Retrospective #22: The day Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gained hero status
The actual day was some time before this ...
“We don’t want Shearer, he’s f*cking dearer, so please don’t take my Solskjaer away …”
Even now, you can hear these words booming at and around Old Trafford; it tells you all you need to know about how Ole Gunnar Solskjear is viewed by Manchester United fans. Celebrated over the Premier League’s record top goal scorer and current Match of the Day pundit Alan Shearer, as you would expect, Solskjaer goes down in United folklore – but when he’d signed, very few had envisaged the impact he would eventually have on the club and its fans.
After a summer of tedious speculation regarding Manchester United and their apparent pursuit of Blackburn Rovers’ Shearer, he officially signed for Newcastle in a then-world record £15m move, in July 1996. Only the day before, United had announced the signing of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a 23-year-old Norwegian striker for a fee of £1.5m. With only six Norwegian caps and one full season in the country’s top flight with Molde, for whom he scored 31 goals in 42 appearances, Solskjaer was hardly a household name, but, given the saga, he inadvertently found himself competing with Shearer who had just scored 5 goals at the summer’s European Championships.
Upon signing, a modest Solskjaer said that he was only expecting to play in the reserves and would be delighted to get some first team games before Christmas. It turned out that he didn’t have to wait that long; in the 64th minute of United’s third league game of the season, at home to Blackburn and 2-1 down, he was given his debut and came on for defender David May. Six minutes later he found himself one-on-one with Tim Flowers and despite having his first effort saved, he tucked away the rebound to claim a point for his new side. No one knew it then, but the legend had just begun, as well as his much-celebrated, unique ability to make an impact off the bench.
A debut goal to savour, yes, but Solskjaer would not be immediately rewarded. He had to make do with the substitute bench for United’s next two league games versus Derby and Leeds, and then a 1-0 defeat in the Champions League away at Juventus. It would be three days later that Solskjaer would finally make his first start for club; impressions had to be made in a home league game against Nottingham Forest. Solskjaer opened the scoring as United ran out 4-0 winners — his career, it seems, was only going one way.
Solskjaer was on a roll. He started the next six games for the Reds in which time he scored in his 3rd consecutive game at Old Trafford (twice in a 2-0 win v Spurs) and his first European goal for the club in a 2-0 win over Rapid Vienna (a goal in his 4th straight appearance at Old Trafford, he really was at home). He finished his debut season a Premier League champion and United’s top goal scorer with 18 goals.
Unfortunately, Solskjaer experienced a stop/start second year; he started the 1996/97 season injured and didn’t feature until late September when he came off the bench in a 0-0 draw with Bolton. He only managed six league goals in 22 games as injuries and form saw him in and out of the team. For some, this was a case of second season syndrome. It was, however, during this tough campaign that Solskjaer’s hero status was born.
The making of a hero
On April 18th 1998, United went into their home game with Newcastle a point ahead of Arsenal having played two games more. Whilst United were wobbling, Arsenal were in great form with nine wins in 10, including a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford the previous month.
The game started shockingly for United and after 11 minutes, a lack of an offside call saw Gary Speed head back across goal for Andreas Andersson to score. Seven minutes later, Peter Schmeichel went off injured, adding to the hosts’ woes. United did manage to get themselves level through David Beckham’s goal just before half-time but despite piling on the pressure in the 2nd half, it was still locked at 1-1 with ten minutes remaining (however hard makeshift striker Gary Pallister tried). United turned to the bench and on came Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but there was to be no last-minute winner for him today. As United sent everyone forward for a late corner, Newcastle broke and midfielder Rob Lee, with the entire United half free for him to run into, closed down on goal. Solskjaer, who started almost 10 yards behind Lee, sprinted after him but as they approached the penalty area, Solskjaer made his decision. He knew that United could not afford to lose the game and as Lee set his sights on a winner, one-and-one with Raimond van der Gouw, Solskjaer took action and cynically brought him down before it could be a penalty and before Lee could get a shot away.
Solskjaer knew the red was coming and waited, hands on hips, for the card. The Old Trafford crowd gave him a standing ovation, Beckham ran over and gave him a consolidating pat on the head for he knew that Solskjaer had done what he had to.
He took away the forthcoming red card from his mind, the three match ban that would end his season and made Manchester United and their faltering title bid his only priority, allowing them to escape with a point. It was, for me, the day that the legend was born. The day he showed how much he loved the club and the day the fans found a new hero, to go perfectly with all the others.
This was written by the Shaun Birch. He is the editor of Beautifully Red — a magical website where the most beautiful, yet often overlooked, moments produced by Manchester United and its players are shared (usually is GIF form — like the above image — immediately after ever game). You can follow him on Twitter. Read more Retrospectives here.