In 1996, Alex Ferguson, fresh from winning his second Double in three seasons, set about planning another assault on the European Cup.
His squad had five new additions including Karel Poborsky who had starred in the Czech Republic’s surprise run to the final of Euro ’96 and rising Dutch star, Jordi Cruyff, both of whom were tipped for long careers at United.
When the new players were introduced to the press at Old Trafford, many were surprised to see that an 11-year-old boy, in full United kit, had managed bluff his way into photos of the new arrivals.
Who was he and how had he managed to get into these photos without anybody stopping him?
Little did we know that this 23-year-old was set to become one of United’s greatest and best loved strikers.
Although he was not well known, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had had some success before joining United. He had already played six times for Norway, scoring four goals (he would go on to score 23 goals in 67 games for his country and play at the 1998 World Cup), and it was during an international match that United coach Jim Ryan spotted him and insisted that United sign him. He had previously scored an astonishing 115 goals in 109 appearances for FK Clausenengen in the Norwegian third division before scoring 31 goals in 42 appearances for top-flight club Molde. He even scored with his final touch for the club after which he left the field, threw his shirt into the crowd and headed for the changing room.
Despite an extraordinary goal-scoring record, Ole said upon signing for United that he expected to play most of the season for the Reserves and would be delighted if he played for the First Team before Christmas. He was named as a substitute for the visit of Blackburn Rovers on 25 August 1996 and replaced David May after an hour with United trailing 2-1. Within five minutes, he chose to shoot rather than pass to the better positioned Eric Cantona. Then, just eight minutes after coming on, Ole found himself one-on-one with Blackburn keeper, Tim Flowers. His shot was parried but he smashed in the rebound to earn United a draw.
Ole scored on each of his first four appearances at Old Trafford, including both goals in a 2-0 win over Spurs. He would finish his first season as United’s top scorer with a hugely impressive 18 League goals, including 5 in the final 4 games to secure the League title. He also weighed in with a single goal as United made it to the Semi Final of the European Cup. It was an astonishing season for the man who less than two years previously had been playing in the Norwegian third division.
Despite being offered a seven-year deal that made him the highest paid player at the club, Ole’s second season was not as successful as his first. Injuries combined with the arrival of Teddy Sheringham and the outstanding form of Andrew Cole meant that, despite his outstanding form in the previous season, Ole’s opportunities were restricted. He scored a disappointing 9 goals in 28 appearances and his contribution to the season is probably best remembered for his professional foul on Rob Lee of Newcastle that got him sent off, but secured a point for United.
1998/99 also began badly for Ole. The immergence of Dwight Yorke again meant limited his opportunities. By the end of October, he had scored just three goals and United had agreed a fee to sell him to Spurs. Ole rejected the offer though, insisting that he’d rather stay at United and fight for his place. In a 2006 interview with United fanzine, Red News, Ole admitted that he still had the contract that Spurs offered him. It remains unsigned to this day.
But things were about to get better. In a rare start at White Hart Lane, Ole turned in a man-of-the-match performance, scoring two goals in a match that United inexplicably managed to draw 2-2. When Liverpool came to Old Trafford in late January for an FA Cup tie, Ole watched from the bench as the Scousers lead through an early Michael Owen goal. But shortly after Dwight Yorke had equalised for United with barely a minute remaining, Ole found himself with the ball at his feet with just the keeper to beat. He wrong-footed David James and steered the ball into the bottom corner to give United a fantastic and dramatic win.
Despite these heroics, Ole once again found himself on the bench two weeks later when United travelled to the City Ground to play Nottingham Forest. With just under twenty minutes remaining, United led 4-1 with Cole and Yorke each scoring twice. Ole came on for Yorke and produced what must surely be the greatest individual performance from any United player. In 12 short minutes, he smashed in 4 goals to complete an 8-1 demolition. Ole didn’t seem too fussed about what he’d done; merely noting that he’d disobeyed Jim Ryan’s instructions to keep it tight towards the end.
Ole scored two more goals in the run-in as United secured the Premiership and started the FA Cup as United easily beat Newcastle 2-0 to secure the Double. But Ole was back on the bench for the European Cup Final against Bayern Munich in Barcelona. Before the game, Ole phoned his best friend back in Norway, telling him to be certain to watch the match because something big was going to happen to him. He repeated this hunch to Jim Ryan in the dressing room before the start of the game. Ole replaced Andrew Cole with about fifteen minutes remaining. He had a header well saved by Oliver Kahn as it looked like United were doomed to finish runners-up.
