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Improbable? Impossible? Well, Ole's been here before


‘It was unbelievable. I still remember feeling almost strangled in the celebration’. Photo: Reuters

‘It was unbelievable. I still remember feeling almost strangled in the celebration’. Photo: Reuters

‘It was unbelievable. I still remember feeling almost strangled in the celebration’. Photo: Reuters

One goal down with time running out was a familiar scenario in 1999 for Manchester United. The forerunner to the Nou Camp came four months earlier in the FA Cup against Liverpool when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was also the hero.

It was almost exactly 22 years ago when United played their bitter rivals and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, which they managed in other matches later that season. But this was the win that set the wheels in motion, before the semi-final drama of Villa Park and the club's greatest night when the Treble was clinched.

Solskjaer's abiding memory of the victory that set the ball rolling was being throttled in the mayhem that followed his last-gasp winner.

"It was unbelievable," Solskjaer said. "I still remember feeling almost strangled in the celebration."

Today he will be in the same dugout, as he was for most of that match in 1999, at the same fourth-round stage of the FA Cup. He sat studying the tie as Liverpool closed in on victory, holding onto the lead they had gained through Michael Owen's early header.

The backdrop to that period of Solskjaer's career was of concern in his homeland. He was not starting enough games and there were fears it could cost him a place in Nils Johan Semb's Norway squad.

Three years earlier, he had arrived at the club from Molde and started 25 times in the Premier League in his rookie season. On the day he arrived his taxi drove past Manchester newspaper reporters at the Cliff training ground and it was Steve Millar of the Daily Mirror who remarked, "There's the baby-faced assassin." That nickname stuck but by the Treble season, so did his label of super-sub.

He was the subject of a bid from Tottenham Hotspur for £5.5m, but Alex Ferguson told him he would get enough game time if he stayed. "I was sub quite a few times," Solskjaer said. "I'd come on for 15 minutes, 20 minutes, half an hour. That is my time to put 90 minutes of work in. I liked to show you I should have played more."

Solskjaer's recollections were made on the documentary called The Impossible Dream about the Treble campaign. It seemed around every corner the inconceivable was overcome, with Solskjaer thrown on when Ferguson needed to gamble.

Against Liverpool, they appeared in a hopeless situation going into the final minutes of the game. United had started poorly and were behind within a couple of minutes when Robbie Fowler's movement caused them problems.

As Vegard Heggem headed down the right flank, Fowler pulled away from goal for a cutback and stretched the United defence. Heggem instead picked out Owen, who steered his header in. "God almighty, you wouldn't think a 5ft 6in striker would score with a header in the first minutes at Old Trafford. I wasn't too pleased about that," was Ferguson's assessment.

What followed was United pouring forward, led by Roy Keane's driving runs and crosses from David Beckham. But it was not until Ferguson made a change with nine minutes remaining, going to a three-man defence, that United found a way back. On came Solskjaer, and eventually Liverpool were broken.

"It was one of those games you knew could possibly go to the last minute," said Andrew Cole, who set up the equaliser when he headed across goal for Dwight Yorke to tap in.

"We didn't panic," Yorke said. "The key to the experience we had in the team and the calmness of the manager was that never-say-die attitude. When I scored that equaliser, that was the best feeling."

Paul Scholes, who was also on as a substitute, has since stated that he was unhappy with the wild celebrations after Yorke's equaliser. There was over a minute of normal time left to play, plus stoppage-time, which gave United enough time for a winner. It was Scholes who set it up, driving into the box and letting his teammate take over rather than shoot. Solskjaer opened his body to fire into the far corner, but it was a disguise. His finish went through Jamie Carragher's legs and in at the near post.

"It was one of his biggest assets, reading matches," said former United coach Rene Meulensteen, who worked with Solskjaer after the Treble season. "I was fortunate to work with him later in his career and what stood out was the cleanness of his finishing, how accurate he was, and his composure. All that added up to make him the player he was. More than anything, it was already having the goal scored in his head.

"He had a good understanding of the game, but you have to read situations and oppositions and defenders, what is their strength, do you go to feet or behind. Ole was excellent at it because he knew in his head where his chances would fall. For the finish, the body movement is disguise from strikers. They expect the goalkeeper to react to that and then they come up with the finish they want."

What followed were manic celebrations as Solskjaer ran to the crowd, grabbing his United badge. It could have been Beckham strangling him in the euphoria, or, possibly, Keane as he jumped over the top of his huddle of teammates. But it felt like United were at the start of a run in which they felt invincible, even when they were in situations where winning looked improbable or impossible. They kept coming up with answers, later in the Cup against Arsenal and so gloriously against Bayern Munich. It seemed to start against Liverpool.

©Telegraph Media Group Ltd (2021)

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Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]