Published: 06 Nov 2007
Reditorial - 20Legend
When he signed in the Summer of 1996 my first thought was 'Who?' but eleven years on witnessing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's departure from Manchester United was a sad sight, full of magical memories and eternal thanks for everything he had done for our club. It is not only his on field achievements that wrote Ole into the book of Old Trafford legends, his off field demeanour, attitude and gentlemanly manner have etched a place for Ole into the heart of every Red. From Molde FC to the Nou Camp and from the PLC to the Glazer takeover, you will travel a long way, possibly on an infinite journey, to find someone who has held out his hands to embrace the fans of Manchester United as much as Ole has.
So what did we know of Ole when he joined four other new faces at Old Trafford in the summer of 1996? Very little in fact. It was known he had a decent goalscoring record in Norwegian football and he came 'highly rated' to and by Alex Ferguson. But even among the other new signings Ole was behind in terms of fame & achievement: Karl Poborsky had been a hero at Euro 96, Jordi Cruyff may have been more famous for being the son of his dad but he had played for Barcelona which was no mean achievement, Ronny Johnsen had forged a decent name for himself in European football and Raimond Van Der Gouw arrived as number two to Peter Schmeichel, and no matter what keeper Ferguson signed, he was going to be number two, bar injury to the Great Dane. Added to that, Kevin Keegan had persuaded Newcastle to part with a world record £15M to take Alan Shearer home from his spells away at Southampton & Blackburn. Steve Bruce, an Old Trafford legend had just left the club and given the fact that United had just won the double by mixing the youth system with experience, reds all over the world (maybe with the exception of Norway) hardly noticed the arrival of their new Striker.
Early in the season though Ole was to make his mark. In an August home fixture of the 1996-97 season, Ole netter against Blackburn. In late September he bagged a brace in a 2-0 home win over Spurs and despite United taking two hammerings in October 1996 to Newcastle (5-0) and Southampton (6-3), by May Ole was homing in on the first medal of his United career. In the first Sunday in May Solskjaer netted a vital equaliser to earn United a point against Middlesboro and the following night United were crowned champions when Liverpool's failure to win sent Fergie his fourth title in five years. Ultimately European failure at the semi final stage cast a shadow over the Premiership win, but Ole was surely delighted to have won a Premiership medal in his first season with United.
At the end of the 1997-98 season United were empty handed in trophy terms and had lost Captain Roy Keane to a cruciate ligament injury in September. But this season was the one where Ole's strong personality and selfless nature began to shine through. In December Martin Edwards accepted a £5.5M bid from Tottenham for Ole's services. Alex Ferguson remained tight lipped until Ole spoke up and refused the move, stating his desire to find his way into the team at Manchester United. Once Ole re-iterated his desire to stay Fergie announced he would be glad to avoid the sale. It was a bold move; United would have received almost quadruple what they had paid for Ole seventeen months previously and the young Norwegian would have been virtually guaranteed first team football at White Hart Lane. The move could only have helped the player's International career and improved his wage packet. For Fergie it was presumably £5.5M less to spend in the summer so obviously the Manager had seen enough of Solskjaer's skills to keep him. As we all know now Ferguson has no trouble disposing of a player; however Ole did not fall victim to that fate. Later in the season Ole's willingness to put the team before himself was borne out in true style. As United saw their title slipping away and with Newcastle in town just hoping to loosen the title grip a little more, Ole hauled down Newcastle's Robert Lee as Lee bore down on goal with the sides level. A silence fell over Old Trafford but once the red card was produced and our man was heading for the dressing rooms, he got a standing ovation. Had Ole not committed that offence he would have avoided any loss of earnings through suspensions or loss of win bonuses, but he put the team first. Already we were seeing a legend in the making.
