Greatest Transfers: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, The Baby-Faced Assassin!

Manchester United Career Details:

Signed From: Molde (Norway), July 1996 for £1,500,000 by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Position: Striker
Appearances (Goals): 366 (126) between August 1996 & August 2007.

Honours:

F.A. Premier League Winner (6): 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2007.
F.A. Cup Winner (2): 1999 (2-0 vs. Newcastle United);
2004 (3-0 vs. Millwall).
U.E.F.A. European Cup (‘Champions League’) Winner: 1999 (2-1 vs. Bayern Munich).
Intercontinental Cup Winner: 1999 (1-0 vs. Palmeiras, Brazil).

Individual Honours:

Knight of the Order of St. Olav, 1st Class (Norwegian ‘Knighthood’)

If there was a ‘weighting’ on the success of football transfers relating ‘goals scored’ to ‘fee paid’ for a player, there’s a very good chance that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would be declared one of the most valuable players in history! Certainly, in his 26 years in charge of Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson might rate Solskjaer as one of the best signings he ever made.

Born in Kristiansund, Norway, Solskjaer first came to prominence at Third Division side Clausenengen, where he spent 5 seasons averaging over a goal a game, including scoring an incredible 31 of the club’s total of 47 league goals in their Second Division campaign in 1993-94. Such outstanding finishing naturally attracted attention from the top clubs in his home country, and Solskjaer was snapped up by Premier League club Molde on 1st January 1995; the step up in level had no detrimental effect on the lad, as he notched 20 league goals in 26 games for Molde in his debut season.

By now, he had scouts from some of Europe’s big clubs coming to Norway to watch his games, including SV Hamburg, Everton and Manchester City (whom his club manager had once played for), but after Solskjaer notched a staggering 11 goals in the first 12 games of the 1995-96 Norwegian Premier League season, Alex Ferguson came calling with a cheque for £1.5 million; Molde were delighted with that fee, and it would represent some of the best value-for-money ever spent by Manchester United.

Ole joined United on 23rd July 1996 without any fanfare whatsoever since he was basically unknown outside of Norway, for whom he’d only won his first cap some 8 months previously (scoring on his debut in a 1-1 draw with Jamaica). His central-defensive compatriot Ronny Johnsen had signed for United on 10th July and having another Norwegian at the club probably helped both lads to settle into life in Manchester. At that time United were coming off the back of a very successful ‘Double’-winning season, and had been getting strongly linked with Blackburn Rovers striker Alan Shearer all summer, so Solskjaer slipped in very much ‘under the radar’… he wouldn’t stay ‘hidden’ for long! After Shearer apparently went back on a promise to Alex Ferguson to sign for the Red Devils and opted to go to boyhood idols Newcastle United instead, Solskjaer’s prospects of being more than a reserve-team striker very much improved, as he was now one of only three forwards in the entire 1st team squad, along with Eric Cantona and Andy Cole.

Little did anyone know at the time, but when Ole came off the bench to score after only 6 minutes of his debut against Blackburn Rovers in a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford on 25th August, it was very much a sign of things to come. Unlike quite a few substitute players, who almost ignored what was happening out on the pitch if they weren’t involved themselves, Solskjaer used his time to study the opposition defenders, trying to ‘read’ and learn how they reacted in certain situations, so that by the time he came on to play against them, he had ideas on how to exploit any weaknesses he thought they might have… combined with his exceptional pace over 10 yards, it was devastating!

Far from being a bit-part player, the young Norwegian very quickly established himself as United’s most lethal attacking player; he scored after 22 minutes on his full home debut against Nottingham Forest in a 4-1 romp on 14th September, then opened the scoring in a 2-0 win over Rapid Vienna in the Champions League on 25th September and followed that up with both goals in the 2-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur in United’s next home fixture four days later.

By then Ole had already endeared himself to Red Devils fans enough to be nicknamed “The Baby-Faced Assassin”, a play on his extremely youthful looks and absolutely deadly accuracy in front of goal. He would also shortly have the huge compliment of having the Stretford End ‘choir’ dream up and sing a song in his honour to the tune of the famous American country song “You Are My Sunshine”, only with words changed to reflect Ole’s superb value-for-money in comparison to the then colossal sum of £15 million that Newcastle United had just paid for Alan Shearer, who by then had become the ‘pantomime villain’ for United fans.

