The walk off the pitch after being sent off is the loneliest walk that any footballer can make.
Some make this walk of shame completely dumbfounded, unsure of what earthly justification the referee had to send them off. Some storm off in protest. Some players simply refuse to leave the field. Some lash out at teammates, the opposition, or on a cold January night at Selhurst Park in 1995, one player even lashed out at a fan (but that’s not the point). Being sent off is a mixed bag; if you’re a visitor you’re certain to face an avalanche of abuse and laughter, if you happen to be sent off at home, shame and embarrassment. Even more so if you’re a Manchester United player sent off at Old Trafford.
United have a funny recent history with the red card. Some of my most vivid memories as a fan involve players getting sent off an an inopportune time. Two times in the last decade I was absolutely fuming at a United player being sent off. Paul Scholes vs. Manchester City in the 2011 FA Cup semi-final, and the infamous Nani red card dished out by referee Cuneyt Cakir (yes, I remember his name) that ended United’s bid for a fourth European Cup in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season. But with all of the bad, the red card is football’s most powerful vessel of schadenfreude. I’m legally required to mention Steven Gerrard’s red card after only 38 (thirty-eight!) seconds at Anfield. Rightfully given after a horrendous act committed on the defenceless Ander Herrera. Disgraceful, Stevie.
A Manchester United player has been sent off 66 times since the re-invention of football in 1992. Unsurprisingly the leader of the pack is Roy Keane, with 7. No current United player has more than one, with the most recent being given to our dearly departed club captain Ashley Young.
But, this isn’t about red cards. That was just for context, and for a fun trip down memory lane. It’s to show that red cards don’t come around that often, and that they’re usually representative of a shameful act, of letting the team down. Except for the one day when it was the bravest and most selfless act a man in red could execute.
The year is 1998. United are top of the league but sputtering to the finish line (stop me if you’ve heard the tale before). Arsenal are right on the heels of the defending champions, and United are at home playing Newcastle. All tied up at one goal a piece.
United needed a win — a draw probably wouldn’t be enough to fight off Arsene Wenger’s men. A loss, devastating. When a David Beckham cross was headed clear out of the box, and after a failed challenge led to the ball being hoofed upfield, Newcastle’s Rob Lee was clear through on Raimond van der Gouw standing in goal.
A goal would’ve been sure disaster for United. A winner by Newcastle surely put Arsenal in the driver’s seat to dethrone the Champions of England. Then the unthinkable happened.
A 25-year-old Norwegian forward, in only his tenth minute on the pitch, chased Lee down and flew into his legs causing the Newcastle player to hurtle forward. But, saving the goal from being scored, probably rescuing a point for United, and earning a booking because there wasn’t another United player within a half-mile. While Uriah Rennie fumbled around in his pocket searching for a card, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer already knew his fate, he turned and started to leave the pitch. Straight red. As Solskjaer jogged off the pitch, David Beckham ran over to give him a pat on the back, for he had taken one for the team. A fantastic example of the Ethos of Ferguson’s United. “You win as a team, you lose as a team. United.” The crowd at Old Trafford rose and applauded. This was the first of many defining moments during Solskjaer’s United career. It was his only red card.
Long before he stood in the technical box at Old Trafford as the manager of United (or Cardiff City), and even before he was an academy coach for the Club, Ole has been one of my favourite players at United. Ever.
As a kid, playing in the schoolyard, when the ball would land at most of my friends’ feet, they were Ronaldinho, Messi, Ronaldo, or Torres. Me, every time I got the ball pretended I was Man United’s famous number 20. Martin Tyler’s famous “SOLSKJÆR!” my favourite phrase when shooting towards goal.
I don’t have a ton of memories of watching him play at United. By the time I was old enough to remember, his career had been ravaged by knee injuries. But, growing up on a steady diet of old season reviews, internet highlights, and the lot, I loved Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Sure, his goal in Barcelona plays a large part in that. But the simplicity of the way he played the game is infectious. It’s pure joy with a ball at his feet. What else makes him so special to me, is that in many ways, he’s just like us. He is a supporter of the Club, he is a patron of the Supporters trust. I can see myself in the baby-faced assassin. He loves Manchester United.
