Beckham… In to Sheringham… And Solskjaer has won it!
Very few moments in sporting history can rival the three minutes of injury time at the end of the 1999 Champions League final. Bayern Munich led Manchester United from the opening stages. The German giants dominated the match, hit the woodwork twice, and moved in to the final ten minutes looking to close out victory. With 82 minutes gone, still 1-0 behind, Alex Ferguson made his final move; sending on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to replace Andy Cole.
Just ten mad minutes later United, having levelled in the 91st minute, won a final corner. Beckham produced a trademark cross. Teddy Sheringham leapt highest to flick the ball on to Solskjaer who, right leg outstrectched, toe-poked his way in to history.
English football was booming in the summer of 1996. The European Championships had been an enormous success and the commercially growing Premier League was turning players in to celebrities. It was widely rumoured that the top scorer at the Euros, Alan Shearer, would add the finishing touch to reigning champions Manchester United’s outstanding squad. Amongst these rumours it went largely unnoticed when United paid a modest £1.5m for the services of a young Norwegian striker.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had been prolific for Molde in the Norwegian Eliteserien, forging a reputation as a clinical finisher with 31 goals in just 38 games. His club saw an opportunity to cash in on their prized asset and Solskjaer was offered to Everton and Manchester City, neither of whom were willing to take a risk on an untested talent. With Solskjaer attracting interest from others around Europe, it was Manchester United who decided that he was worth a shot; securing his signature two weeks before the 96/97 season.
Shearer ended up moving to his Newcastle for a world-record £15m. Even without the extra addition of the prolific Shearer it was expected that the Solskjaer would be little more than a squad player at United with Eric Cantona and Andy Cole leading the line. Supporters at Old Trafford didn’t hold particularly high expectations for their latest acquisition.
Introduced for his debut against Blackburn with United trailing 2-1, it took Solskjaer just six minutes to prove his worth and earn his new club a point. Englsih football had witnessed the heroics of ‘Super Sub’ Solskjaer for the first of many times.
Solkjaer’s first season in Manchester turned out to be one of his most prolific, finding the net 18 times in the league alone to establish himself as Europe’s primary marksmen. He reached double figures in six further seasons across a decade at the club with only injury slowing down the goal output. In total Solskjaer scored 126 times in 366 appearances. His ratio, solid if unspectacular, is more impressive when considered that over a third of his United appearances came as a substitute.
It was from the bench in February 1999 that Solskjaer created history. Ferguson introduced the striker after 72 minutes with United comfortably leading Nottingham Forest 4-1 at the City Ground. Legend has it he was instructed to ‘keep possession and play down the clock’. Ignoring this entirely he went on to score on 80, 82, 90 and 90+2, becoming the first substitute to ever score a Premier League hat-trick (there have been five more since if you fancy some trivia). He remains, unsurprisingly, the only substitute to come on and score four.
Just over three months later, with a League and FA Cup double already secured, Solskjaer again found himself sat as a substitute. He watched as Mario Basler gave Bayern an early lead. He warmed up along the Nou Camp touchline as Mehmet Scholl’s chip came back off the post. Solskjaer forced a good save from Oliver Kahn with his first touch but moments later watched helplessly as Carsten Jancker’s overhead kick struck the bar. By the time the game reached injury time Bayern should really have been out of sight. But they weren’t.
The rest, as they say, is history. United celebrated their historic treble, Alex Ferguson quickly became Sir Alex Ferguson and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, signed for just £1.5m from Molde, went down in European football history.
Solskjaer eventually left United in 2007 having spent over a decade at the club. 70,000 attended his testimonial in which, like so many times before, Ferguson introduced him from the bench to inspire victory. By this time, he was coaching United’s reserves, an international import now fully woven in to the fabric of the club. Now managing Molde, Solskjaer has openly admitted that taking the hot seat at Old Trafford would be the ultimate honour. Only time will tell if he will get to lead from the dugout he spent so much time in as a player.
Amongst the money and madness of modern football there will always be a place for the unexpected success story. Manchester United supporters have been blessed to watch Ronaldo, Scholes and hundreds of international superstars but, as the Stretford End still sing, the baby-faced assassin will always be their Solskjaer, their only Solskjaer.