It was a cold night in south Wales. Not entirely unexpected, given it was December – 2018, to be precise. Far more surprising was the identity of the man in charge in the away dugout. It wasn't a curiosity born of ignorance; on the contrary, he was well known to both clubs for his past endeavours. Instead, the chatter in the stands of Cardiff City Stadium was centred on the future. How will he do? What will he change? Where will this lead?
A couple of hours later, the most immediate answer was a 5-1 win for Manchester United against the Bluebirds. Cue cheers, smiles and a recognisable refrain emanating from the supporters in the away end: “You are my Solskjær, my Ole Solskjær, you make me haaaaappy when skies are grey…” The man of the moment, eyes twinkling, was grinning too, delighted to have overseen a win for the club where he spent 11 successful years as a player. Satisfied too, you would think, to have done it against a club with whom he had a less fruitful experience: having been unable to save Cardiff from relegation in 2014, he departed after eight months in charge.
Three years after that United win in Wales, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s feet are firmly under the table, the word “caretaker” a distant memory. That said, much care has been taken to ensure that his team are finally in a final, after four successive semi-final capitulations in the space of 15 months. One of those was in last season’s Europa League. “We got nothing out of getting to the semi-final last year,” said the Norwegian, whose team went out to eventual champions Sevilla. “Sometimes you can say it isn’t worth it, but the experience has helped. The only way to learn from your mistakes is to correct them.”
There weren’t many mistakes in evidence during his playing career; when you’re running around with a nickname like ‘baby-faced assassin’, you’re duty bound to display a high degree of precision. Of course, his most famous goal for the Reds was one of his least considered, stabbed in from a few metres out; the fact that it was one of the most dramatic of stoppage-time winners and came in the 1999 Champions League final provided the shine. “I didn’t really think too much about the consequences of that goal,” he said. “Obviously in the time since, you meet so many people and it was the best night of their lives – and it was the biggest thing I've ever experienced on a football pitch. But at that moment I just thought, ‘I’ve done my job.’”
It’s a no-nonsense approach that’s been carried over to his managerial career. In addition to his current role and that Cardiff stint, he served his apprenticeship with Manchester United reserves and had two spells with Molde, the Norwegian club where he also played as a youngster. He won titles and cups with both the United kids and Molde, while at the latter he handed a 16-year-old Erling Haaland his professional debut. “He has taught me a lot,” said Haaland. “He deserves a lot of credit.”
So to label Solskjær as ‘pragmatic’ and leave it at that would be to do him a disservice. He approaches practicalities with positivity; tackles obstacles with tactical dexterity. Could it be that the influence of one of his former gaffers is being felt? “Learning from Sir Alex was unbelievable,” he said. “He was like a second dad; you had so much respect because he was an encyclopaedia of football. I ended up living on the same street as him, and his grandkids were in the same class as my kids, so I had a fantastic relationship with him over the years. Looking back on it now, the way he managed me as a person, I’ve taken that approach to my management style.”
Should United win the final, Solskjær will have secured silverware quicker than his mentor: it took Sir Alex Ferguson four seasons to get the FA Cup under his belt. But these are different times of course, with a lack of time being cited as the main issue for those in the hot seat. The current incumbent takes it all in his stride. “What is pressure? Pressure is what you put on yourself, as in do the right things, do them well, do them better the next day. And that’s what I’m doing. I feel the responsibility of working for a big club. We have to build a culture, build a work ethic here, which we believe is going to take the club forward in the long run.”
That cause would be furthered with a win against Villarreal tonight, though Solskjær is taking nothing for granted. “Any team that gets to a final is a good team,” he said. “It’s going to be a difficult game but we’re looking forward to it. This is what we’ve always wanted: to play a final, last game of the season, chance to win a trophy.”
United’s progress under Solskjær feels like it warrants a positive culmination: not just those so-near-yet-so-far semi-finals but also ascending Premier League finishes. It’s a team that’s playing like a team and there have been some astute signings – Bruno Fernandes, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Edinson Cavani – working in tandem with players like Luke Shaw and Paul Pogba, for instance, who have benefited from some well-placed man management.
Is there evidence of the team getting back to something like the intangible but ever covetable ‘United way’? “Of course,” says Solskjær. “It’s about taking the game to the opposition. At times you do get pegged back but then you attack with pace and power. If you asked managers who played against Sir Alex’s teams, the tempo going forward was key. It’s that fearlessness, playing with risk and courage.”
In his 2013 autobiography, Ferguson says that he spotted Solskjær’s managerial qualities way back when. “His thought processes underpinned his skills,” he wrote. “He had that analytical mind. Sitting on the bench he would make notes, always. So by the time he came on, the game was laid out for him like a diagram.”
The man himself sees it slightly differently. “He said I used to analyse, but that was just one or two defenders. I thought I knew everything about football, then you become a coach and you need to know every single thing about every single position. It’s a different challenge.” It’s one he’s rising to, all the same. And as any manager will tell you, a bit of luck here, an omen or two there, all helps. So it won’t hurt his cause that 26 May is Sir Matt Busby’s birthday – and he won’t need telling that it was the same date in 1999 when he broke Bayern hearts in Barcelona.
“When I was 28 I thought I would never be a coach, because I wanted to get away from the limelight. But then all my 20 years of football madness, craziness, nerdiness – call it what you like – came in and I thought, ‘I’m going to go for this.’” Solskjær, on a mission that’s taken him from Cardiff to Gdańsk, will have the same message for his boys tonight.
Michael Carrick won it all as a player with Manchester United, not least the Europa League. Here the first-team coach explains why he wants to get his hands on the trophy again
I think you just get greedy, and I mean that in the best possible way. That Europa League [in 2017]: I thought that was pretty much my last chance of winning it and I hadn’t won it before. As a coach now I think about what’s next, what can we win. I’m hungry for more all of the time.
We put ourselves in a great position in the Champions League so we were bitterly disappointed that we didn’t manage to stay in. Then we haven’t had an easy draw in the Europa League but the lads have been fantastic. We've played a lot of football in such a short space of time. It's a challenge – this year more than any, with all the games being squeezed in – so I take my hat off to the boys, they've been terrific.
When you take it back to last summer and playing the latter stages of the Europa League, not having much of a break and coming straight back into the season, you were kind of wondering, “How’s the season going to go?” But the games have cranked up and the boys have just kept at it. When you get to the end and you’re smelling that little bit of success, it does drive you on to the next level.
I’d honestly say I haven’t really thought about it. Yeah, somewhere in the back of our mind we’ve thought how it would be incredible to win, as a management team, for Ole, for the club and the players. You can’t put a price on winning a trophy and what that means.
Over the past year or so, for everyone’s wellbeing, it’s been important to have something else to focus on and take that enjoyment from, just as it has been for us. We’re the privileged ones who have been able to keep working and do what we do, so we don’t take that for granted at all. Hopefully we can put a smile on a few more faces.