“You have to feel, this is their year. Is this their moment? Beckham into Sheringham … and Solskjaer has won it!”
In one moment, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer went from Norwegian striker to Manchester United legend. With one instinctive poke of his right leg, he was immortalised in football folklore forever. Solskjaer had won it.
Nicknamed the baby-faced assassin for his boyish good looks and deadly finishing style, Solskjaer became an instant favourite with the supporters. Signed for just £1.5million from Molde in 1996, Solskjaer represented a leap into the unknown, a gamble by Sir Alex Ferguson which would go on to shape the destiny of his legacy.
When a footballer retires, their success is defined by two things; the medals they won and the memories they created. As a pivotal part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s success, Solskjaer has won countless trophies. In just over a decade at Manchester United, the Norwegian won six Premier League titles, two FA Cups, three Community Shields, the UEFA Champions League and the Intercontinental Cup. Being part of that team would always earn you a decent medal tally, but what was more impressive was Solskjaer’s personal contribution as the biggest moments arrived at his door.
In 1999 alone, Solskjaer changed the course of history time and time again with crucial interventions that will live long in the memory of every Manchester United fan.
Months before United were crowned English and European champions, they had the small matter of an FA Cup tie against Liverpool. Had they lost at Old Trafford that day, United’s season may have taken a very different course. With three minutes to go, United were losing one-nil and could see no way back into the game. After Dwight Yorke equalised, perennial substitute Solskjaer rattled in the winning goal to send the Stretford End into delirium.
It was only fitting that Solskjaer had the final say in what would become Manchester United’s greatest ever season. After starting the FA Cup final a few days before, the Norwegian forward was back on the bench for the most prestigious occasion of his career, the Champions League final. Just like against Liverpool in January, United were losing one-nil going into the final few moments of the game. The treble dream was slipping away and Bayern showed no signs of giving United a lifeline. Sent on to try and win the game, what Solskjaer did next is still hard to believe seventeen years later.
In the 93rd minute, with the score tied, Solskjaer managed to stretch out his leg just enough to divert Teddy Sheringham’s wayward header into the top corner of the net. Two-one. Game over. Manchester United were European champions!
Whether you were there in the Nou Camp, watching on tv, or reliving the action years later on an old VHS tape, DVD or YouTube video, that goal has the same effect on each and every Manchester United fan. Whether it was Solskjaer’s beaming smile, his famous knee-slide into the arms of adoring teammates or the cartwheeling Peter Schmeichel, the memories live forever. United are no longer European champions, but that indescribable joy, excitement, sense of pride and sheer disbelief is eternal. That is what Solskjaer gave us. He will forever be a Manchester United legend.
It is important to emphasise just how many of Solskjaer’s best moments in a red shirt came as a substitute entering a game in the closing stages. He is the original super-sub. He is the yardstick by which any goalscoring substitute is measured.
He scored 17 of his 91 Premier League goals as a replacement, with 29 of his 126 Manchester United goals coming from the bench. Only Jermain Defoe can boast a better record in Premier League history, but his record of scoring 20 of his 150 league strikes in this way is not a patch on Solskjaer’s impressive ratio.
His first goal for United came just six minutes into a home match with Blackburn and set the tone for his career in England. His final goal, coincidentally, also came at home to Blackburn in 2007, and again it was just six minutes after being introduced as a substitute. It was his gift. There was no one better.
To fully demonstrate Solskjaer’s influence from the bench, I take you back to the 1998/99 season. This time it’s not a last-minute winner or a career-defining goal, but it is a match that many will remember and look back on with fondness.
At the start of February, Manchester United travelled to Nottingham Forest in the middle of a thrilling title race. Going into the final 18 minutes, United were 4-1 up and cruising to another important win. Enter Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. He got his customary goal in the 80th minute, scored another in the 88th, before notching twice more as the clock ticked over into added time. Most strikers would be thrilled to score a hat-trick, Solskjaer did it in just 10 minutes. Not to mention he’d only been introduced to the pace of the game eight minutes before that. It is quite ridiculous to think of a player scoring four times as a substitute, but that’s part of Solskjaer’s charm. A lot of what he did made football fun to watch.
“You are my Solskjaer, my Ole Solskjaer. You make me happy, when skies are grey. Oh Alan Shearer, was so much dearer, please don’t take my Solskjaer away.” – Sung by United fans to the tune of ‘You Are My Sunshine’
United fans adore Solskjaer. He played his part in some of the club’s greatest ever moments and he did it all without fuss and without bother, classy on and off the pitch. He was third or fourth choice behind Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole and often Teddy Sheringham too, but he never complained. He certainly made his mark when called upon, though.
The club genuinely meant a lot to him, still does by all accounts. His career might have been even greater had it not been for two serious knee injuries in the years after his date with destiny in Barcelona. Even one injury of that nature can end a career, but Solskjaer battled back on both occasions and celebrated his recovery by winning the Premier League title, once in 2003 and again in 2007.
United fans commemorated his accomplishments in the only appropriate way; they hung a banner for him at Old Trafford alongside other Manchester United greats. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Manchester United’s no.20, a legend forever.