Football: No substitute for the masters of surprise

Nick Townsend hears why a bit-part player refuses to succumb to temptation
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The Independent Online
OLE GUNNAR SOLSKJAER was in his Valhalla; the heaven of Norse myth. Ten minutes remaining and the diminutive Norwegian had finally got his chance.

He had one thought on his mind. "When I got out there and Teddy scored, I thought, 'Yes! I'm going to play 35 or 40 minutes of a Champions' League final'. That's going to be unbelievable'." Until he went and, in a sense, spoiled it all less than two minutes later with the goal that has become almost de rigueur for the substitute for all cups, all championships. Eighteen goals in 17 starts this season say everything about the player who, while not being totally enamoured with a regular role warming the bench for his colleagues in the starting line-up, will simply not be seduced by the overtures from other clubs. Hence the rejection of a pounds 5m move to Tottenham earlier in the season.

"It was like it always is on the bench," said the 26-year-old from Kristiansund who, remarkably, once entertained a future as a Greco-Roman wrestler, a sport at which his father Oyvind was Norwegian national champion. "Nobody likes sitting there and waiting their turn. It is sheer agony. You want to be on the pitch. You want to help the rest of the players. That's the worst part of being the substitute; the butterflies you have in your stomach because you can't help."

Like David Fairclough, who played for Liverpool, the team Solskjaer supported as a child, he would rather lose that appendage of super-sub. But the four goals he claimed at the City Ground in February when coming on against Nottingham Forest and scoring the winner against Liverpool in United's fourth-round FA Cup tie have conspired against that. "I don't like being substitute but I respect the manager's decision," said the player who might have scored even before converting the winner, but found Oliver Kahn blocking his path. "This is my club and I'm 100 per cent committed to staying here."

The player, signed from Norwegian club Molde in the summer of 1996, has an impish humour to match his features. Asked whether he dreamed about Wednesday's winner, he declared wryly: "Oh yes, I dreamed about it a couple of times before. Maybe 20 years ago, but not lately. We needed a couple of goals. that's why he put me on. It hasn't sunk in yet. I may need a couple of years. While I was sitting there, I felt we had the ball all the time. We just couldn't put it in the net. It's been like this all season. We've been struggling and then, 10 minutes before the end, the team spirit, stamina and strength comes through."

In some quarters the introduction of Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham may have been considered inspired. In truth, desperation was Alex Ferguson's principal motivating force. The difficulty, for any manager, is not when to bring them into play, but how to mollify the pair's frustrations while they bide their time on the sidelines. "He's a difficult one to handle because he's such a proud person and he's at the twilight of his career," said Ferguson of Sheringham, who was yesterday recalled into Kevin Keegan's England squad to face Sweden and Bulgaria. "He feels he's going to miss out, but he's been brilliant. He's a really good player and I think his fitness will carry him on for another couple of years.

"A lot of players, when they get to 33, lose their pace, but he doesn't depend on that. He depends on this [the manager points to his head]. That doesn't go. I hope Kevin brings Teddy in. He's flying. Even if you brought him on as sub, he'd probably come on and score."

Ferguson added: "When you name a player on the bench, the only thing you can do is to tell them the way you see it... and hope they understand. They don't really want to accept it, but hopefully half an hour after the game's over they say to themselves, 'I understand his point of view', and that's all you ask of them."


Teddy Sheringham (4 goals)

15 August Premiership (v Leicester). Plays in first game of the season and scores with first touch of the campaign, two minutes after coming on.

October '98-March '99 Sheringham's winter of discontent.

7 April Champions' League (v Juventus). Following five miserable months in and out of the team through injury and loss of form, Sheringham's season (and United's fortune in the match) takes a dramatic turn after his introduction to the semi-final first leg.

17 April Premiership (v Sheffield Wednesday). Rare start, alongside the other super-sub. Strong performance; he creates a goal and scores one himself (only his second in 18 games).

19 May Premiership triumph. Wins first ever medal in English football.

25 May FA Cup final (v Newcastle). Replaces the injured Keane in the 9th minute. By the 11th, he has netted the opening goal. That's two medals.

26 May Champions' League final (v Bayern Munich). Need we say more? On in the 67th minute, scores equaliser and tees up the winner with a deft header. Oh, and medal No 3.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (15 goals)

9 September Premiership (v Charlton). Partners Yorke. On target twice.

21 October Champions' League (v Brondby). Comes on for Cole in 60th minute and scores with first touch.

29 November Premiership (v Leeds). Starts game and Scores with angled drive.

12 December Premiership (v Spurs). Two goals take United top.

10 January Premiership (v West Ham). Replaces Butt late and slots in header.

24 January FA Cup (v Liverpool). Enters fray in 80th minute and scores in injury time. Now scored more goals (11) than he's made appearances (9).

6 February Premiership (v Nottingham Forest). Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole - four in 10 minutes.

21 March Premiership (v Everton). Starts and scores. Now 13 in 14 games.

17 April Premiership (v Sheffield Wed). Plays alongside Sheringham. Adds United's second in 35th minute.

26 May Champions' League final (v Bayern). As in the FA Cup; on for Cole in the 80th. Stuck out right foot and secured the European Cup and treble.