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Dublin: 20 °C Tuesday 2 June, 2020

The real work starts now for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as short-term, no-pressure fling turns to heavy relationship

From here on, all the rules change and where there had been little in the way of expectation, the Norwegian will now be heavily scrutinised.

It's been a whirlwind few months for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
It's been a whirlwind few months for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Image: Martin Rickett

THERE’S THAT SCENE in the ITV documentary about Ryan Giggs’ short spell as Manchester United caretaker boss when he’s sitting in his office. In front of him, on the desk, is a litany of folders. One is the media briefing. Another is analysis of United’s last five games and a breakdown of the personnel involved. Another is training schedules. Another is a preseason plan.  

“It’s hard work,” he says to camera.

“It’s just so many different things going through your head.”

There was a time, not too long ago, when the club’s legendary winger seemed the romantic choice to permanently step into the void left by David Moyes’ sacking. From Giggs’ four games as interim boss, United won twice, drew once and lost away to Sunderland. But his presence seemed to reconnect supporters to a team that had quickly become unrecognisable under the beleaguered Scot. Giggs had the blessing of Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Bobby Charlton and David Gill. When he needed reinforcements on his coaching staff, he called in Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes. It was feel-good stuff.

But, there was a reality check. That moment in the office. So much responsibility. So much to think on. So many decisions to make. He couldn’t sleep. He was hyper emotional. It was exhausting. And probably why fans ultimately didn’t trust him to get the job done. When a poll went up on the United We Stand website seeking readers’ preferences when it came to who the next manager should be, only 6% voted for Giggs. In contrast, Jose Mourinho boasted support of 85%. It echoed the opinions of others in the football world. 

Speaking to an experienced Premier League administrator at the time, he put it simply.

“United are on the same level as major corporations like Amazon, Google and Facebook,” he told me.

“When Mark Zuckerberg wants to hire a new CEO, does he appoint a guy with no management experience but who has spent 20 years with the company and knows the place inside out? No. He will bring in somebody who understands the pressure, the workload, the intimidating size of the business and won’t crack.”

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer File Photo There has been plenty of warmth surrounding Solskjaer's interim role and his achievements so far but that changes from now on. Source: Martin Rickett

The opposite happened with Moyes. There was so much to dwell on that he forgot his instincts. He began to doubt himself and his decisions. And he ended up drowning under the weight of it all. 

That’s the thing about Manchester United. It’s an all-encompassing behemoth. Giggs was easily dismissed as a management option because of a lack of experience. But what people meant was he didn’t have the right experience. And very few people do. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer doesn’t. If Jose Mourinho had survived at Old Trafford until the summer and the United top brass compiled a shortlist of replacements, the Norwegian’s name would have been nowhere near it. He arrived from Molde, having returned to his native country to rebuild a novice career already tainted by an ill-fated spell at Cardiff. Little was expected of him. And despite his tenure being remarkably successful, it can’t be judged without the wider context of what went before him.

He’s everything Mourinho isn’t: warm, self-effacing, humble. He’s avoided controversy. He’s produced results. And, like Giggs, he’s tapped into the romanticism that a club like United find it impossible to remove itself from. He made a point of bringing Mike Phelan back, he’s repeatedly spoken about ‘the boss’ (Ferguson) and has always seemed to embrace the past rather than try and move on from it.

But, has he proven to be ready for the United job or just that he’s an improvement on the final, bitter and bleak days of Mourinho’s miserable reign? Have the players responded to him so positively because he’s good or simply because he’s not his predecessor? Maybe, Solskjaer is just an ideal short-term fit. And there’s a lot to be said for an excellent interim appointment in a traditionally difficult environment. Guus Hiddink at Chelsea. Jupp Heynckes at Bayern Munich. It’s not easy to hit the ground running. But if calm immediately follows complete chaos, the tranquility is intoxicating, a little addictive but probably misleading too.  

It’s clear Solskjaer is steeped in ‘Fergienomics’ and the victory in Paris – with its late, late, drama – fitted the narrative perfectly. Despite the performance being a lot more controlled and patient than anything under Ferguson, nobody ever attempted to separate the work from nostalgia. In fact, Solskjaer made a point of referencing Ferguson’s presence in the dressing room immediately after the game and described how ‘the spirit of United’ had got them over the line. The past lingers and that can’t be very healthy either.  

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer File Photo Solskjaer deserves enormous credit for making it impossible for Manchester United not to hire him on a full-time basis. Source: Martin Rickett

There comes a time when separation has to happen. And it’s strange that the club keep on bouncing between extremes. They appointed Moyes and his staff of outsiders but replaced him with Giggs and a decent chunk of the Class of ’92. Then it was Louis van Gaal, a team of Dutch lieutenants and with Giggs as an assistant before Mourinho arrived with his entourage. In the case of Solskjaer, this full-time gig is hardly a thought-out decision. This is not part of a wider strategy. It’s reactionary and pretty much forced upon the club. To his credit, Solskjaer made it impossible for Ed Woodward not to hire him permanently and he deserves immense credit for that. But if there is a push to bring in a Director of Football and radically alter the shape of United’s front office, what does this development do to the plans discussed as Mourinho’s exit came into focus? Ultimately, is Solskjaer part of a medium-term commitment or an interruption? 

Inevitably, so many questions remain. Was the temporary arrangement part of the enjoyment? A type of pressure-less, no-strings-attached relationship? Have the players (and possibly Solskjaer himself) been so enthused only because it’s an interruption from the norm? Or does it genuinely go deeper? Has Solskjaer, in the space of three months, cracked a code that Mourinho, Van Gaal and Moyes couldn’t? Has he found the secret sauce?

And that’s another piece of the puzzle. Where there was little in the way of expectation, now Solskjaer must deal with a tougher audience. The rules change from here on. He’s passed the audition but that means the performances will be heavily scrutinised, beginning with season’s end.

The timing of the announcement is curious. United could yet be embarrassed by Barcelona in the Champions League and fail to finish in the top four. And, like any relationship, the early tests are crucial. Survive them, get above them and you’ve got a chance. But football is a goldfish bowl and the goodwill only lasts so long. Solskjaer has had plenty of it already but if the campaign fizzles out, the celebrations in Paris will be long forgotten.

In the summer, he’ll delve into the transfer market and look to recruit some of the most sought-after and expensive players currently playing the game. But it’s a stratospheric shift. In three years at Molde (2015 – 2018), Solskjaer signed two players: Christoffer Remmer, a right-back, for £450,000 and Kristoffer Haugen, a left-back, for £234,000.

In the summer, like Giggs was that afternoon in his office, he’ll be reminded of the size, the scope and the scale of the job. And he will begin to doubt things. But perhaps he’ll have the conviction to back himself. Perhaps, as odd as it sounds, he is the right fit after all.                                

Murray Kinsella and Andy Dunne dissect Ireland’s disappointing Six Nations campaign, and discuss the pros and cons of rugby’s new law proposals in the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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