Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – A Most Likeable Man

It had rained the night before and it would rain again later that evening. But for a few hours on the morning of 2 January 2014, the rain paused above the car park of Cardiff City Stadium. It was as if even the vicious Welsh weather gods were taking an interest in proceedings.

If so, one could hardly have blamed them. Under the stewardship of Vincent Tan things had rarely been dull at Cardiff. The ignominy of Tan changing the club’s shirt colour, the glory of promotion to the Premier League, the farce of Tan’s simmering feud with the manager who lead them there, the tragicomedy of Tan appointing a 23-year-old with no experience and no work visa as the club’s head of recruitment.

Strange and unusual things always seemed to happen at Cardiff and, in addition to a new manager, Cardiff City needed a lightning rod for the terrible publicity Tan kept attracting. The club’s fans, who passionately resented their Malaysian owner, believing him to have violated the club’s heritage, needed a hero they could get behind. Enter Ole Gunnar Solskjær, an ambitious, highly regarded young manager, and a most likeable man.

After tottering about aimlessly for a time – during which the Sky Sports News reporter struggled manfully to find new and more interesting ways of saying that there was nothing new to report –  the huddled masses of the press pack were suddenly allowed to shuffle from the crisp January air into the bowels of the stadium. Then Ole Gunnar Solskjær finally arrived and held a press conference that should become part of the course taught to young managers everywhere.

It was a cacophony of buzzwords, a fireworks display of all the things that fans want to hear. And Solskjær delivered it with a mixture of earnestness and enthusiasm which made it hard not to buy into what he was saying. A deeply cynical and shivering press pack, who had come to expect nothing but the ridiculous from Cardiff and their senior management, left the room as fully paid up members of the church of OGS. You came away from the unveiling not only thinking he was the right manager for Cardiff, but also wishing he could be your manager, or life coach, or possibly even your dad.

“He looked entirely at ease, in control, totally aware of what he had got himself into. He certainly didn’t appear out of his depth. Rather, he looked a man with a plan”, said one report. “A very impressive display from Solskjær. Measured, authoritative, articulate, not fazed by anything”, said another.

Solskjær said he wanted to play attacking football, he wanted to create a culture, he praised the passion of the Cardiff supporters. In the short-term he thought the club could avoid relegation with something to spare. In the long-term they could “do a Southampton” and even finish above Swansea. The targets didn’t seem far-fetched at the time. After all, Cardiff City were just five points below Hull City in 10th place.

Solskjær even managed to defend the club’s owner without sounding ludicrous – which is no small feat. But amidst all this enthusiasm for what Solskjær had said, there was little attention paid to what he hadn’t said. Curiously, a potential relegation battle didn’t seem to be a subject at all.

Two years earlier, I visited Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Molde for an interview with the man himself, for Norwegian magazine Josimar. And “Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Molde” is an entirely appropriate moniker, because it was clear that Solskjær’s return to Molde as manager in 2011 had both energised and completely set the terms for Molde’s footballing community.

Talented young players would move to Molde, with its 25,000 inhabitants and negligible nightlife, for a chance to play for Solskjær. Students from other parts of the country enrolled in the Molde University College’s Sports Management course. With Solskjær in place, the tiny city on the windy west coast suddenly seemed to be the most exciting place in Norway for young people who wanted a future in football.

As one of those students noted during my visit, “It would be sad if Solskjær went away. I mean, there wouldn’t be much left here”. Although Molde had never won the Norwegian league before 2011, they had long been a force in Norwegian football. They came within a game of winning the title in 1987, they won the cup in 1994 and during Rosenborg’s freakish run of 13 straight league titles from 1992 to 2004 Molde ran them close several times. They’d also lost cup finals in 1982, 1989 and 2009.

In 2011 Solskjær was appointed as manager and the club’s financial backers Kjell Inge Røkke and Bjørn Rune Gjelsten sanctioned significant investment in the squad. The club’s culture of falling at the last hurdle was put to bed at the first time of asking, and his immediate success coupled with his extraordinary stature in Norwegian football gave Solskjær carte blanche to shape the club exactly the way he wanted it. He had a squad full of the most talented young players in the country, almost all of whom were represented by his close friend and advisor Jim Solbakken – so one imagines contractual issues and such were somewhat less complicated than the norm.