Ole lived out all of our wildest dreams. He came to the club as an unknown commodity. A lacklustre signing relative to the expectation that Alan Shearer would arrive. Shearer never came. But who needed him? Solskjær hit the ground running, defied expectation and became a key member of the squad in 1996/97. He scored six minutes into his debut at Old Trafford. A dream I’ve literally had a hundred times. They called him an assassin for a reason. The game slowed down for him when he had the ball at his feet. His finishing was almost automatic. Deadly. He was cold-blooded inside the box. In his first season he led all league scorers at United, with 18 goals.
In an alternate universe the bulk of this article doesn’t even happen. Before the 1998/99 season, Martin Edwards had made a deal with Tottenham to sell Ole for £5.5 million. Both sides had agreed (even his agent wanted the deal to be done), so his United future rested in the hands of the man himself, and Alex Ferguson. A fax had been sent between the two clubs missing only one thing — Ole’s signature. Fergie promised him more playing time, and as Ole himself once put it, “That was enough for me. I didn’t want to go.” So he didn’t.
In the next season, he became an inevitability. He knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup by scoring in front of the Stretford End. He embraced his role as a super sub behind the league’s most dominant scoring pair, and scored 12 league goals. The 46th goal in his United career was his biggest (and possibly the club’s biggest, ever). Close your eyes and you can see the ball flying into the roof of the Germans’ net. The goal that gave the club “Everything their hearts desire.”
1999 may have been the peak of Solskjaer’s United career. If it ends right there, with the last memory of him in a red shirt being his epic knee slide at the Nou Camp, he’s a club legend. End of story.
But he kept going. Trademark finish after trademark finish. If you watch every goal, you’ll find a lot of them are the same. The ball lands at Solskjær’s feet in the box, either by a purposeful pass or simply a crumb sent his way via a deflection or a goalkeeper’s save. Then with ease and grace hardly seen at Old Trafford since, Ole would put the ball in the net. Bang. Simple as that. He always knew exactly where the goal was. He knew where the keeper was going before the keeper knew himself. He would place the ball right where it needed to be. Automatic.
Most of his celebrations are exactly the same too. Many of them reminiscent of his most famous, both arms stretched towards the heavens, a youthful smile on his face. Some have the slight essence of cockiness, but it wasn’t that, it was just self-assuredness. He was on the pitch to score goals. With the ball at his feet, he was going to score goals. He knew it, his teammates knew it, the fans knew it. Clive Tyldesley putting it better than any commentator could, after an Ole special in the Champions League against Olympiakos:
“Only one outcome when Ole Gunnar Solskjær gets a chance like that.”
He hardly seemed to miss.
His 100th goal for the club was vintage. Against Blackburn Rovers in the league. Paul Scholes laid off the ball perfectly to Ole who had just completed another perfectly timed run. In front of the East Stand he did something he had done countless times over the last 99 goals. Receive the pass on his left foot. Move the ball over to his right. Bang. Nestled in the back corner of the net. The keeper never stood a chance.
Towards the end of his career, the great man started to miss extended amounts of time. Knee surgery forced him to miss the entire 04/05 season. He made his heroic return to action, as every United fan dreams, against Liverpool. Well, Liverpool reserves. Almost 3,000 people showed up to see him back on the pitch.
His seniority in the squad meant he became trusted with the Captain’s armband later in his career, his most famous moment as captain in the first away league match of the 06/07 season, playing Charlton Athletic. Up 2-0 in the 90th minute, Louis Saha broke into the box and ran onto the ball passed to him by Cristiano Ronaldo. Saha’s searing cross sliced through the box, too far in front of Darren Fletcher, busting a gut to get to goal. But fate intervened, as it always seemed to back in those days, and the ball found the best possible player at the back post. Captain Ole. Bang. Right in front of the United end, he raised both of his arms as he had done so often, but this time he bowed. He loves us just like we love him. It was his first league goal in more than three full years.
