Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: 'I'm so proud of being part of the history of Man Utd'

Years of pain cannot break a positive spirit. Steve Tongue meets a man who really does smile at adversity
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The Independent Online

Amid all the excitement of Manchester United's struggle to evict Crewe Alexandra from the Carling Cup last Wednesday night - two long-serving heart-patient managers, the late winning goal from a teenaged debutant and so on - one significant aspect was understandably overlooked: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer played 120 minutes of football.

During long periods of the little pixie's career, that might have been the ration for half-a-dozen games. Worse, for the past three seasons this time of year has resembled not so much the autumn of his playing days as the grim Norwegian winter. But suddenly, delightfully, Solskjaer is enjoying an Indian summer, the calendar no longer ringed with knee operations.

Ask how many of those there have been and the baby face creases up in concentration. "Let me have a think now. The first one in September 2003, then a major one in August 2004 - that was the [cartilage] transplant - and another one in summer 2005, same type of injury but a different place in the knee. So three decent-sized operations. And lots of arthroscopy and things in between. They've been inside the knee a few times!"

The day after undertaking a full shift like last Wednesday's, rather than one of his famed cameos from the substitutes' bench, he takes things "a little bit easy - swimming, on the bike, no running, not at my age". But there is no apparent discomfort as he bounds up the stairs at United's training centre, where over the past three years he spent so many long, hard days of rehabilitation.

As recently as last December Sir Alex Ferguson looked and sounded wretched when admitt-ing that the prospects of a return to full fitness for one of his favourite sons were not encouraging, and that a testimonial match was under consideration. Solskjaer insists that his own concern was whether he would be able to return to the high standard demanded by himself as well as his club.

"There were times when I had pain in the knee and thought, 'Is this ever going to be 100 per cent again?' After the main operation, it was a test of patience. I had a cast on for three months and was in bed, just moving the knee, eight or nine hours a day. But I never went to sleep thinking I wouldn't play again. I was always positive about that, mentally preparing myself every night.

"There was a woman who worked with the Norwegian Olympic athletes and she made me keep a diary, writing things down about how I felt, which I did during training as well. When you write something negative, you realise that's bad and you must start thinking positively again."

Not that introspection was everything. Typically, Solskjaer was concerned to lift the spirits of fellow sufferers in the treatment room such as Alan Smith, who described his "inspirational" effect in these pages last week.

"I knew that I would be out for a whole season and that I couldn't contribute on the pitch, so trying to be a good example would help the young lads and anyone feeling sorry for themselves. As for me, I knew I would get back to playing but the worry was, 'Am I going to be good enough again?'

"Towards the end of last season, after a few niggles I must say I was a bit more doubtful. I didn't play particularly well in the reserves and dominate the games. But I noticed the difference after this pre-season. I played and trained with the first-team lads all the time and my own performance got up to that level. When you've had it in you before, you can find it again if you're determined and motivated enough."

The enthusiasm has never waned and can rightly be described as "boyish", stretching back as it does to earliest days in Kristiansund, a tiny town situated on three islands just off the Norwegian coast. Such was the hunger there for English football that consignments of Match Weekly and Shoot! would arrive every Thursday, the highlight of young Solskjaer's week.

As a footballer, he was a self-confessed late developer, whose professional career was further delayed by serving in the army for two years; he was 22 before joining a leading club, Molde. Success there led to an international debut in 1995 and, the following year, one of those chance occurrences that change careers and lives.

United wanted to sign Norway's central defender Ronny Johnsen and sent Ferguson's assistant, Jim Ryan, to watch an international against Azerbaijan. Ryan not only got his man, but found his eye taken by a young forward called Solskjaer, who scored two dazzling goals and was recruited as well, at a cost of £1.5 million.

It was hardly a leap into the unknown for him. "I think I knew everything about Eighties football in England," he smiles. "Match Of The Day was always on and I used to write down all the team-sheets and formations. So I just jumped at the chance. Eighteen months after playing at a very low level with my local team in front of 50 or 60 people, I was playing with Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs and Roy Keane."

