Jim White: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer reveals why Manchester United hot seat is his burning ambition
THE view from the manager’s office at Molde FC must be the most magnificent in world football. If he shields his eyes against the low winter sun, the boss can look out from his desk in the Aker stadium across a sparkling fjord to a range of snow-encrusted mountains.
To his left, next to the stadium, expensive clapperboard houses fringe the quayside where swanky yachts are moored. If it were 20 degrees warmer here, no one would bother with St Tropez.
But the view of the present incumbent has always been more extensive. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s eye has long been drawn 700-odd miles south west, beyond those mountains, to England. And his recent success has only added to his world view.
“I wouldn’t say my phone’s been ringing, mainly because no one knows my private number,” he smiles, as he sits down after concluding another training session. “But there have been offers, yes. All the speculation in Norway has been I’ll be going back to England soon. What I’ll say is this: I’m not looking. But if it happens, it happens. If the right offer comes in, then I can’t rule anything out.”
Solskjaer has appeared on the radar of England’s leading clubs because of the revolution he has affected at Molde. A year ago, when Uwe Rösler left for Brentford, he took over at the place where he spent two seasons as a player.
Under Rösler, Molde finished 11th in the Norwegian league. Within 12 months the new man had secured the first title in their 100-year history. And he reckons success is no coincidence.
“I believe that you get in life what you deserve,” he says. “Throughout my career I’ve had goals, but I’ve worked hard to get to those goals. We won the league because we deserved it. This was a good club with good people before we arrived. We just brought in a few little things, did a few things our way and they made the difference.”
Solskjaer first left Molde in 1996. Milan and Manchester City had both wanted him, but it was Manchester United’s chairman, Martin Edwards, who arrived in a private jet at the local airport to sign him up. Solskjaer subsequently won everything in the game. But all careers come to an end, even the most stellar.
And his initial plan as retirement hove into view was to “escape the headlines and the fuss” and have nothing more to do with football. He changed his mind, however, on the very day he packed in playing. “I guess you think you’ll go on forever, and when you find out it’s being taken away from you, you’ll do anything to stay in the game. I’m really glad I changed my mind.”
The day four years ago a persistent knee injury forced him to retire, he cheerfully accepted an invitation from Sir Alex Ferguson to join United’s coaching staff. He was in charge of the club’s reserves when the call came to return home.
“I wanted the kids to have what I had: a Norwegian childhood,” he says of the move to Molde. “Skiing in the winter, and I mean proper skiing, not that English downhill rubbish. Trouble is they’re a right bunch of Mancs my kids. When I have a weekend off they say, ‘Can we go home?’ And they mean Bramhall.”
On arrival back in Norway, with the family ensconced in his hometown of Kristiansund, an hour’s drive up the coast, Solskjaer determined to change the way of doing things at Molde, the football as much as the infrastructure.
“We lost the first two games 3-0 and 5-0. We had to educate the players to play in the way I wanted. But I knew it would work if we persisted.” His approach, he says, was to make the place work for the players. Little things – the dressing room design, the office layout, the coaching style – made all the difference.
“As a player, every little irritating moment can take away your motivation and they can be easily fixed. Come into work feeling enthusiastic about the place and it shows on the pitch.” And he sets the tone. Smiling, friendly, this is a manager who exudes enthusiasm. It is, he says, a lesson he learned from Ferguson, a man he still refers to as “the Gaffer”.
“I love being on the bench. I love seeing young players expressing themselves,” he says, “I’ve experienced so much with the Gaffer, and passing on that advice and seeing the effect it has, the way they have grown in confidence, the way they have felt able to express themselves, that has given me such a buzz.”
He may only be in his first real manager’s job, but in many ways Solskjaer served a career-long apprenticeship. In his years as United’s supersub, he was in a position to observe at the closest of quarters precisely how the master motivator operated.
“I always watched the little things the Gaffer did,” he says. “I had a book where I’d write down how he reacted when we won a game, lost a game. Towards the end of my career, I was more and more conscious of the way this little comment here and that little comment there made so much difference. If you really listen to what he says, it’s gold dust.”
The appreciation is mutual. Ferguson was once asked who of his players would make a coach and unhesitatingly suggested Solskjaer. This was a man, Ferguson reckoned, who, as sub could diagnose precisely an opponent’s weakness.
That was why he once came off the bench to score four goals against Nottingham Forest, to score the winner in a cup-tie against Liverpool, and most renowned of all, to score the critical goal in the dying moments of the 1999 European Cup final.
“I can’t say I scored four goals that time because I’d analysed Forest and knew exactly what to do,” he says. “What I was good at was preparing myself, mentally, to play. If you’re too selfish, too egocentric and think you should have played from the start, then you will not do the job.
"I remember once in a friendly against Barcelona I was disappointed not to be playing, I was in a bad mood so didn’t do a proper warm-up, he put me on and I wasn’t mentally ready. My legs filled up with acid straight away, I couldn’t run, I was hopeless.
“I made the decision then never ever be grumpy or sulky when on the bench. I looked on it as a chance to prove to him I should have started. But of course he knew that.
"That was the paradox. He knew I’d have the mental approach to give everything for 25 minutes to impress him and that’s exactly what he wanted. So he’d put me on for 25 minutes. But I can’t argue. I had a fantastic career out of it.”
Some career all right. In a nation in thrall to English football, his achievement in Manchester was feted in Norway. He is, together with Sir Matt Busby, Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Alex, since 2010 one of four United stalwarts to be ‘knighted’. Though the Norwegian equivalent does not entitle him to call himself Sir Ole.
“No, it’s not like that,” he says. “This country doesn’t have the class system of England. That was one of the things I never got used to, knowing what class a man is by what paper he reads. Here the king and me and the guy who works in the dairy, we all read the same paper.”
Solskjaer has the background, the skills, certainly the intellect to make an outstanding manager. The thing about him that might hold him back however is this: an hour in his company merely confirms a reputation as the Michael Palin of football, the nicest guy in the game. But, in a calling daily requiring a ruthlessness bordering on the brutal, nice is surely a disadvantage.
“I’ve had that comment thrown in my face through my career,” he says. “I don’t think I am too nice. Most of the time you treat your players like you do your kids. When your kids are trying their best, but are not performing good enough, you encourage them to be better.
"When they aren’t trying, you show them what’s right, using words that are not so nice. Same with the players. If I see anyone not giving 100 per cent, or undermining the collective, they’re out. Simple. Not nice.” So does he wield the Molde equivalent of the hairdryer?
“Ask my players,” he says. “But the thing about the Gaffer, it wasn’t accidental. He never got so angry that he lost control. He knew exactly what to say at every single moment. To get the team performing, he knew what words were needed.”
It is to Ferguson that conversation with Solskjaer invariably turns. And it is Ferguson to whom he is being ever more frequently linked. Bookies already quote him as a decent bet to take over at Old Trafford when the incumbent finally moves on.
“Listen,” he says, “I’m 38, I’ve been a manager for a year, Manchester United is absolutely impossible right now.”
But in the future? After all, as the banner on the Stretford End declaring Olegend would suggest, his appointment would thrill the faithful.
“Eric Cantona, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville: ask any of them, every one of the players who played under Ferguson would love to be manager there one day. When you’ve seen the best, nothing less will do.”
We’ll take that as a yes, then.