The super sub maturing into a super coach
Solskjaer biding time at Molde to carefully manage his ascension
The celebration was spectacularly familiar. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer slid on his knees, clenched his fists, and yelled pure happiness into the night.
Many years have passed since that seminal moment in the Camp Nou in 1999, but for Solskjaer the manager, in his suit and coat and thick scarf, a bright man who is deeply aware of how he presents his ambitions and responsibilities, there was no way of stopping the instinct to literally throw himself into a football-bloody-hell moment. "I can afford to buy new trousers. You get carried away a bit when it's that tight," he quipped afterwards.
It was certainly a scenario worth relishing, as Solskjaer's team beat Rosenborg 2-0 to leap over their final major hurdle en route to a successful title defence. Bear in mind that Molde had not won the league in their entire history before this favourite son returned to try his hand at management in 2011. A dramatically charged, late breakaway goal was loaded with emotion. Now Molde just need only jog over the line, with two matches, both against Tippeligaen strugglers, to come and a one-point lead over unfancied Stromsgodset to maintain.
Solskjaer's stock as a young manager going places is indisputable. The only questions are where and when. His name is seldom far from the mix when English club positions are vacant, and he makes no secret of his desire to graduate to the Premier League. But given the way he has conducted his development so far, it is clear the former striker is in no rush to take something that does not feel entirely right. There were discussions with Aston Villa, links with Bolton and Blackburn, but nothing has yet tempted him away from his hometown club.
When he was asked about one day taking over at United on a recent radio interview he chuckled, before saying all the right things about having big dreams. But his tone of voice revealed how he wants to manage his career with care, avoiding unnecessary traps and having enough confidence and control to do his job as well as can be.
The Norwegians are impressed by how he conveys himself. It is subtle, but there is substance and strength in abundance. "He has a really strange aura," says Lars Siversten, a reporter with TV2. "He is in charge of everything in the room. Without exerting authority he can achieve the desired effect by a look. We think very highly of him. At first it was like he was the golden boy player coming home. It took a title to prove he is a serious and significant football man. He worked hard to prove himself."
Molde give him the right tools for his apprenticeship. It is a well-run club, with good financial backing. The owner, Kjell Inge Rokke, one of Norway's wealthiest businessmen, was part of the consortium who bought into Wimbledon in the late 1990s and forced the move to Milton Keynes. But closer to home, there are few critics of how he has invested in Molde. He built their stadium, and in one of the most picturesque places you can imagine football being played. The 11,800-seat Aker Stadion lies on the bank of a fjord, with snow-capped mountains as its backdrop. Molde have the funds to recruit a high calibre of player by Tippeligaen standards.
Solskjaer had the freedom to handpick his coaches: Richard Hartis and Mark Dempsey, friends from his Old Trafford days, are integral members of his support staff.
These factors were all important to Solskjaer when he took on the challenge. "It's not about what club you find, it's about finding leadership in that club that you can work with and trust. Then you have a good foundation," he says. "I feel that I have a lot to learn. I'm sure I could have been a manager in England right now, if I wanted to, but it's not right for me. And it's certainly not right for my family, and that's at least as important here. If I do well here, I'm sure I'll be happy."
Taking Molde into the Champions League is one of his aspirations. They were close in the pre-qualifiers last time, but a squandered penalty ended the journey. Solskjaer went straight to the afflicted penalty taker to engulf him in a bear hug. He wants players who, like him, are genuinely interested in the game. His captain, Daniel Berg Hestad, is steeped in Molde's story. He is their record appearance holder. The man who held the honour before was his father. His passion for what he does is exemplary.
It is no surprise Solskjaer has tried to build his team around players who are as strong mentally as they are technically. "There are so many talents around but when they have character, hunger, the motivation to be better all the time, to improve, that's the key," he explains. That was such an obvious part of his own make-up as a player, and even his time as a regular substitute was put to good use as he famously used his time on the bench at Old Trafford by intently studying the opposition.
As he told the magazine Josimar, that was not something he did lightly, but with a very specific view to making the best of any situation he found himself in: "I probably didn't analyse the whole game. I had to think about myself, how can I do the most damage for the opposition if I come on? I sat there and I studied football games, but I didn't exactly analyse their strikers. Thierry Henry could do whatever he wanted as far as I was concerned, that was Jaap Stam's problem. Instead I would pay attention to what the defenders and full-backs were doing wrong."
Solskjaer is still absorbing everything he can from the touchline, now with his suit and coat and scarf on. The super sub has turned into a super coach.
Sunday Indo Sport