“..and Solskjaer has won it,” shouted the commentator after the Norwegian toe poked the ball in the injury time past the Bayern Munich goalkeeper in the 1999 Champions League final, and created an eternal moment, which would always be etched into Manchester United fans’ hearts forever.
It was 17 years to the day when United, linked with England sensation Alan Shearer at that time, signed a certain unknown Norwegian, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, from Molde for 1.5 million pounds. And despite his low signing fee, eyebrows were raised on the decision to buy a rookie instead of a proven league goal scorer.
Solskjaer was brought to Old Trafford with a view to play second fiddle, especially in his first season, behind established frontrunners Eric Cantona and Andy Cole, so as to ease him into the rigours of the Premier League. But before the commentators could roll out his introduction to the uninitiated, Solskjaer scored within minutes of his debut after coming on as a substitute(what else!) against Blackburn Rovers.
Within few weeks of his arrival at United, he became a fans’ favourite and it became clear that he would become an integral part of the first team sooner than had been anticipated and would also come out as a bargain buy of the season.
His lethal goal scoring abilities saw him score an impressive 18 goals during his debut season, a tally bettered only by Alan Shearer and Ian Wright and helped United win the title. His moment of the season came when he scored four goals within twelve minutes after coming on as a second half substitute in 8-1 thrashing of Nottingham Forest.
Solskjaer, nicknamed ‘Baby-faced assasin’ by the Bristish media, for his youthful looks and deadly finishing, will perhaps always be remembered as a ‘super sub’ for his ability to come on late during the matches and score either a crucial winner or a equaliser. Sir Alex revealed that Solskjaer had a knack of sitting on the bench and analysing the opposition play without taking his eye off the game, which was acknowledged by Solskjaer himself when he said, “”I had to think about myself, how can I do the most damage for the opposition if I come on. I sat there and I studied football games but I didn’t exactly analyze their strikers, instead , I would pay attention to what the defenders and full-backs were doing wrong”
His following campaign was hampered by injuries, only managing to score six goals during 1997/98 season. But his defining moment as a Manchester United player came in the following season.
United had already won the league and the FA cup, and were going for the treble in the Champions league final against Bayern Munich. Teddy Sheringham scored an injury time equaliser and it looked as though match was going into the extra time. Solskjaer, however, had other ideas. A David Beckham corner was flicked on by Sheringham onto the path of Solskjaer who, as ever, was at the right place at the right time, and scored the treble winning goal for United. “And nobody will ever win a European Cup final more dramatically than this,” concluded the commentator, and thereby adding Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s name into United’s and football’s folklore forever.
He always used to put the team before his personal interests and always considered himself just another cog in the wheel. Solskjaer displayed this trait in another defining moment during the 1998 season against Newcastle United when he was sent off for committing a professional foul on Newcastle midfielder Rob Lee. The match was all square at 1-1, and United needed at least a point to keep themselves in the hunt for the title. Rob Lee, the Newcastle midfielder, found himself through on goal, and would have certainly scored, until Solskjaer who ran two thirds of the pitch, committed a professional foul, knowing that he would be given his marching orders and would be suspended for further games, and thereby denying the Toons a victory. This was immediately recognised by fans all over the world, which earned him the praise for his selfless act for the club.
After coming on a ‘super sub’ for few years and scoring his customary goals, he was also used as a right winger by Sir Alex Ferguson during the early 2000’s.
On the field, the Norwegian became an embodiment of Manchester United’s never-say-die attitude, and a firm fan favorite. Off the field, however, he had to admit one defeat – in his battle with persistent knee injury, due to which he had to finally call time on his trophy laden years with Manchester United, where he scored a total of 126 goals in 366 appearances. He last played for United in the testimonial match against Espanyol in 2008, which was attended by a massive crowd of 69000 people, and thereby, setting a record as the second-highest-attended testimonial in British history. However, he remained with United in a coaching role where he managed their reserves team for a couple of years until 2010.
Displaying their continued support for the Norwegian, the fans added a banner at Stretford End of their home stadium that read 2OLEgend ( 20 being Solskjaer’s jersey number). They also sang songs in the honour of their super sub even when he was absent from the pitch during his injury laden seasons. He further enhanced his status with the fans when he became a patron of the Manchester United Supporter’s Trust (MUST).
The ‘Baby-faced Assassin’, unlike his nickname, was a man with the purest of hearts. He used to donate a percentage of his wages to the UNICEF, and was also the ambassador for global charity UNICEF. In 2009, he was the recipient of the Peer Gynt prize, given by the Norwegian Parliament, for his work as a worthy ambassador of the sport and his great social commitment. David Gill, the former United chief executive, perfectly summed it up during Solskjaer’s testimonial match at Old Trafford by saying, ” He is a player who no-one has a bad word to say about…he is a fantastic ambassador to this club and to this sport.”