Making an early impression at a club who had just done the Double was important. Ferguson gave him a couple of reserve games, then threw him on at home to Blackburn for the first of what are now almost 150 substitute appearances in a total of 345. "I've been asked many times what's the greatest moment of my United career. Scoring that goal in my first game and turning round to see that Eric Cantona was the first one coming towards me celebrating, that just made me realise, 'I'm at Old Trafford now'."

Those questioners might reasonably have expected an answer relating to events in Barcelona on the night of 26 May 1999; United's attempt to make history by completing a treble of Premiership, FA Cup and Champions' League. Despite having finished as leading scorer in his first season, two years earlier, Solskjaer had become less of an automatic choice than a supremely reliable supersub. Many players might have resented the role.

Ferguson knew he had a genuine team player in his hugely popular Norwegian, and would drop in a carefully chosen phrase occasionally as a reminder of his faith. Such an occasion was the final League game of the season, at home to Tottenham, when victory was required to complete the first leg of the Treble.

"The main strikers were Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, who rotated with me and Teddy Sheringham. The last couple of months of that season I didn't play many games, but I was on the bench. We were drawing against Spurs and the gaffer put Coley on for Yorkey and said, 'If you haven't scored with 10 or 15 minutes left don't panic, I'll just put Ole on'. I still remember how my confidence shot up. That was his man-management, and it will always be with me."

As it happened, Cole scored the winning goal and Solskjaer was not needed. His reward, as well as a second Premiership medal, was a place in the FA Cup final victory over Newcastle the following week. Two down and a European Cup final to go.

"I just felt something big was going to happen to me that night. I spoke to a friend of mine before the game who said he was working a night shift and wouldn't be able to watch the last half an hour of it, but I asked him to make sure he did.

"It was one of those stupid things you feel. At half-time, one-nil down, I was looking at the gaffer and thinking, 'Why don't you put me on, I need to get on here,' but he put Teddy on. And eventually I came on and, well, we got two goals in the end."

Right at the end, of course, in quite sensational fashion, the second of them as David Beckham swings in another corner, Sheringham gets the faintest touch on and the slender choirboy with the machine-gun finishes off Bayern.

Best day of your life? "No, I wouldn't say that. But professionally, yes, I would say you can't top the last 10 days of that season, winning three trophies in 10 days. And all in it together, that's the best thing of all. I could never have been an individual athlete, like my dad, who was a Greco-Roman wrestler. I'm so happy to be part of a team, see how people gel together and work for each other and win together. That's one of the things that makes me want to go on in football after I've finished playing, as a coach or manager."

There is more to achieve before then. Aged 33 now, he has a contract until the end of next season, by which time United hope to have pushed Chelsea a whole lot harder than in the past two years and sustained a more lasting challenge in Europe. The boy from Kristiansund wants to play his part, even if he has more reason than most players to welcome the advent of those new, lavishly furnished, substitutes' seats.

"There's no chance you'll get me moaning about being a sub. I'm so proud of having been a part of the history of Man United. To be known as a good substitute at Man United is better than to not be known at all. My dad still says, 'You've been very, very fortunate, you've been at the best club'. It's just fantastic having been a part of it."

LIFE & TIMES: From the fjords to Old Trafford

NAME: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

BORN: 26 February 1973, Kristiansund, Norway.

VITAL STATS: 5ft 10in, 11st 6lb.

POSITION: Forward.

CLUB CAREER: Clausenegen FK; Molde 1995-96 (42 games, 31 goals); Manchester Utd '96-current, fee £1.5m (345 games, 123 goals); Premiership title '97, '99, 2000, '01, '03; FA Cup '99, '04; League Cup '06; Champions' League '99. Patron of Manchester Utd Supporters' Trust.

INTERNATIONAL CAREER: 61 caps, 21 goals for Norway; debut v Jamaica '95; World Cup '98, Euro 2000.

AND ANOTHER THING: His father was Norway's Greco-Roman wrestling champion '66-71.

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