United endured a torrid time in both the Premier League and Europe as late autumn turned to early winter, losing three league games in a row (including embarrassing 5-0 and 6-3 thrashings at Newcastle and Southampton respectively) and two home Champions League Group games to Fenerbahce and Juventus, but as November departed, Solskjaer was back on the goal trail, notching late as Leicester City were beaten 3-1. The following weekend he opened the scoring for the Reds in a 2-2 draw at Upton Park.

As Christmas approached, Ole scored twice in a 5-0 rout of Sunderland, and grabbed another as Forest were crushed 4-0 at The City Ground on Boxing Day. United had made up the ground they’d lost on the league leaders in October, now sitting in 2nd position, and it was abundantly clear that in Solskjaer they’d unearthed a gem of a striker who had made the step up from the top league in Norway to the top league in England without the slightest difficulty whatsoever.

A disappointing 0-0 draw at home to Aston Villa on New Year’s Day 1997 saw the Reds slip back to 3rd, but with Solskjaer and Cantona to the fore, they then went on a run of five straight wins, the young Norwegian scoring a goal in victories over Tottenham Hotspur, Coventry City and Arsenal; that left United looking down on the rest, with Newcastle and Arsenal their main pursuers.

Despite a shock defeat at Sunderland in early March, United remained top, and brushed aside FC Porto in Europe to march into the Semi-Finals to face Borussia Dortmund. Solskjaer hadn’t scored in a month, but rectified that with the opener against Everton at Goodison Park in a 2-0 win on 22nd March, and despite another shock 2-3 home defeat to Derby County in early April (your humble author amongst the dumbfounded 55,500 crowd), Solskjaer’s vital goals in draws with Leicester City (2-2, Ole getting both goals) and Middlesbrough (3-3, Ole getting the third) had the Red Devils on the verge of reclaiming their league title.

By then, United had crashed out of the Champions League, losing both games 0-1 to Dortmund, but when he opened the scoring in a final day 2-0 win over West Ham United, Solskjaer was already assured of a first Premier League winners’ medal, United finishing comfortably ahead of runners-up Newcastle United.

Solskjaer had plundered 18 league goals in 33 games in his debut season in one of the toughest leagues in the world, easily United’s top marksman (Cantona was second on 11 goals in 36 games); it was the stuff of fairy tales!

However the shock news of Eric’s retirement from the game early that summer left Ole as one of only two recognised strikers in the 1st team squad, along with Cole. Alex Ferguson knew that was much too risky a way to begin a new campaign, and prised the canny Teddy Sheringham from Tottenham Hotspur for £3.5 million in June. Despite his prolific form from the previous season, Solskjaer started 1997-98 as third choice behind Sheringham and Cole, which was made even more bizarre by news that Andy and Teddy disliked each other, a situation that got worse the longer they played together.

Ironically, the opening league game sent Sheringham back to face his former team-mates at White Hart Lane, where he was widely abused by the Tottenham fans, and missed a penalty into the bargain. However, United made a solid start to the season, though Solskjaer featured much less than previously, more often than not finding himself on the bench. He didn’t manage his first goal until scoring a late equaliser to snatch a 2-2 draw at home to Chelsea on 24th September, by which time it was clear United were going to face serious competition from Liverpool and, in particular, Arsenal this time round.

Solskjaer continued to adapt to his role as a ‘super sub’, though he made the most of a start against Sheffield Wednesday on 1st November by scoring twice in a 6-1 thrashing of the Owls; however a 3-2 defeat at Highbury the following weekend meant United couldn’t pull clear of the Gunners. The defending Champions had six victories in a row thereafter, with Ole grabbing two goals in a 4-0 win over Blackburn Rovers along the way, but with Cole, Sheringham, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs all finding the net regularly, Solskjaer’s contributions weren’t as noticeable as in the previous season.

He again opened the scoring at Coventry City on 28th December, but United contrived to lose the game 3-2, and then endured an indifferent start to 1998, dropping more points against Southampton and Leicester City before a dismal 1-1 draw at home to Bolton Wanderers on the 40th Anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster on 7th February, a game your author was in attendance at.

However, three straight wins in the Premier League kept United ahead of only remaining challengers Arsenal, though Giggs suffered a hamstring strain in the 2-0 win over Derby County which kept him out of the disappointing F.A. Cup exit at Barnsley days later. By now, Solskjaer was very much a substitute as Cole and Sheringham remained Ferguson’s preferred starting strikers, and the little Norwegian could only watch on as United’s season took turns for the worse.