He had a hand-picked coaching staff and he had financial backers who trusted him completely in all matters. He had the kind of absolute power most modern managers can only dream of, which suited him perfectly, since it was the kind of power he was used to seeing Sir Alex Ferguson wield. In three seasons the setup at Molde yielded two league titles and a cup win. The trophy haul, as well as Molde’s attacking brand of football, propelled Solskjær into a certain category of exciting, progressive, young European managers whose names would routinely come up when reasonably attractive manager jobs in England became available.

Back in Cardiff, Solskjær’s first training session was a statement of intent. Under Malky Mackay, training sessions had been all about formation drills and set pieces, making sure the team was hard to beat and that they’d bundle in a corner now and again. The idea was that Solskjær could add some attacking flair to that solid base and they’d be fine. At his first training session, following some brief warm-up exercises, Solskjær ran the team through attacking drills. As Solskjær put it at his unveiling: “My brand of football will hopefully make [the fans] proud of the way we play football. My brand is forward minded. Forward passing, forward running. I want to attack. I want the players to express themselves”.

But turning Malky Mackay’s solid if functional team into a sleek, attacking machine was no easy task.

Solskjær confidently asserted when he took over that a few wins would see them rapidly rise up the table. This was one way of looking at the situation. Another way of looking at it would have been to say that Cardiff were one point above the relegation zone, having won just one of their last ten games. And of the three teams behind them in the table, one of them was Tony Pulis’s resurgent Crystal Palace, and another was Sam Allardyce’s West Ham – two teams one could very reasonably expect to pick up a significant amount of points in the second half of the season.

The truth of the situation when Solskjær took over was that Cardiff were heading towards relegation. They were the lobster in the pot, they just hadn’t noticed that the water was getting warmer. Before Solskjær took over, Cardiff had picked up 0.9 points per game. If they had kept up that average for the rest of the season, they would still have been relegated. This doesn’t excuse the dreadful run of results Cardiff suffered under Solskjær, but it does indicate one crucial thing: at least from the outside, it looks like both the Cardiff City leadership and Solskjær himself completely failed to grasp the severity of situation they were in.

Throughout his footballing life, Solskjær had never before been involved in anything like a Premier League relegation battle. As a player he experienced success at Molde and success at Manchester United. As a manager he had success with the Manchester United reserves and success again at Molde. He has always been part of teams that played attacking, winning football.

At Cardiff, for the first time in his footballing life, he was at a club where almost every weekend they came up against opposition that had better players at their disposal. Judging a manager’s ability is not a binary thing, a manager is not simply either good or bad. Like all people, managers have different strengths and weaknesses. Logically, a club should hire a manager whose strengths correspond with the club’s situation. Also, with games coming thick and fast and time on the training ground relatively limited, it’s almost impossible to implement radical changes in playing style mid-season – so when making a midseason appointment the new manager’s footballing philosophy should correspond at least to some degree with the existing qualities of the squad.

Cardiff City were in a fight for survival, the team’s form was poor and there were teams below them who were on the up. The team Malky Mackay had constructed was a functional one, they had been moulded into a reasonably solid defensive unit through endless drills and their goals came largely from counter attacks and set pieces. To lead this team to safety Cardiff appointed Solskjær, who had never experienced a relegation battle and who coaches attacking football where players have individual freedom and responsibility. It was an bizarre decision, which speaks volumes of the footballing know-how of the decision makers at Cardiff City.

With a manager in place who had no experience of the type of challenge he faced and whose playing squad was ill-suited to the kind of football he wanted to coach, Solskjær realistically had one chance to turn a dire situation in his favour: the transfer market.

Cardiff should in theory have had the financial firepower to outgun the other relegation candidates in the transfer market. Solskjær wanted to change completely the way the team played. What he needed was a handful of players who would immediately strengthen the first eleven and who could set the tone of the team and implement Solskjær’s concept on the pitch.