His career was cut short due to the mounting injuries, playing his last game for United in 2007. His last goal coming against Blackburn at home on the 31 March, a trademark finish. Left all alone at the back post, with not even the keeper to beat, as cool as you’d like. Bang.
Ole had a testimonial match before the 2007/08 season. Over 69,000 people showed up to send him off properly. The biggest crowd for a Testimonial on British soil, ever. Beloved. I can’t think of another player, manager, any figure at United who is more liked than this man. I don’t know him personally, but from the people that do, it is hard to find a bad word said about him. His name has been sung at Old Trafford non-stop for nearly 25 years, and can you name someone with more individual songs about them? “Ole’s at the wheel” was the FIFTH separate song that rang out from the Stretford End about him. He didn’t get the “20 LEGEND” banner by mistake, he earned it. Because like I’ve said countless times, he loves Man United. Just like we do.
His CV as a United person is as impressive as any, even compared to the United teammates during his career. 127 goals and 50 assists in 365 appearances. Six league titles, two FA Cup Winners Medals, the Champions League medal from ‘99, and in 2008, a Norwegian Knighthood.
The story of Solskjaer: United Manager is still to be written. I’m not trying to make the case for Ole to be United manager forever. I’m not trying to say that he’s the right man for the job, or settle the unending internet argument about Ole In/Out.
But, if you were looking to hire a manager who indisputably loves the club and is going to do everything in his power to return United to where it needs to be, you found him.
He’s a Sir Alex disciple, he adores the man. He said in his post-testimonial speech, that if he learned nothing from the Boss about how to coach, he couldn’t be a coach. He had the best teacher imaginable. His rise from striker to academy coach to caretaker manager to now the manager of Manchester United probably isn’t much of a surprise to Ferguson. The former manager always admired how Solskjaer stayed plugged-in on the match at hand, even when sitting on the bench as a substitute. Perhaps this is why he was so deadly as a sub.
Two of my favourite moments from this season involve those two men. Cameras followed the current United manager off the pitch at an empty Etihad Stadium (no surprise there). As he approached the tunnel, cameras zoomed in on several figures applauding in their directors box. Most notably, the man Ole calls “The Boss” applauding with pride after a massive derby win. The second, another Manchester derby, under the lights at Old Trafford in the middle of a monsoon, Ole looked towards where he knew Ferguson would be, covered his eyes from the floodlights, gave a fist pump and gave a look that said “Am I doing a good job boss?”
The Solskjaer era has brought genuine and much needed change at the club. The atmosphere is 100% improved after that debacle of the final year under José Mourinho. Some denigrate Solskjaer for his positivity and generally happy demeanour but it’s been one of my favourite things about him as manager. We needed Ole at this time. After several seasons of negative vibes and negative football at Old Trafford, he’s a breath of fresh air.
The culture at United has changed with the atmosphere. Players working harder, for each other. Demanding their best, and not being satisfied with where they’re at. All circling back to that old Fergusonian ethos. “Win as a team, lose as a team. United.”
When football is at its best, it is a joyful game. After all, it is such a powerful vessel of escapism. Solskjaer (the Manager) brought the joy back to Old Trafford in a way that the last three managers could never provide, even when they won trophies. I’ll genuinely never forget how good watching matches made me feel during his first few months in charge. Hearing “At The Wheel” ring out for nearly 90 minutes. Seeing smiles on players’ faces, and on the manager’s face for the first time in what felt like ages. Football just felt good again.
If all of the previous words on one of my favourite United people didn’t do enough to convince you who Ole is, maybe listen to the man himself.
In an interview at the beginning of March, Solskjaer said this:
“I owe so much to this club, so I’m just trying to give everything I can back to it, and hopefully getting us back where we should be, and that’s at the top.”
If you want a manager who is going to move heaven and earth to make sure that Manchester United are acting like Manchester United, you found him. And he’s one of us, as well.
Our Solskjaer, our Ole Solskjaer, who makes us happy, when skies are grey.