March proved a miserable month for the Champions, losing at Sheffield Wednesday, drawing at West Ham, and then crucially losing at home to a Marc Overmars goal for Arsenal. That compounded the misery of crashing out of the Champions League at the Quarter-Final stage to AS Monaco on the away-goals ruling, Solskjaer’s strike in the 1-1 draw at Old Trafford not enough to swing the tie in United’s favour. It would be Ole’s last goal of a very disappointing season.

Despite only dropping 4 more league points (by drawing at home to Liverpool and Newcastle United in successive April weekends), United were powerless to stop a rampant Arsenal leap-frogging them with 3 games remaining, and Arsene Wenger’s men didn’t falter as they claimed the second ‘Double’ in Arsenal’s history. For Ole, he had at least secured a place in United fans’ hearts with a deliberate last-man “professional foul” on Newcastle’s Rob Lee late in the 1-1 draw at Old Trafford; it was another example of him putting the Club above himself, as he was suspended for 3 games for the red card he received, but it prevented United losing all 3 points on the day.

For Solskjaer, after a somewhat disappointing season, it was decision time. He was the subject of some sustained interest from Tottenham Hotspur during the summer, and when United accepted an offer for their Norwegian hitman, Ole had to turn down the move to North London. He was determined to fight for his place at Old Trafford, a battle that looked to be even harder to win when news filtered through that Ferguson had successfully pursued Aston Villa striker Dwight Yorke. Along with Cole and Sheringham, that meant Ole was now one of four strikers at United.

Season 1998-99 started in very indifferent form for United. Thumped by Arsenal in the Charity Shield, they then needed late goals to salvage a point at home to Leicester City and fought for a point at West Ham before Ole got the season up and running properly with two goals in the 4-1 thrashing of Charlton Athletic. At this stage Alex Ferguson hadn’t made up his mind which striking ‘pair’ he favoured, so there was much chopping and changing… that didn’t help at Highbury on 20th September as a woeful United display saw them lose 3-0 to the defending Champions, and it seemed the balance of power had firmly swung towards North London.

Solskjaer had resumed ‘bench duties’ in most Premier League games as Ferguson settled most often on the Cole-Yorke partnership up front. It was hard to argue that he was wrong, either, as both men scored often as United went on an unbeaten run for 2 months; Ole had to make do with an appearance against Bury in the League Cup, scoring the opener in a 2-0 win. He also bagged a brace a fortnight later as Nottingham Forest were beaten 2-1 in Round 4.

However a shock defeat at Sheffield Wednesday on 21st November saw Ferguson give Solskjaer a start in the Premier League at home to Leeds United the following week, and the little man repaid his manager with the opener in a 3-2 win. Two disappointing draws followed, though Solskjaer got both goals in the 2-2 draw at White Hart Lane which saw United leap over Arsenal to the top of the table, but their stay there was short-lived as dropped points at home to Chelsea and Middlesbrough followed.

Despite the patchy league form, United had successfully negotiated a way out of their tough Champions League Group, finishing second behind Bayern Munich, leaving Barcelona eliminated in third. Solskjaer had scored in a 6-2 romp over Brondby in Denmark, but was playing ‘third fiddle’ behind the prolific Yorke and Cole in Europe.

As 1999 arrived, Solskjaer cemented his reputation as an effective substitute with another late goal in the 4-1 win over West Ham, and then found a place in the hearts of all United fans with a vital, last-minute winner in the 2-1 victory over hated rivals Liverpool in the F.A. Cup 4th Round tie at Old Trafford. Even though it wasn’t the role he had set his sights on, Ole never complained about increasingly becoming known as a ‘super sub’ at United, and he will be fondly remembered for many, many years for a remarkable substitute appearance against an admittedly very poor Forest side at The City Ground on 6th February 1999, when he came on and scored 4 goals in the space of 10 minutes late in the 2nd half as United won 8-1. It was truly remarkable and yet again highlighted his astonishing ability to punish opposition defences for any lapse of concentration or effort in keeping tabs on him.

Despite his heroics, Ole was back on the bench for the next game as Arsenal came to town; Yorke missed a penalty, but Andy Cole made sure United got a point, and then the team went on a four-match winning run in the Premier League, Solskjaer notching the opener in the 3-1 win over Everton on 21st March. The games were coming thick and fast with the return of the Champions League, United overcoming Inter Milan 3-1 on aggregate in the Quarter-Finals to set up a Semi-Final date with Juventus. They also battled past a stubborn Chelsea side in a replayed F.A. Cup Round 6 tie, Yorke netting twice for the victory, to meet Arsenal at the Semi-Final stage.

