Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s most famous partisan supporters ended up doing their old pal more harm than good.
The impassioned defences of the manager by the three wise pundit monkeys, See No Evil By Ole Neville, Speak No Evil About Ole Keane and Hear No Evil Concerning Ole Schmeichel, finally hurt not just the manager but Manchester United itself.
Neville’s was the most high profile, the most prolonged and the most ludicrous of the three campaigns. His defence of Solskjaer was like Javert’s pursuit of Valjean in Les Miserables but in reverse. In this case the layer down of the law was obsessed with proving his man innocent rather than guilty.
The Glazers’ ownership of Manchester United has its problematic aspects but the idea they were entirely to blame for the club’s failures on the pitch seemed rooted in Neville’s implacable desire to absolve his old teammate of responsibility.
Last season, as United’s predicted title challenge failed to materialise, he insisted Solskjaer couldn’t be expected to succeed because he’d been left four signings short of the ideal team by the miserly owners.
But this portrayal of a fine manager betrayed by parsimonious employers bore little resemblance to reality. United were fielding the highest-paid team in Premier League history, one which contained some of that league’s biggest ever signings.
The additions of Jadon Sancho, Cristiano Ronaldo and Raphael Varane this season, supposed to propel the team into title contention, had little effect because the most important position of all was filled by someone clearly not up to the job.
Neville’s populist rhetoric did much to fuel the revolutionary spirit which led to the fan protests against the American owners. It may also have convinced the besieged Glazers that leaving Solskjaer in charge would earn them brownie points with the more mutinous elements of the United faithful.
So, while long-term faith in the manager was proclaimed, outstanding candidates for the Old Trafford post went elsewhere with Mauricio Pochettino taking over at Paris Saint-Germain, Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea and Antonio Conte at Spurs. Now, should Zinedine Zidane not fancy the job, United could have a choice between limping through to the end of the season under Michael Carrick as caretaker manager or appointing Brendan Rodgers at a time when Leicester’s struggles raise old questions about the Irishman’s bona fides. Neither is an enticing prospect.
Contrast United’s indecision with the ruthless way Chelsea acted in the case of Frank Lampard. Lampard was the Solskjaer of Stamford Bridge, a former on-field hero whose appointment was made with one eye on the fans who’d loved him.
Lampard also went well in his first season. But when the Blues realised he wasn’t the man to bring success they appointed Tuchel, who almost immediately masterminded a Champions League victory and currently has them on top of the Premier League.
Those are the kind of achievements United should have been aiming for but were never likely to reach under a manager whose CV lacked meaningful top-level experience.
Even after yesterday’s sacking Neville was burbling unconvincingly about Ole having saved the club’s soul. But, compared to the achievements of Messrs Klopp, Guardiola and Tuchel, that soul seems something of a consolation prize.
Roy Keane surely knew the managerial lie of the land and it was perhaps this very knowledge which lent such an edge to his criticism of current United players. Yet lashing into the likes of Paul Pogba, Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire may have been counter-productive.
Solskjaer had undoubtedly been popular with the players at one stage. But how were players to feel when they saw their manager’s old teammate defend him by claiming they were entirely to blame for everything that had gone wrong? It hardly encouraged them to leave it all on the pitch for Keane’s buddy.
In the end the players had lost faith in the manager to such an extent that the performance against Watford seemed a textbook example of the kind designed to oust an unpopular boss.
Peter Schmeichel also refused to countenance the notion that Solskjaer bore any responsibility for the fiasco which this season had become. His scapegoats were the fans. In the run-up to the Manchester derby the former goalkeeper insisted that the supporters were responsible for sapping the morale of the players by not offering sufficient encouragement.
This game, Schmeichel declared, would be a big test for the supporters. They needed to show the right stuff. But such lectures were merely guaranteed to alienate fans who had actually been extremely patient during the Solskjaer reign. They bore no responsibility for the team’s troubles but eventually they, like the players, just stopped believing.
It’s hard to blame Neville, Keane and Schmeichel for their determination to take Solskjaer’s side no matter what. They know him for a long time and soldiered with him through many memorable games where the outstanding characteristic of the great Manchester United team was that the players all had each other’s back.
Invoking the notion of ‘professionalism’ under those circumstances seems lacking in ordinary human sympathy. They did their best for him because they knew he would have done the same for them. Why sacrifice friendship on the altar of punditry?
But eventually the extreme and illogical nature of these serial justifications just made them backfire. In seeking to delay the inevitable, the three wise pundit monkeys only made it all the more painful when it finally happened.