When December arrived in ‘89, and the faint sounds of Christmas carols got louder with every passing day, the start of a new decade loomed on the horizon. It’s a merry month, December. Not so much, I’d assume for a certain Alex Ferguson when the phone rang in his office. FA Cup third round. It hadn’t been the easiest of rides for him that season, even with all the summer spending. Close to £9m was allocated by Martin Edwards – who had loosened the purse anticipating the takeover by Michael Knighton. In came Webb, Phelan, Pallister, Paul Ince and Danny Wallace to add to an already formidable contingent of Bruce, Robins, Strachan, Robson, Hughes and others. Knocked out of the League Cup by Tottenham, lying 15th of 20 clubs in the league, including a 5-1 thrashing in the derby by City. 3 years of excuses and it was still crap. It couldn’t get worse, right? It could and it did. Atleast seemingly. Much, much worse. ‘Forest away’, said Bob Cass of The Mail on the other end of the telephone. Brian Clough’s Forest? AT City ground? The best cup-team in the country? With Bryan Robson injured? Gone by Easter we reckon?
Ferguson’s audition was live on television. He survived. A pass with the outside of Hughes’s boot that found Mark Robins. Past Steve Sutton. The goal that saved his job. Do you ever wonder how horribly wrong it could’ve gone? How fine the margins were? How terrible they were all season? I don’t. In football management, you ride your luck. You don’t expect two goals in stoppage time of an European Cup final with the Treble on the line. But you take it. Ups and downs are the fundamental strands of football management. You’ll never enjoy one without the other. There have been lows even when United were experiencing the heights of success under Sir Alex. But one win doesn’t guarantee you silverware and one loss shouldn’t bring about noises of being sacked. That is beyond ridiculous. Unfortunately, however, for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, he can never win. Memory fails me as I try to recollect the last gaffer I saw, come under this microscopic scrutiny, most of which is unwarranted, most of which is vile stuff. It really surprises me how the media and the broader fanbase suffer from short-term memory loss. Before Ole came in, we were scrapping for the final European spots almost every season. We had managers calling out players openly, disregarding values and morals this club stands for, questioning the club’s European pedigree and creating an atmosphere impossible for players to thrive in. People forget the months of LVG-football which passed without a goal being scored. People have started taking the top 3 finishes lightly, perhaps failing to remember the days when we had our notebooks out calculating whether we’d get into the top 4 around April and May. Never had we scored 5 in a game after Sir Alex retired, no hattricks by players, no consecutive seasons in the Champions League. If we’re being true to ourselves, when Ole walked in through the doors at Carrington, the biggest club in the world was a right mess. The academy, the first team, the hierarchy and every small thing about this institution was in disarray. As fans, we relate to the romance of this football club, the history, the idea of Manchester United and the general Fergusonian ethos. ‘Understanding the United Way is understanding the fundamental aspect of the human mosaic. What thrills us, what scares us, what makes us feel alive’, said Eric Cantona. That’s what makes us United. Not managers disregarding our results in Europe and shushing it as ‘football heritage’ to prove his point and uphold his own self. It’s why the night in Paris meant more to us. Why the derby wins mean more to us. Why Ole means more to us.
And yet, criticism and opinions are part of fan culture in any sport and it forever will be. But there’s criticism and asking the manager and players to do better and then there’s a straight up witch-hunt driven by agenda and dislike. Since he got the job, Ole Solskjaer’s been target numero uno for the media. It’s always something or the other. Either his facial expressions after a game, if not that, it’s criticism for not making it past semi-finals, if not that, it’s his usage of players. It’s always something. Yet, nobody will ever mention the fact that a team, in the first of 5 years of rebuild reached the semi-finals of every cup competition it played in. Nobody will ever criticise other Manchester clubs for stockpiling players they don’t need and keeping them on the bench. It all stems from downright hatred and disbelief towards a man who has done an unbelievable job with this level of microscopic scrutiny on him and a lack of understanding of where he comes from and what he stands for. Managers finishing 8th in successive seasons have had less stick.