Despite Dwight Yorke's arrival in the summer of 1998, so many of the special moments of the 1998-99 season involve Ole. Cole & Yorke took up most of the striking roles for each game but when they could not break the deadlock, supersub was called upon. January 24th1999 and Liverpool rolled into town hoping to knock United out of the FA Cup for the first time in almost eighty years. After Cole & Yorke combined to equalise, a long ball from Jaap Stam into the Liverpool box caused utter havoc and Ole was there to slam the ball past James to send Liverpool out of the cup. Martin Tyler's commentary on SKY for that game was hair raising stuff as once Ole got on the end of Stam's long ball, he set off with a 'Solskaaaaaaeeeer' for one of those moments you could just watch over & over again. On February 6th United led Nottingham Forest 4-1 at the City Ground after Yorke & Cole notched two each, when Ole came on late in the game. On the 41st anniversary of the Munich air disaster Ole hit four late goals to give Ferguson's men an 8-1 win, a United goal for each Busby Babe killed at Munich. Then on May 26th 1999 came a moment the does not need to be described, Ole scored the goal that won us the European Cup. If anyone ever looks back on the video of that game, Ole did not just score the goal; he played a part in its creation. After United equalised and Bayern kicked off trudging deflatedly towards extra time, the ball found its way to Denis Irwin who played a long pass down the touchline. Ole jigged and twisted until he won a corner off Sammi Kuffour, and then the Nou Camp went into a roar of anticipation. 'Beckham into Sheringham and Solskjaer has won it'. It was like being hit by a tidal wave of emotion, where you're under the water, you have no idea what's going on, but then when you surface you realise what has happened. People say it was fate, given it was Matt Busby's birthday, people cried and Manchester went crazy. But the player who scored the winning goal kept his feet on the ground and never changed.
Manchester United has changed quite a bit since that night in the Nou Camp, although some say it was already changing long before that. Profit had firmly replaced people as the club's number one asset, yet Ole never bowed to that idea. Solskjaer had long advocated fan ownership of the club and he spoke out against the Glazer takeover, supporting the Manchester United Supporters Trust as he did so. As Glazer's mucky paws took hold of United, Ole was silenced somewhat by the club. The man would have been foolish to speak out against his employers as he tried to recover from injury and when he wanted to play for Manchester United. But as the Glazers went about their business of buying the club, then re-financing the debt mountain, Ole was focusing on his dream of scoring for United again and in September 2006, that moment arrived when he scored V Celtic in the Champions League to a rapturous welcome. By the end of the 2006-2007 season the reason why Ole is a legend and the Glazers are a curse was never so evident. Ole had sweat blood to get back to regular football with United after almost two years out through injury. The Glazers were making the fans pay in blood with vastly inflated prices.
Ole's honesty of effort for United does not just end there. He never publicly complained about being on the bench during his time at Old Trafford and he never criticised Alex Ferguson. When he did get lengthy runs in the side, it was often not the roles he wished for - for example in the latter half of the 2002-2003 season after Ferguson and had fallen out, Ole took the right wing berth. His willingness to play anywhere for United was displayed in the title-decider away to Arsenal in April 2003. Arsenal had blown a big lead in the title race and a draw or a United win would only increase the adrenalin rush United now felt for the rollercoaster that is the Premiership title race. After going a goal up United were suddenly 2-1 down, but within two minutes of going behind, it was Ole who popped up on the right wing to cross for Giggs to head home. Two weeks later United were champions. Then you have the media notion that Ole was just a super sub that got late goals. Yet he was so often the one to break the deadlock in big games for United too. Take the FA Cup game away to Aston Villa in January 2002. At 2-0 down, a left wing pass was fed to Ole who promptly lobbed it over a defender, then out muscled another defender before blasting it through Schmeichel's legs with his weaker left foot. Ruud Van Nistelrooy got the glory that night by getting the equaliser and winner, but who played him in with the pass to score the winner? Ole, the baby faced assassin.
Alex Ferguson has said of Ole that the reason his goal to game ratio is so good is that while on the bench he studied the game, like how defenders moved & turned, waiting to come on and exploit their weaknesses. All I can say is this must have been Ole's attitude to everything in life, as he understands how Manchester United fans the world over feel too. While players like Roy Keane, Mark Hughes and Bryan Robson endeared themselves to us with their all-action heart on the sleeve willingness to get hurt for the team, Ole became just like a fan that was living the dream. Every time he took to the field he wore a smile on his face, realising how lucky he was to play for Manchester United. But we were lucky to have him too. The man is a dyed in the wool red, a hero on and off the field, a legend.
He is our 20Legend.
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