“Stupid or naive, it has always been my dream,” said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer during an interview with Norwegian television channel NRK in mid-March.
He was talking about becoming manager of Manchester United, the chances of which the former striker thought he had blown with his disastrous eight-month stint in charge of Cardiff in 2014.
But the dream never died – Solskjaer made that clear by ensuring his contracts at Molde, where he earned managerial redemption, contained clauses allowing for his release should United ever come calling.
It says much for the 46-year-old’s foresight, ambition, persistence and sheer bloody mindedness that the clause was required.
An answer Solskjaer gave when he was introduced to the media as United’s interim boss on 21 December revealed his end game, which has now been achieved with his confirmation as manager on a three-year-contract.
At the time, with United nearer the bottom of the Premier League than the top in points terms and gripped by the toxicity brought on by the dark, final days of Jose Mourinho’s tenure, few at Old Trafford – players, staff or supporters – were looking beyond the next day’s trip to Cardiff.
Asked if he thought he could get the job permanently – when everyone assumed the summer would bring an approach for Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino – he responded with reassuring honesty: “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”
From no-hoper to shoo-in
In October 2018, shortly after an erroneous story appeared stating Mourinho would be sacked that weekend regardless of the result against Newcastle, Zinedine Zidane was favourite to become United’s next boss.
Thirteen names appeared on the bookmakers’ list of potential candidates. Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez figured prominently. Solskjaer was not listed.
Five months later, on the day United were beaten at Wolves in the FA Cup quarter-finals, Zidane was still third favourite. Given the Frenchman had just been given a three-year contract by Real Madrid, it said everything about how certain Solskjaer was to get the job.
To reach that position took a while.
After Mourinho’s sacking, United wanted someone who understood the ethos of the club. Someone who knew the importance of attacking football, the development of young players and a collective spirit. That person also needed managerial experience.
Solskjaer had all this. In addition, he had experience of managing at United thanks to two and a half years spent in charge of the reserve team from 2008. Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward made the call.
In those early days, a few things happened to confirm Woodward had made the right move.
Two of the first people Solskjaer spoke to after receiving the call were Sir Alex Ferguson, who won 38 trophies during 26 years in charge of United, and the Scot’s old assistant Mike Phelan. Rather than distance himself from what had gone before – as David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Mourinho had done – Solskjaer wanted advice and familiarity.
Then, on the Saturday at Cardiff, United’s travelling support gave him a phenomenal reception.
In the directors’ box, Woodward could not fail to notice how positively the club’s fans responded to Solskjaer’s presence. And that was before Marcus Rashford took just three minutes to score the first of United’s five goals. It was the first time the team had scored five times in the Premier League since Ferguson’s final game – a 5-5 draw at West Brom in 2013.
In addition, Solskjaer’s presence silenced the criticism from his former United team-mates Rio Ferdinand, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes, who had been so venomous in their condemnation of what had happened to their old club.
At the very least, Woodward knew getting through to the end of the season would not be a problem.
Nobody envisaged what would happen after that.
Eight successive wins, including victories in the league at Tottenham and the FA Cup at Arsenal. The run had been bettered only once since Ferguson retired. The feel-good factor was back at Old Trafford, and suddenly Solskjaer was being talked about as a potential successor to Mourinho.
Battling back from two goals down to snatch a home draw against Burnley was seen as a positive, despite the winning run coming to an end.
The doubts about Solskjaer did not come until United were well beaten at Old Trafford by Paris St-Germain in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie on 12 February.
What followed got him the job.
There was an FA Cup victory at Chelsea and a home draw with leaders Liverpool – a game in which United lost three players to injury in the first half, while Rashford limped his way through the final three-quarters.
That result came on the same weekend Tottenham lost at Burnley, which triggered a furious post-match outburst by Pochettino at referee Mike Dean that earned him a two-match touchline ban and gave away his true feelings at the cost of a defeat that began a run of one point from four games.
Solskjaer was no longer Mourinho’s potential successor. He was the likely one.
The night of 6 March in Paris, when United became the first team in Champions League history to go through despite losing the first leg at home by two goals, swept away any remaining doubt.