United were proving very hard to beat (they hadn’t lost a game since going down 3-2 at Middlesbrough before Christmas), but scoring goals wasn’t guaranteed, a strange thing to say of a team with four strikers who would all probably have been ‘starters’ for any other Premier League side! A 1-1 draw at Wimbledon on 3rd April was followed by an excruciating 0-0 draw with Arsenal in the F.A. Cup Semi-Final, a result United didn’t want as it meant another replay. Three days later the sides met again to produce one of the greatest cup ties of all time, Beckham’s early screamer cancelled out by Dennis Bergkamp, before Roy Keane got sent-off for a second bookable offence and Peter Schmeichel saved Bergkamp’s late penalty. The ten men dug in, and Giggs scored one of the all-time great goals to win the tie when Patrick Vieira conceded easy possession in extra-time; Solskjaer had missed a glorious chance to give United the lead early in the 2nd half…it wasn’t one of his better games.

Not one to let a bad miss get to him, Ole opened the scoring for United three days later as Sheffield Wednesday were beaten 3-0 but wasn’t even on the bench (he’d gotten an injury against the Owls) as United dropped points in a 1-1 draw at Leeds, which allowed Arsenal to move into pole position. By then, the Reds had booked their place in the European Cup Final after a heroic performance in Turin, where a fabulous Keane-inspired 3-2 win sealed a 4-3 aggregate victory over Juventus; Solskjaer had picked up a knock in the win over Wednesday earlier in the week and wasn’t involved.

In fact Solskjaer missed almost a month of action before returning to the bench for a 0-0 draw at Blackburn Rovers on 12th May, a point which meant United still needed to beat Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on the final day of the league season to be sure of the title, Arsenal breathing down their necks. On the day, Ole remained an unused substitute as Andy Cole scored the title clinching goal in a nervy 2-1 victory as United claimed the final league title of the 20th century.

A week later the little Norwegian was named a starter alongside Cole for the F.A. Cup Final against Newcastle United; an early goal from Sheringham (himself a substitute for the injured Roy Keane) settled nerves, and despite missing a chance to make it 2-0 in the 1st half, Solskjaer helped create the second decisive goal for Scholes early in the 2nd half and United ran out comfortable winners to claim a third ‘Double’ in 5 years, with the chance of the ‘holy grail’ Treble still to come.

26th May 1999 will go down as one of the most glorious days in Manchester United’s history, and Solskjaer had plenty to do with that being the case. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was named as a substitute by Alex Ferguson, the preferred duo of Cole and Yorke starting up front for United against Bayern Munich in Barcelona’s Camp Nou. After just six minutes, Mario Basler scored a brilliant swerving free-kick to give the Germans an early lead, and without the suspended Keane and Scholes, United seemed out of their depth. Indeed, well into the 2nd half when Mehmet Scholl saw a chip bounce back out off a post into Schmeichel’s arms, Bayern were the most dangerous team despite United having the lion’s share of possession, and as time ebbed away, Ferguson threw on Sheringham for the subdued Jesper Blomqvist and then Solskjaer for a tiring Cole.

With the U.E.F.A. officials making their way to pitchside with the European Cup bedecked in Bayern’s colours, United snatched a late equaliser, Sheringham touching Giggs’ weak shot from a Beckham corner into the bottom corner beyond Oliver Kahn. The Germans were gobsmacked, but may have felt they could reassert their dominance in extra-time. Little did they know that there would be NO extra-time… seconds after the re-start, United again forced a corner, which Beckham floated in from the left side; Sheringham glanced the ball across the penalty area, and there at the back post was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to flick his right boot out and redirect the ball high into the roof of Kahn’s net for 2-1….

Amid scenes of wild delirium, Ole ran and slid on his knees in front of a wall of Red noise, his team-mates piling onto him in jubilation. The Bayern players collapsed on the pitch, knowing there wasn’t time left to hit back; Sammy Kuffour famously cried and beat the ground in despair. Solskjaer, as radio commentator Alan Green famously roared, had ‘won it for United’, and would go down in history as the scorer of one of the most famous goals of all time!