What he did was sign three Norwegians in Magnus Wolff Eikrem, Mats Møller Dæhli and Jo Inge Berget, as well as Kenwyne Jones, Fabio, Juan Cala and finally Wilfried Zaha on loan. Not one of those players would significantly and unquestionably strengthen the starting eleven of any Premier League team.

Solskjær’s decision to sign three compatriots was heavily criticised. “It seems very naïve to me to turn to Norwegian players,” Tor-Kristian Karlsen, former director of football at Monaco, told Josimar. “Right now there are no Norwegian players who can raise the level of a Premier League team and Solskjær should have known that better than anyone”.

While Mats Møller Dæhli made a positive impact and looks a bright prospect, he was 18 and couldn’t be expected to rescue Cardiff on his own. The situation with Magnus Wolff Eikrem was particularly strange, as Solskjær had known and coached Eikrem on and off since the player was 12 years old. If anyone knew whether or not Eikrem was good enough to change Cardiff’s fortunes it was Solskjær, yet the playmaker only started once in the Premier League.

Solskjær’s old friend and former business partner Jim Solbakken was heavily involved in all three deals with the Norwegian players, representing one party or the other. Both FIFA and the Norwegian FA are currently investigating Solbakken’s affairs, after several reports of misconduct and conflicts of interest emerged in the Norwegian media this autumn. It seems unlikely that Dæhli, Eikrem and Berget would all have become Cardiff City players if it hadn’t been for Solskjær’s relationship with Solbakken. Given the limited impact the players made and the crucial importance of the January transfer window to Cardiff’s survival chances, the issue does not reflect particularly well on Solskjær’s judgement.

After a catastrophic 0-4 defeat at home to Hull, Solskjær seemed to change and started picking more defensively-minded lineups. A switch to 5-3-2 saw Cardiff battle hard to get a point at White Hart Lane, but they were undone by a rare goal from Roberto Soldado. The next weekend there was a ray of light as Cardiff beat a dire Fulham 3-1, but they then embarked on a poor run of three defeats and a draw from the next four. A fluke win away at Southampton and a 0-0 draw at home to Stoke were the last points Solskjær’s Cardiff would claim that season. After two heavy defeats in the North-East against Sunderland and Newcastle, relegation was inevitable. It truth, it had felt inevitable for a while. During this dreadful stretch, where Cardiff won just twice in three months, Solskjær kept changing formation and personnel in a way that unsettled and angered local fans and media. Squad rotation may be a natural part of the modern game, but when the team kept losing and none of the changes really work it was hard to avoid the feeling that Solskjær himself didn’t really know how to get the best out of his players. Curiously, Solskjær rarely played the system he had favoured at Molde.

During this latter phase, when hope of survival was gradually dwindling, it became increasingly clear that for all the goodwill Solskjær had carried into the job, for all his good intentions and interesting ideas, it simply wasn’t working. The local press, upset about having to spend next season going to places like Blackpool and Huddersfield, started sniping. As someone noted in the press room at half time during a particularly poor performance: “Watching Solskjær trying to save Cardiff is like watching a puppy trying to climb a tree. He’s cute, you wish him all the best, but it’s not going to end well”.

Amidst the derision Solskjær kept his composure. No one could have begrudged him a Benítezesque rant at his critics. It never came. But the spark in his eyes was gone, the aura he used to have had faded. As the defeats piled up, he kept insisting that his players were doing a lot of things right – which may well have been true, but in the face of near-certain relegation it started to ring increasingly hollow. Earlier in his time at Cardiff he had an uncanny ability to make people feel better about the club’s prospects when he spoke, but in the face of damning results the Solskjær Effect withered. The words were still right, the way they had been right at that glorious unveiling back in January. But Solskjær’s bullet-proof conviction, his overwhelming certainty that was he was doing was right and that it was going to work, had disappeared. There was no sudden crisis, no single moment of disaster, but rather the slow, gradual, awful process of someone realising that their marriage is doomed.

Image by Tor Atle Kleven (Flickr: Ole Gunnar Solskjær) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – A Most Likeable Man
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