It was not only Solskjaer, it was also what he had assembled behind him. United men in Phelan and Michael Carrick, plus Kieran McKenna, who had moved north from Tottenham to coach the club’s age-group teams but had made a successful transition to the seniors.
Moyes was lambasted for sweeping out Ferguson’s backroom team in 2013. The idea Woodward would sanction the same thing again, which would have to happen if Pochettino got the job, was ridiculous.
There is more. Woodward has his critics but is a very successful and astute man. While he retains the complete faith of United’s owners, presiding over a fourth failed managerial tenure would be a personal embarrassment.
Even if the decision to appoint Solskjaer backfires, the damage to him will be minimal because it is an appointment the majority of United’s vast fanbase demanded.
If he appointed Pochettino and the Argentine failed, the responsibility would land squarely at Woodward’s door.
The great unknowns
Solskjaer has become the 21st manager of Manchester United because of who he is and what he has done.
There are numerous reasons why United fans adore him, much more than scoring that injury-time Champions League final winner against Bayern Munich in 1999. Solskjaer will always be guaranteed a hero’s reception.
Any caretaker who delivered the results he has since replacing Mourinho would feel they had a pretty decent claim on the job, even without the back story.
Right now, United crave stability because three successive managers have been sacked after fewer than three years in the job for the first time.
Everyone at Old Trafford is desperate for this appointment to work. But for that to happen United must give Solskjaer the platform to succeed – and that means appointing a technical director, even if the consequence is some existing members of staff losing part of their power.
As has been said to me by numerous people connected with United, unless the club start to get continuity over recruitment, their first-team squad will remain imbalanced and lack a coherent thread.
Solskjaer, as manager, must be allowed to sign off new recruits – but will he be good at it?
The evidence from his short time at Cardiff – where he made 17 signings and even the players who have subsequently proved to be excellent, like Wilfried Zaha, made minimal impact – is no.
However, as he has repeatedly said, he feels more at ease at United than he ever did in south Wales. And he has raised both the individual and collective performance levels and consistency from Mourinho’s tepid final season.
But while the results Solskjaer has overseen have, for the most part, been impressive, it is fair to ask whether he has actually delivered them in the “United way” – said to be a commitment to front-foot, attacking football.
United have won some tricky away games – at Newcastle, Leicester and Crystal Palace – with a majority of possession, but most of their major successes have been when they have played on the counter-attack.
They had less than 40% possession in wins at PSG, Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs, plus the home draw with Liverpool. By comparison, they won at Juventus under Mourinho with 45% possession.
The FA Cup defeat at Wolves highlighted what, potentially, could become a major issue. The hosts were content to sit back and let United have the ball – 62% of it. Solskjaer’s team managed just two shots on target, with their midfield trio particularly ineffective.
And how will he handle a string of poor results?
He has ridden the crest of a wave at United but what if he goes four games without a win, which has happened five times since Ferguson retired? What if he wins only five out of 11 or six in 15, as was the case under Mourinho and Moyes respectively? Or what if he goes eight without a win as Van Gaal did?
The answers to these key questions will only be discovered when the circumstances arise.
However, the same could be said of Pochettino, who has been able to fall back on the convenient, if legitimate, excuse of a lack of investment in his Tottenham squad for their failure to win anything under his management.
For 22 seasons from 1992, United finished no lower than third place in the Premier League. Since Ferguson left at the end of the 2013 season after winning his 13th league title, United have finished in the top three only once.
United have not mounted a plausible Premier League title challenge since then. In addition, they have not gone beyond the last eight of the Champions League.
It is true the spending power of Manchester City makes them a formidable opponent. But Arsenal and Chelsea are both a long way short of their peak and Tottenham have secured four straight top-three finishes despite only generating two-thirds of the income United do.
With a coherent approach to squad strengthening, third in the Premier League and progressing to the last eight in Europe should be the minimum target. Falling so far short underlines how wrong United have been in their decision-making during the post-Ferguson era.
Solskjaer’s dream has become reality. His appointment is the correct decision. But he is not the only one with the responsibility for ensuring it does not turn into another managerial nightmare.