It was, of course, the pinnacle of Ole’s career… well, it couldn’t be anything else! The following season he was still regarded as third (or even fourth) choice striker behind Yorke and Cole, but started the opening game at Goodison Park against Everton as part of a ‘three’ and managed to miss three decent chances as United drew 1-1. The following week he came off the bench to score late and wrap up a comfortable 4-0 win over a poor Wednesday side, but didn’t get on at all as United then beat Leeds United, Arsenal, Coventry City, Newcastle United and Liverpool in successive games. Two goal-less starts in draws with Wimbledon and Southampton was followed by sub appearances at Chelsea and against Watford.

Indeed it would be November before Ole scored again, the opener in a 2-1 win over Sturm Graz in the final group game of the Champions League, which saw United safely through to the next phase in pole position. He created a goal for Cole in a 2-0 over Leicester City in the next league game, and then had a wonderful afternoon on 4th December, scoring four goals as United thrashed Everton 5-1. By then he’d added a World Club Championship winners’ medal to his growing collection as United had defeated Palmeiras of Brazil 1-0 in Tokyo.

Solskjaer scored again on 8th December as United beat Valencia 3-0 to take control of their Champions League Group but wouldn’t get his next goal until March, though he was a provider of numerous goals for his colleagues, his vision and awareness around the box absolutely sublime.

Come March 2000, by which time United were in a race of their own to clinch another league title with Arsenal some distance behind in 2nd place, he scored the equaliser against Liverpool in a 1-1 Old Trafford draw, and then grabbed a vital late winner in a 2-1 victory at Bordeaux in the Champions League.

United didn’t drop another point in the Premier League as they marched emphatically to their sixth title in eight years; Solskjaer scored goals against West Ham United (7-1 win), Sunderland (two goals in a 4-0 win), Southampton (third in a 3-1 win), Chelsea (the winner in a 3-2 win) and Tottenham Hotspur (the opener in a 3-1 win) to more than ‘do his bit’ in the triumph. In fact, the only disappointment for United came in the Champions League, where they fell to a 3-2 aggregate defeat to Real Madrid, for whom Raul was in sensational form.

The following season saw Ole very much involved in a four-way striker rotation with Cole, Sheringham and Yorke, starting some games, coming on in others. His first goal didn’t arrive until 16th September in a 3-1 win at Everton, and he’d wait almost another month for his next in a 3-0 win over Leicester City. The team were flying, though, going top at the beginning of September and never relinquishing their grip on the Premier League, with Teddy Sheringham in particularly hot form in front of goal- he’d finish the campaign with 21 goals in all competitions.

Ole scored twice in a 3-0 win at Watford in the League Cup at Halloween, and then clinched the points in a 2-0 win over Tottenham in early December. The following week he scored again in a pulsating game that ended 3-3 against Charlton Athletic, and then had a purple patch over Christmas with all the goals in 2-0 and 1-0 wins over Ipswich Town and Aston Villa respectively.

He welcomed 2001 in with a goal after only three minutes in a 3-1 win over West Ham, but then had to wait until 25th February for the next goal as United hammered Arsenal 6-1 at home; by that stage it was not IF United were going to retain their title, but by how many points. At the end of March the chasing pack were thrown a glimmer of hope as United went down 2-0 at Anfield, but Ole calmed nerves with a late winner against Charlton Athletic in a 2-1 win the following week; it would be his last goal of the season, but despite another bitterly disappointing exit from the Champions League at the hands of Bayern Munich, he finished the season with yet another league title winners’ medal as United ended up 10 points clear of runners-up Arsenal, and his reputation as a deadly goal-poacher was undisputed.

The arrival of Ruud van Nistelrooy from Holland during the summer of 2001 more than offset the sale of Teddy Sheringham back to Tottenham Hotspur, and the later departure of Andy Cole to Blackburn Rovers. Solskjaer started the season once again as a substitute, but quickly forced his way into the starting line-up, and scored twice in a 4-0 win over Ipswich Town before coming on as a late substitute to set up Juan Veron in the dramatic 5-3 comeback win at Tottenham Hotspur.

Further goals against Olympiakos and Lille helped United progress from their Champions League Group in late autumn 2001, but despite scoring late to snatch a point at home to Leeds United, the Champions endured a miserable lead into Christmas, dropping to 9th in the table before Ole scored twice in a 5-0 thrashing of Derby County on 12th December, which prompted United to go on a run of eight league wins in a row during which he netted against Southampton both home and away, as well as scoring against Aston Villa in a 3-2 F.A. Cup Round 3 victory at Villa Park.

