind games, no arrogance. After all, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knows what it is like to seal a famous, late Champions League win like Manchester United managed at Paris St Germain.
Now, with the 20th anniversary of his treble-sealing strike at the Nou Camp looming large, the man who embodied Sir Alex Ferguson’s spirit on the pitch has been given the keys to the manager’s office on a full-time basis.
2 0 L E G E N D 🤩— Manchester United (@ManUtd) March 25, 2019
Solskjaer’s remarkable audition has seen him rewarded with a deal to permanently succeed Jose Mourinho – confirmation of what had been inevitable since that jaw-dropping night in the French capital on March 6.
No side in Champions League history had ever overcome a first-leg home loss of two or more goals. Then there was the small matter of 10 first-team absentees.
But the players personified Solskjaer’s belief and Marcus Rashford’s stoppage-time spot-kick made the implausible a reality, sealing a famous win, progress to the quarter-finals of European football’s top club competition and – most importantly – Solskjaer’s place at the wheel.
Ferguson went to the dressing room beaming with pride and congratulated every player individually, with United great Eric Cantona making a short speech after being serenaded by the players.
But the chants of Solskjaer’s name were even louder and could be heard through the dressing room doors.
Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward and co-owner Avram Glazer were part of the celebrations and could not fail to be impressed by the mood of a group that that had been on its knees under Jose Mourinho.
Club sources said the Portuguese had players walking taller when he arrived in 2016, but there was precious little goodwill left within the club when he left 30 months later.
The atmosphere had become toxic and United desperately needed a shot in the arm. Step forward fan favourite Solskjaer.
He was born on February 26, 1973 in Kristiansund, Norway. His father Oyvind was a Greco-Roman wrestling champion and he briefly grappled with the sport himself.
“I was being tossed around, getting dizzy, getting headaches… I was never into it,” he said in an interview with FourFourTwo magazine last year.
Solskjaer junior’s focus switched to football and, after two prolific years with Molde, he moved to Old Trafford on July 29, 1996.
The 46-year-old spent 14-and-a-half years at the club as a revered striker, collecting titles aplenty and scoring the last-gasp Champions League winner against Bayern Munich that completed the treble in 1999.
Injury brought his career to an early halt in 2007 and he moved on to work as United’s reserve team boss, with spells at Molde following either side of an ill-fated stint at Cardiff.
Solskjaer was due to return to the Norwegian club in the summer but he made his desire to stay clear from the outset, with talk surrounding long-admired Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino fading as every game passed.
The impact under Solskjaer was immediate as United won eight successive matches, surpassing the best previous start achieved by the great Sir Matt Busby.
Among other records, he also oversaw a club-record run of nine successive away victories, including triumphs at Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea and, of course, PSG.
Those inside the dressing room describe him as a joy to play for, repeatedly pointing to the feel-good factor and his man management.
Full-back Luke Shaw said it was “certain” that the caretaker manager would stay on permanently after winning in France, while forward Romelu Lukaku asked: “What else does he have to do?”
Meanwhile, those around the club have found Solskjaer engaging, warm and open. He is also appreciative of the power of small gestures, from bringing a Norwegian chocolate bar to long-serving receptionist Kath Phipps, to appearing at the staff Christmas party having just arrived back at the club.
By contrast, Mourinho cowed those that worked around him and it was clear he did not appreciate that there was more to being United manager than picking the team.
Solskjaer is a son of Norway but an adopted Mancunian. In February, he went to Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany’s ‘Tackle 4 MCR’ ball that aims to help tackle homelessness in the city. “Tonight is not about being blue or red,” he said. “It is about Manchester.”
That same week, the caretaker boss paid his respects at Old Trafford to those who perished in the Munich air disaster 61 years earlier. Mourinho attended the 60th anniversary ceremony in a hoodie.
Solskjaer knows how to strike the right tone inside the corridors of power, just as he impressed on the pitch for them as a player.
The former striker scored 126 goals across 366 appearances for the Old Trafford giants and regularly reminds the players of the opportunity they have to make history at United, plus just why the club bought them in the first place.
That approach has helped previously marginalised Paul Pogba and stuttering Rashford to flourish, while youngsters have been fast-tracked into a group that speaks of training being more fun and focused.
Michael Carrick, Kieran McKenna and Mark Dempsey lead most of the sessions, while assistant manager Mike Phelan provides Solskjaer with the ideal sounding board – Ferguson’s former right-hand man boasts nous, knowledge and humour.
The man that the Norwegian still refers to as “the boss” is a regular at United matches and his impact is evident across the board, from the players wearing club suits again to the never-say-die spirit displayed within games.
Solskjaer has also brought back the United way of promoting youth, playing entertaining football and winning, with the reward a full-time shot at his dream job.
There is still work to do but with Ole at the wheel, just ask those connected with the club how good it feels.
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