But after Teddy Sheringham’s injury time equaliser, United won another corner. Beckham delivered, Sheringham flicked on and Ole toe-poked it into the top corner. He slid down on his knees in an attempt to out do Mario Basler’s celebration earlier on before being mobbed by his teammates. It was a fantastic moment to end a fantastic season and it ensured immortality for Ole. Who put the ball in the Germens’ net? OLE GUNNAR SOLSKJAER!!!
With his place in United folklore secured, Ole began to establish himself more in the United first team. Though his reputation as a super sub remained with him, he got more starts and played crucial roles in the Title winning seasons of 2000 and 2001. It was the 2002/2003 season that was probably Ole’s best though. He played in 37 League games, more than any other player, often wide on the right. Indeed he did so well in this position, that he ousted David Beckham from the team for crucial matches against Arsenal and Real Madrid. In all, Ole scored 15 goals in all competitions as United came from behind to win the Title. But for Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s astonishing total of 44 goals, Ole would surely have been United’s player of the year. He would win his second FA Cup winners medal the following year against Millwall.
But in 2004, Ole suffered damage to his knee that would eventually lead to his retirement. During his time out, his popularity grew even bigger. He became a member of Shareholders United and publicly backed their campaign to block the Glazer’s takeover as well as being a UNICEF ambassador. Sadly, his playing career looked to be over after several failed comeback attempts meant he had not scored for United in over three years. Thankfully, he was fit enough to join the tour of South Africa last July and although he was not fit enough to play at Loftus, he did get on the score sheet in the opening game against Pirates. Some lucky fans even managed to get to see him up close at the airport and get an autograph and a handshake.
When United played Charlton in their second match of the 2006/07, Ole made a substitute appearance late on in the game. In injury time, Louis Saha glided through the Charlton defence and squared the ball. Ole was on the end of it and he calmly placed into the bottom corner for his first goal in more than three years. He turned and bowed to the United fans, who in turn barely restrained themselves from rushing onto the field to embrace their hero. It had seemed impossible just a year ago, but Ole had scored again for United. We would go onto score 10 more as United won the Title after a four year wait. Of course I didn’t know it at the time, but I was lucky enough to be present at the game against Blackburn when he scored his 126th and final goal for United. His final game for United came in the FA Cup final defeat to Chelsea and though that will probably be remembered as a disappointing day, Ole has had a wonderful career with United and it has been out great pleasure and privilege to have watched him over his eleven years at the club.
There are so many truly special memories of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and everybody will have his or her favourite. He scored the most important goal in the club’s history. He managed to score 4 goals in 12 minutes of a Premiership game. He remained loyal to the club despite the grave injustice of him never being a regular starter, deciding to stay and fight for the club, rather than fight for another. He played his best football in an unfamiliar position, thinking only of the team. He returned against all odds from an injury that should have ended his career long before now, yet he was so determined to play again for United that he forced himself not to give up. He was appointed as an ambassador for the club and has begun coaching the future stars of United. He joined fans’ groups and even posed as a fan outside Lou Macari’s chip shop for his spread in the OPUS. And even here in South Africa, he ignored police requests to not sign autographs by obliging to everyone who asked. My personal highlight has to be seeing Ole sitting on the bus at OR Tambo Airport and turning to show him the “20 SOLSKJAER” on my back. The tiny nod and clenched fist of appreciation will live with me forever.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has done for Manchester United than a dozen players do for their clubs. 366 games have brought him 126 goals, 6 Premier League Titles, 2 FA Cup winners medals, a League cup win and a European Cup winners medal on that historic night in Barcelona. He can now hopefully look forward to a coaching career with United that will hopefully last long into the future. His career has certainly had its downs, but the ups make up for those several times over. Not bad for someone who supported Liverpool as a boy.
To Ole, thank you for everything you have done for this club. You have given us all countless memories that we will cherish for the rest of our days. Your legend will live on at Old Trafford forever.
By Callum Donnan, 20LEgend
Dim lights Embed Embed this video on your site