Wednesday 18 September 2019

Alex Ferguson's influence hangs over Solskjaer call

Bold decision points to United's two recent eras merging to rediscover missing harmony

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer speaks with Alex Ferguson on the training ground at Carrington. Photo: REUTERS/Phil Noble
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer speaks with Alex Ferguson on the training ground at Carrington. Photo: REUTERS/Phil Noble

Sam Wallace

A sweet-natured boy who was never looking to be confrontational with me," was how Alex Ferguson remembered the current manager of Manchester United in his 2013 autobiography - in other words the lowest-maintenance goalscorer of the club's most successful era.

It was surprising how few mentions Ole Gunnar Solskjaer merited in the previous volume of memoirs, the 1999 'Managing My Life', published in the months after Ferguson had touched the very peak with an injury-time goal at the Nou Camp from his most willing substitute.

Lifting the trophy after scoring the winner in the 1999 Champions League final. Photto: Reuters / Darren Walsh
Lifting the trophy after scoring the winner in the 1999 Champions League final. Photto: Reuters / Darren Walsh

By then, Solskjaer had been at the club three years, a firmly established fan favourite and yet, as Ferguson tells the incredible story of his own career, its struggles, its feuds, its sheer bloody-minded pursuit of success, Solskjaer is just a gold-plated footnote. He is the Fortinbras of the tale, sweeping in at the end to take the prize.

As a caretaker manager almost 20 years on from that night in Barcelona, Solskjaer is an unusual choice for a club who, since the demise of David Moyes, have tended to turn their back on the counsel of the Ferguson era.

Ed Woodward, now the executive vice-chairman, and his close team of advisers, Matt Judge, Richard Arnold and Hemen Tseayo, have elected to do it their way, with Woodward the undisputed king, eager to bring his expertise to football's intractable problems.

Bringing in Solskjaer, a caretaker manager already in a job, a coach whose only nine months managing in English football were a failure, is certainly a bold move, but it also suggests the influence of Ferguson in the thought process of United's boardroom leader. There has been no previous clamour to give Solskjaer a job when others have come up in the Premier League, and although the consensus in Norway is that he has done well at Molde, he has been less successful than in his first spell.

Mike Phelan also returns. Photo: Barry Coombs/PA Wire
Mike Phelan also returns. Photo: Barry Coombs/PA Wire

When he came to Cardiff City in January 2014, he did so as a manager with two Norwegian league titles and a domestic cup. Since going back, he has managed two second-place finishes, behind a much-improved Rosenborg side. There is an acceptance that Molde play the best football in the Eliteserien, but that they have struggled to be consistent, especially in August when their focus shifted to qualifying for the Europa League group stage. They were narrowly eliminated 4-3 on aggregate by a much better-resourced Zenit St Petersburg.

The appointment of Solskjaer feels like a Ferguson move, one of those great calculated gambles taken by the old boy in the moments when he glanced at his bench and decided to go for it. Those calls were borne of a belief in the individual rather than the opposition or the system. A hunch on the right man at the right time and it feels that way now - a belief that a coach working in a domestic league ranked 23rd in Europe, behind Cyprus, Scotland and Belarus, might just be ready.

If Solskjaer's arrival was Ferguson-endorsed, then Mike Phelan's appointment feels like the long-awaited debt settled to an old friend. Not that Ferguson owed Phelan anything when finally he resigned as manager, but he was horrified by the decision by Moyes to move his old assistant on. It never stopped being strange to see Phelan in the Old Trafford press box offering his thoughts to BBC Radio Manchester on the decline of an empire he had helped to build.

It felt especially odd that to our left in the directors' box was the club's new ruling class, as well as Ferguson and the former chief executive David Gill, while with the rest of the kept-at-arm's-length media was a man who had once been such a key part of it. Phelan was Ferguson's gatekeeper in the later years, making sure those who occupied his boss's time had good reason to do so.

After an absence following his brain haemorrhage in May, Ferguson's influence seems to be exerting itself around Old Trafford once more - a comforting presence in difficult times, a good idea discovered all over again. He was photographed having dinner with four of his Class of '92 apprentices - Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes - this month and one can only wonder what was said behind closed doors.

The new regime led by Woodward always had an awkward relationship with those whom they replaced - Ferguson and Gill, as well as Bobby Charlton, the eminence grise of the good old days.


The new guard had been given control, although in the summer of 2013 it was control of a club shaped by their predecessors, including a new manager whom they sacked within 10 months. After that, they decided to go their own way, although that, too, has brought its problems. Now, it feels as if the division between the two eras might be softening.

Ferguson has kept his counsel since the autobiography was released in October 2013 while the first cracks appeared in the Moyes regime. On Sunday, the shaking of his head, the thin-lipped disbelief at the Anfield capitulation seemed to suggest there were some performances that even he could not fully internalise.

English football is a story viewed through its past, how the game's great figures created legacies that were impossible for successors to match. Ferguson has been sensitive to any accusations of interference and, other than his steadfast attendance, has kept his distance. But the return of Solskjaer and Phelan would not have been done without his advice.

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