By the time United fell to a disappointing 0-1 defeat to Liverpool on 22nd January 2002, Andy Cole had been sold to Blackburn and Dwight Yorke was out of form and favour with Sir Alex Ferguson. Ole took full advantage of getting a start alongside van Nistelrooy by hitting Bolton Wanderers for 3 goals in a 4-0 rout, and kept his place for the rest of the campaign, scoring both in a 2-0 win at Charlton and again in a 5-3 win at West Ham as United reached mid-March in pole position. He also scored against Boavista in Portugal as United progressed to the Quarter-Final stage in the Champions League.

However, a shock 1-0 defeat at Middlesbrough allowed Arsenal to storm past the Red Devils, and though both United and Solskjaer enjoyed a fantastic run of form in April (Ole scored for three league games on the trot as United beat Leeds United 4-3, Leicester City 1-0 and Chelsea 3-0), a poor away-goals aggregate defeat to Bayer Leverkusen in the European Cup Semi-Final was made worse by the subsequent 0-1 loss at home to Arsenal in the penultimate game of the Premier League season, which gave the Gunners the title… it was a bitter pill to swallow.

Going into 2002-03, Ole was essentially competing with new arrival Diego Forlan for the right to partner the explosive van Nistelrooy, who was scoring goals ‘for fun’. His season got off to the best possible start with the late winner in the opening day 1-0 win over West Brom, but the team form was patchy throughout the autumn, with Solskjaer on the bench as Ferguson often switched to a 4-4-1-1 formation with Scholes in behind van Nistelrooy. He grabbed an important equaliser at Fulham in October, but his early strike in a 1-3 defeat to Manchester City on 9th November couldn’t prevent United trailing in 5th place.

The team showed more appetite in the cup competitions, Solskjaer sealing a 2-0 win at Burnley in Round 4 of the League Cup before scoring again in a 3-1 win at Basel in a Champions League Group that United would dominate in the springtime.

Form picked up in the league, with Ole scoring against Newcastle and getting the opening goal against West Ham as United moved up to 2nd place, but two disappointing defeats at Blackburn Rovers and Middlesbrough made it a miserable Christmas for United fans; they weren’t to know then that United wouldn’t lose another league game all season!

United’s league record from Boxing Day 2002 until the end of the season read: played 18, won 15, drew 3, lost 0. In that run, Solskjaer more than contributed his share of goals and assists, including goals against West Brom (3-1 win), Bolton Wanderers (last minute equaliser in a 1-1 draw), Liverpool (last minute ‘icing on the cake’ goal in a 4-0 thumping) and Newcastle United (opening goal in a 6-2 hiding at St. James’ Park during which Scholes scored a brilliant hat-trick). His striking partner, van Nistelrooy, was simply ‘on fire’, scoring an incredible 17 goals in those 18 games.

That league form saw United retain their crown, finishing 5 points ahead of closest rivals Arsenal, and it masked disappointment in the cups where they lost out at home to Arsenal in the F.A. Cup and, even more disappointingly, 0-2 to Liverpool in the League Cup Final in Cardiff. The Champions League again saw a heartbreaking aggregate defeat to an (original, Brazilian) Ronaldo-inspired Real Madrid, 6-5, despite winning 4-3 in a thrilling game at Old Trafford.

In reality the end of 2002-03 season was the beginning of the end for Ole Solskjaer at United. He started the new season playing regularly in the starting XI, usually on the right side of midfield in place of the recently departed David Beckham, but after scoring in a 5-0 thrashing of Greek side Panathinaikos in the first Champions League Group game on 16th September, Ole sustained a bad knee injury and was redrawn at half-time; he wouldn’t return to action until 21st February 2004, coming on for the final 20 minutes of a 1-1 draw with Leeds United, by which time United were struggling to keep pace with rivals Arsenal and Chelsea. He didn’t get on the pitch at all as United surprisingly crashed out of Europe to a last-minute FC Porto goal at Old Trafford, when a certain Jose Mourinho danced down the side of the pitch in delight.

The only bright light was the F.A. Cup, and Ole returned in time to help United beat Arsenal 1-0 in the Semi-Final through a Paul Scholes goal, and traveled to Cardiff on 22nd May to meet surprise finalists Millwall. By then, nine losses in the league campaign had left United trailing in 3rd behind Arsenal and Chelsea. At Cardiff, Solskjaer was left on the bench, making a cameo appearance for the last few minutes in place of Cristiano Ronaldo, who had scored and been the best player on the park as United won 3-0 in some comfort.