Progress is not superficial. It’s not a linearly upward slope. It’s painstaking, time-consuming and the slope is often flat. From the team that went to Anfield in December of 2018 to the team that is on the longest unbeaten away run in the history of football in that country picking up most points from losing positions ever, the progress is there for everyone to be seen. And it has been difficult at times, naturally. 7 of the 11 that started the game at Anfield have since left the club and it wasn’t until January of this year that Jesse Lingard found his smile back and returned to being the player we know he’s capable of being. There have been lows like Spurs, Burnley and Sheffield United and also unimaginable heartbreaks like losing a hard fought final after 120 minutes and 62 games all season with the 22nd kick of the shootout. The manager is the first one to face the heat and I believe, if you’re Ole Solskjaer, it hurts a bit more. But to go again, with a smile on your face, to protect your players, takes courage. It wouldn’t have been beyond past United managers to throw in a shrug and pass the blame to David De Gea. No one has ever thanked him once for the rebuild as fans proudly boast about housing the gravitas of a Cristiano Ronaldo, the poise of a Raphael Varane or the promise of young Jadon Sancho. ‘Some of the things written and said about me, the abuse on social media, I’m just glad my parents aren’t alive to see and hear this because it would’ve broken their hearts’, said Steve Bruce in an exclusive interview with The Telegraph. I can just imagine what it must be like to be Ole Solskjaer for a day. ‘No one ever says thank you’, Brian Clough once wrote. They don’t, Brian.
But the world goes around by a simple rule. When we mess up, it’s everyone else’s fault. When we do something right, it’s all on us. Sadly for the tactically clueless Ole Gunnar Solskjær, the opposite is true. The events of his reign have provided incontrovertible proof that, when Manchester United win, it’s entirely down to individuals; and when they lose, it’s all because Ole’s still at the wheel, careering round another corner with a smile on his face.
The detailed-ish analysis of media coverage – traditional and social disgrace – confirms that, had Solskjær done his job properly and not been so embarrassingly out of his depth, United would have won 100% of their matches under his management. Instead the figure is 56%, only the third highest win ratio in United’s history and a despicable 4% below Lord Fergie’s. Unacceptable.
There are viable points for people who want Solskjaer to do better. As fans should correctly expect. But to act like the bridge between issues with the current squad and a perfect one which wins all the pots is Solskjaer’s sacking or the solution to the most minor setbacks is Solskjaer’s sacking is laughable. Football isn’t black and white. The issues of one game don’t all disappear 3 days later in the next game. It’s gradual and managers deserve time. Imagine United fans complaining that a midfield of Moses, Whiteside and Robson couldn’t be made to win stuff by Sir Alex.
The issues pertaining to buildup and defending transitions and off ball positioning and a coherent press built around an ageing superstar for whom the adjustments needed are almost as much as the romance, need to be worked upon. But it’s important to remember that educated instincts and a degree of freedom within a system are by far more sustainable than robotic patterns which can and do become repetitive and bland. That’s how I like my football, if a reader disagrees, fair enough. Educated instinct – the stabbing of that right foot in the third minute of stoppage time in a packed Camp Nou, the run past the entire Arsenal backline from beyond halfway at Villa Park, the substitution of Federico Macheda and so many more incidents in the history of this club.
But at the heart of it all is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with a grin on his face. Only a bare handful have a legacy as glorious and as cemented in the club’s folklore as Ole. Had he decided to leave United for Tottenham, he’d be a legend there too. He was that good. But he didn’t. Because of a love for this club. The love that got him back to take the manager’s job. Yes, it’s his dream job but the scrutiny levels which are already present on Old Trafford’s gaffer multiplied manifold. Yet, he pushed on. In the end, none of this might work out. I’m well aware. But that’s what football offers which appeals to us. It’s not blasé. It’s not monotonous. All we have is hope. It’s about the hopes and the dreams, I believe? The Docherty era promised so much but didn’t work out. Being regulars in Europe and often Cup winners in the Atkinson era didn’t ultimately work out. And there’s no guarantee that this will. But whatever happens, Ole’s legacy will never be tainted. Not now, not ever. And for people who think it’s *just* that ’99 winner, trust me when I say it’s for far greater things. The ’20 Legend’ was earned.
When skies have turned grey, this club has often turned to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. To reach the promised land in ’99 and to sort out a club in disarray 20 years later. He delivered back then and I believe he’ll deliver again.
‘ Patience. Rare in football.’ – Eric Cantona