“And Solskjær has won it!” – Barcelona, 25 May 1999 – the words that will define Clive Tyldsley’s career as a broadcaster and journalist; the moment that encapsulates Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s time as a Manchester United player. In the intervening 15 years little has transpired to erode the love felt for the Norwegian striker at Old Trafford. His place in history permanently secure, three years after departing United for what seemed the final time, Solskjær returns to United as manager of Cardiff City. Older, mature, a leader; United’s loss of Ole the coach has been first Molde and now Cardiff’s gain.
Solskjær – famously a student of the game under Sir Alex Ferguson’s tutelage – first took charge of United’s reserve side, before departing for Norway in December 2010. There followed two league titles – the first Tippeligaen in Molde’s 100-year history – and a Norwegian Cup in 2012. All on a budget, although generous by Molde’s historical standards, that would make Juan Mata blush.
Norway has proven to be a fine preparatory ground for Solskjær the coach. And yet, there is some irony in the 40-year-old owing much of his coaching excellence to that goal in 1999: the Norwegian admitted some years later that the minor knee injury sustained in sliding across Camp ‘s turf would dog him into early retirement.
Indeed, Solskjær signed his final playing contract with United in the spring of 2006, writing into its articles time off to secure UEFA’s myriad coaching badges. He first coached United’s strikers, before taking over the reserves in summer 2008. It would prove to be an inspired choice by his old mentor, Sir Alex, with titles flowing at reserve level.
It is, then, perhaps an odd choice that a coach of such rare intelligence should take on the Cardiff role when all is not stable in south Wales. After all, Solskjær has turned down more than one opportunity to return to the Premier League, ostensibly with larger clubs and – this being the crucial part – no owner of Vincent Tan’s inglorious reputation.
Still, Solskjær is a manager of rare breed – a student, yes, but also a steely determination that marks the coach out as a leader where it was not always obvious as a player. He returns to Old Trafford desperate for the points that will edge Cardiff closer to safety, a hero to many whatever the result, and just maybe a future United manager in waiting.
“It has not been an ambition but it has been sort of an unrealistic dream,” admitted the 40-year-old of the possibility of taking charge at United in the future.
“You never know one day you might end up there. The former manager just always instilled into us ‘dream big’, and maybe unrealistic, because you never know it might happen. For me to play at Man United was never in my wildest dreams. So now I’m there as a manager. It just comes by coincidence. You just end up there.
“We can’t say that we are going to win, we are going to go there and put a performance on that we will be proud of, come back home with no regrets. You go out there to perform on the pitch and, as long as you give it your all, you can come back from places like this with pride.”
Meanwhile, United received a rare burst of good news this week, with Mata’s capture rapidly followed by confirmation that Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Marouanne Fellaini have returned to full training. The £37.1 million acquisition from Chelsea is likely to start, match fitness being short, but the feel-good factor remaining high through 48 of the more positive hours that manager David Moyes has experience at United this season.
While only Rooney, of the returning trio, is likely to start alongside the Spaniard, Moyes’ options look far healthier heading into the final fixture of a hugely testing month.
Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic miss out, while Michael Carrick remains on the sidelines, leaving the Scot to choose from Darren Fletcher, Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones in central midfield. It is an area as yet unstrengthened in the winter transfer window – and United’s principle achilles heel heading into the final months of the season.
Yet, Mata has added stimulus to a squad in desperate need of good news this month. Defeats to Tottenham Hotspur, Swansea City, Sunderland and Chelsea were followed by the Capital One Cup semi-final exit. It is a run that prompted an about-face in United’s acquisition strategy, and a club record outlay for the former Chelsea star.
Just the first of many, claims Moyes, who is increasingly bullish ahead of United’s Tuesday night fixture.
“I am disappointed we are not in a much stronger position. I am disappointed with how we have played. I am not going to accept it,” said the Scot, who has sported a visible increase in confidence since Mata’s arrival.
“I, ultimately, take the rap for that. But what I will do is make it right. I am going to get better players in. Unfortunately, I don’t think there will be more in January. But it will change.
“I have given every player the opportunity to play and show what they can do. We have had a pretty good chance to have a look at it. The players have to perform. If they want to be here and making sure they have a jersey, they have to show it in the games. Undoubtedly, this club wants to be at the top. We want to be challenging.”
That is a promise that starts Tuesday and flows into games against Stoke City and Fulham, before United travel to Premier League leaders Arsenal on 12 February. It is a run that must surely bring three victories before the trip to north London if United is to retain any credible hope of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.
Meanwhile, Solskjær’s Cardiff remains rooted to the foot of the Premier League, although just six points from mid-table. It is a battle for safety that is likely to run into the final few weeks of a dramatic first season in the top flight for more than 40 years.
In kind with his opposite number, Solskjær has strengthen in the winter transfer window, signing a clutch of players from Norway and the Premier League. Former Reds Magnus Wolff Eikrem and Mats Møller Dæhli joined in early January, while Fabio da Silva signed a permanent deal with Cardiff this week.
He will be joined in Wales by team-mate Wilfried Zaha, who will remain on loan for the remainder of the season. Another loanee Kenwyne Jones has come in from Stoke, while Norwegian international Jo Inge Berget adds striking quality to a team that has been short of goals this season.
Manchester United v Cardiff City, Premier League, Old Trafford, 7.45pm, 28 January 2014
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Jones, Cleverley, Januzaj; Mata; Rooney.
Cardiff (4-5-1): Marshall; McNaughton, Caulker, Turner, Theophile-Catherine; Kim, Whittingham, Medel, Noone, Mutch; Campbell.
United: Lindegaard, Buttner, Kagawa, Giggs, Fletcher, Fellaini, Welbeck, Young, van Persie, Hernández
Cardiff: Lewis, Amondarain, Connolly, Hudson, Cowie, Dæhli, Eikrem, Gunnarsson, Bellamy, Cornelius, Odemwingie, Smith, Velikonja, Berget.
United 13 Draw 8 Cardiff 6
Referee: Craig Pawson
Assistants: D Cann, M McDonough
Fourth Official: H Webb