The knee injury Ole had sustained against Panathinaikos flared up again during the pre-season of 2004-05, and he was forced to undergo surgery on it in August; it would keep him out of action for the entire season, during which United failed to land any silverware, losing the F.A. Cup Final on penalties to Arsenal despite dominating the game itself. During his absence the fans demonstrated their feelings for Ole by erecting a banner in his honour on the Stretford End which simply read: “20LEGEND”, in reference to his shirt number (20), first name and status in their eyes.

Solskjaer made his return to the 1st team as a late substitute in a 2-2 draw with Steve Bruce’s Birmingham City on 28th December 2005- he’d been out for nearly a year and a half. He played against Burton Albion in the F.A. Cup 3rd Round, but sustained a broken cheekbone in a reserve game against Middlesbrough on 8th March 2006, and made only a substitute appearance against Sunderland during the rest of the season.

Determined to make up for lost time, Solskjaer started season 2006-07 in fine form, getting his first league goal for several years in a 3-0 win at Charlton Athletic on 23rd August, and both goals to beat Newcastle United 2-0 on 1st October and lift the Red Devils into 1st place in the table. A week later he added a last minute goal as United won 3-1 at Wigan Athletic, but had to watch on as the likes of Ronaldo, Louis Saha and Wayne Rooney helped United to make it all the way to Christmas unbeaten before losing at West Ham.

He’d also helped the team top their Champions League Group with the winning goal against Celtic, and after coming back from a knock against FC Copenhagen to notch two goals in successive weeks over Christmas against Wigan Athletic and Reading, it seemed Ole was ‘as good as new’! He underlined that with yet another ‘super sub’ appearance to get the last minute deciding goal in a 2-1 win over Aston Villa in the F.A. Cup in early January 2007.

A little over a month later, and with Ronaldo leading the team on a charge towards another Premier League title, Ole scored the third goal in a 3-2 replay win in the F.A. Cup over Reading, but felt a twinge in his knee afterwards and was forced to undergo an operation which kept him side-lined for a month. He returned to complete the scoring with a trademark last-minute goal in a 4-1 trouncing of Blackburn Rovers on 31st March but it would be his last ever strike for the Red Devils.

Ole collected his final winners’ medal, his last reward during a magnificent career at Old Trafford, when United confirmed their Premier League title success with a 0-0 draw at nearest challengers Chelsea on 9th May. Ten days later the Stamford Bridge side got some revenge when Didier Drogba’s extra-time goal gave them a 1-0 victory over United in the F.A. Cup Final; it would be Solskjaer’s last outing as a United player, brought on as a substitute minutes before the decisive goal was scored.

Whilst on international duty with Norway in June, Solskjaer aggravated the knee injury that had blighted his later career, and failed to make a comeback. He announced his retirement from playing on 27th August, and was given a hero’s farewell by United’s fans at the home game with Sunderland a week later. He held the record for the most goals ever scored by a Manchester United player coming into a game as a substitute, with 28 goals in that role.

Ole’s testimonial game against Espanyol on 2nd August 2008 was attended by 69,000 fans, the second highest testimonial attendance in British history. He had won 67 caps for Norway, scoring 23 goals and was awarded the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav by King Harald V in 2008, making him the youngest ever recipient of a Norwegian ‘knighthood’.

In later years Ole coached at Manchester United, managed the United reserve team, and then took over as manager at his former club, Molde, steering the club to two Norwegian Premier League titles and a Norwegian Cup triumph in his 3 seasons there. He then moved to take over at Cardiff City in January 2014, but that was not a good appointment, and he returned to Molde 18 months later.

Ole and wife Silje have three children and live in his hometown of Kristiansund. He is, without doubt, an absolute Manchester United legend, the “Baby-faced Assassin” who famously killed Bayern Munich in the dying seconds of Manchester United’s biggest game in 30 years on that unforgettable night in Barcelona!

About the Author

Rodney McCain
A passionate supporter of Manchester United since I was 6 years old. In life I'm a consulting civil engineer, but that's only to pay the bills. Originally from Northern Ireland, I was a regular at Old Trafford for many years, but now reside in the United States, which makes getting to games a tad difficult.... I love to write about football, which hopefully comes across to readers on these sites.