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'He had turned down Aston Villa but decided Cardiff was the correct choice'

A look at the turbulent early days of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s managerial career.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer pictured as Cardiff boss in 2014.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer pictured as Cardiff boss in 2014.
Image: Phil Cole

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from The Red Apprentice by Jamie Jackson.

The Bluebirds are down. Norwich City’s 0-0 draw at Chelsea puts them three points ahead of Cardiff City with a better goal difference of eight. There is a next-to-zero chance of them overturning this when Chelsea visit on the final day, and they do not – losing 2-1 – and so fall into the Championship after one season in the Premier League as the bottom-placed side with 30 points. OGS has overseen Cardiff City’s instant plunge through the trapdoor. He took over on 2 January, following Malky Mackay’s sacking, and had an 18-match audition as a Premier League manager.

He fails. This will haunt him. Will cause soul-seeking and solitude when home in Kristiansund. He took the position as he wanted to manage in the Premier League as a first step towards the ultimate ambition of taking charge of Manchester United one day.

He had turned down Aston Villa but decided Cardiff was the correct choice – Ferguson had always told him to choose the right executive as well as club. Here he makes a mistake. Vincent Tan, the Malaysian businessman, was reputed to be an overzealous owner…

Ole had been approached after Mackay’s removal by Mehmet Dalman, the Cardiff chairman, who was an admirer of OGS as a player, his style of football, and his vision of the game. Ole was approached on New Year’s Eve – a Tuesday – and by the Thursday – 2 January – he was being unveiled.

‘Absolute nonsense,’ he said at his first media conference when asked if Sir Alex Ferguson, now in the final months of his 26-and-a-half-year-long Manchester United tenure, had advised against taking the position due to Tan’s reputation.

‘He has wished me the best and given me some good advice as he always does. I had a good conversation with him,’ Ole said.

Yet he did admit some of his friends in football had sent him texts warning him not to work at the club due to rumours that Tan had meddled in team matters when Mackay was in charge.

‘Everything isn’t exactly what it seems from the outside,’ Ole said. ‘I am really looking forward to the challenge. Whenever the manager put me on the bench [at Manchester United], I wanted to prove to him he is wrong. And if there are any doubts, don’t worry, I’m coming into this with clear and open eyes, I know what I’m going into and I’m so looking forward to it. I’m going to bring my energy, enthusiasm, football knowledge. I want my team to play exciting football, we want the fans to come here and be proud of us.’

When Ferguson’s statement that the manager is the most important person at a club was put to him, OGS said, ‘I agree. I am very confident that football matters, that is my matter’; he then stressed the importance of creating a ‘good dialogue’ with Tan and Dalman, adding that he had held a ‘great meeting’ with the owner at the Emirates Stadium on New Year’s Day,

Cardiff losing 2-0 to Arsenal that day. ‘He’s willing to help this club progress and develop into the Premier League club that we want it to be.’

To have a single discussion with Tan at the Emirates during a match and agree instantly to accept the job ahead of being unveiled 24 hours later suggests haste. Here was a lesson. Jim Solbakken was also present in north London. He would source signings for Ole – his ‘closest friend in a private sense’ – during the January window that would be criticised regarding OGS’s ability to assess what his new and struggling team required.

Despite having no Premier League experience, Dalman was ‘100 per cent convinced’ by OGS. ‘We will see much more attacking football from Ole,’ the chairman said. ‘Also, I like the way he communicates – that, for me, is crucial in the role I play, communicating with the manager and the rest of the hierarchy all the way up to the owner. Ole ticks all those boxes.’

There was more context to Ole being offered the job. He knew Tan’s sacking of Mackay had come after the latter refused a ‘resign or else’ ultimatum.

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His departure followed the suspension, then removal, of the director of football, Iain Moody, for a rumoured £15m overspend on transfers, Mackay having recruited Moody after they worked together at Watford.

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Moody, though, denied the story, saying he was £4 million within budget. Tan’s replacement for Moody had been left-field, even for the football vaudeville: Alisher Apsalyamovby, a 23-year-old Kazakh who was a friend of Tan’s son and was at the club on work experience. Apsalyamovby was appointed on 9 October 2013 and lasted until 21 December, having to leave after only two months due to a visa issue. His remit had focused ‘on gathering data on individual players’, a Cardiff statement said, and was as controversial a Tan decision as his move to change the Bluebirds’ blue-coloured shirts to red the previous summer.

Those recruited by Ole in the January window were the midfielders Magnus Wolff Eikrem and Mats Dæhli, plus striker Jo Inge Berget – all Solbakken clients and all players of Ole’sfrom Molde, the others being Kenwyne Jones, Fábio Da Silva (who Ole also knew from Manchester United), and Juan Cala. There were question marks about the suitability of the six for the relegation fight Cardiff were in, particularly in Norway regarding Eikrem, Dæhli and Berget. This recruitment would be used against Ole later.

Solskjær was also joined by Mark Dempsey and Richard Hartis from Molde as he again tried to manage and man-manage his way.

‘When he first came in, I was injured and he was great with me then, speaking with me. He tried to help — him and his assistant, Mark Dempsey,’ says Andrew Taylor, who was a left-sided defender and midfielder for OGS at Cardiff.

‘Solskjær was really good. He always had a lot of time to try to develop individuals. All of his coaches, Richard Hartis as well – the goalie coach. It was never to make you feel bad or to belittle you – Ole would show you clips from your previous games. Things that you maybe didn’t do so well that you could have done better. I think that was certainly something as a management group that they were good at.’

Ole Gunnar’s first league match as the Cardiff number one ended as the last one would: in defeat. A 2-0 home loss to West Ham United, the first of 13 in 20 matches in all competitions until the season end. In the Premier League, Solskjær enjoyed victory only three times. Yet Taylor, who retired in summer 2019 at Bolton Wanderers, speaks glowingly of his time under Solskjær.

‘It was difficult, obviously,’ Taylor says. ‘The circumstances when he took over – we were in a sticky position anyway.’

Cardiff were 17th with only 18 points, which put them a point and a place above the drop zone, with 18 matches left and a goal difference of minus 17.

‘Given more time he certainly would have been successful there. He has the right views on football, the right visions of where he wants to go. In the time I spent with him, he made a good impression on me. He is first and foremost a fantastic person. I don’t think anybody could have a bad word to say about him, but behind his smile and nice demeanour, he’s got, how can you call it, a very focused personality. He knows what he wants, he knows how to get it. I think that’s what you need, especially to be a manager at the top level. He’s certainly got it.

‘As time goes on the modern player is different to what he was 10 years ago or 15, 20 years ago. Ole knows how to speak with young players. He obviously did it with the young lads at United before he became a manager. One of the things that he used to try to instil into us was confidence. We were at the bottom and low on confidence. But he wants his players to go and play with freedom, and go play with a smile on their faces.’

OGS would come to feel he had tried to change too much too soon at Cardiff. And the style of football he chose – attacking – was not apt for the relegation fight-fest. Taylor agrees this may have been an error. ‘Well, again, he inherited somebody else’s team and somebody else’s philosophy, if you like,’ he says. ‘It was difficult for him to try to turn it round so quickly, but again he wanted us to play expansive football, with freedom, to go and express ourselves.’

The Red Apprentice by Jamie Jackson is published by Simon & Schuster UK. More info here.

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