The City Ground, Nottingham, Saturday 6 February 1999. There are 15 minutes left to play and Manchester United are 4-1 up in their Premiership match at Nottingham Forest, courtesy of two goals apiece from their first-choice striking partnership, Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole. Five minutes have passed since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came on for Yorke. The game is apparently winding down, and the match reporter from The Independent – this match reporter, to be accurate – scribbles a note to himself to the effect: "76 min: gone flat since Yorke went off."
Flat as a volcano, it turned out. In the 80th minute, Solskjaer scored from Gary Neville's cross for 5-1. In the 87th, he tried to chip Dave Beasant, had it blocked but whacked home anyway. 6-1. Two minutes late he volleyed in Paul Scholes' pass. 7-1. In injury time he converted Nicky Butt's cross for 8-1. And from United's jubilant fans came another round of: "You are my Solskjaer, my Ole Solskjaer, you make me happy, when skies are grey..."
It was United's best away win in 100 years, and to date still the biggest win on the road for any side in the Premiership. Statistics show that those four goals were netted in 10 minutes, between the 80th and 90th, and even if, to be a stickler, they actually came in a span of 12 minutes that included time added on, they still made the fresh-faced Norwegian the fastest scorer of a four-goal haul on record in England.
Forest's manager, Ron Atkinson, said: "In a nutshell, we've been murdered." Asked about Solskjaer's impact, he could only give a wry grin. "Good job they didn't put him on earlier."
Plain Alex Ferguson – the Sir would not arrive until after another supersub Solskjaer performance in the Nou Camp a few months later – said: "I put Ole on just to give him a workout. Dwight was complaining that I'd denied him a hat-trick, and Ole goes and gets four. Maybe I'll consider him for next week's game against Fulham now."
If that last sentence was said in jest, it did not hide the fact that Solskjaer, a steal at £1.5m from Molde in the summer of 1996, was rarely a consistent first-choice pick in attack. First Yorke and Cole held sway. Then after a period with Solskjaer starting alongside Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ferguson often opted to play the Dutchman alone up front. Injury curtailed Solskjaer's involvement in the 2003-04 season, he missed the whole of 2004-05, played only three league games in 2005-06, and then had a last hurrah by featuring often as United regained the title last season.
Against that backdrop it is even more remarkable that Solskjaer, 34, who confirmed his retirement yesterday because of knee trouble, managed 366 games for United (approaching half of which as a substitute) and scored 126 goals.
None was more important than the last-gasp winner in the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich. His thoughts about that game, when Teddy Sheringham equalised late for 1-1 before he netted the winner, say much about his desire for more pitch time. "When Teddy scored, I thought, 'Yes!'," recalled the man brought on with 10 minutes remaining of normal time. "I'm going to play 40 minutes of a Champions League Final. That's going to be unbelievable." He did not play 40; merely a blinder.
But it is to his enduring credit that in a normally ego-driven role he stayed the course whatever was asked of him. And in doing so he put himself among the highest-achieving foreign footballers ever to have graced the English game.
In terms of trophies, he has outdone almost every other foreigner including Eric Cantona, Thierry Henry and Gianfranco Zola, to name but three who would gain instant entry into the pantheon of overseas greats. In fact, aside from Liverpool's South Africa-born Zimbabwean goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar (13 major trophies with Liverpool), and United's great Dane Peter Schmeichel (10 with United), no foreign player can beat Solskjaer's nine, all with United: six Premiership titles, two FA Cups and that 1999 Champions League. But for injury, he would probably have added a 10th trophy with the 2006 League Cup.
And yet in the affections of the United supporters, Solskjaer's contribution went beyond scoring goals. The most tangible demonstration of his bond came in February 2005 when the club was being stalked by the Glazer family, seen by many as unwanted predators. Granted, figures as influential as Ferguson and the club's chief executive, David Gill, both made plain their own trepidation, either in private or public, only to revoke them, but Solskjaer alone among the players stood up and backed the fans.
He became the patron of the anti-Glazer group, Shareholders United, saying: "I think it is important that the club remains in the right hands. I am absolutely on the supporters' side... I am a United fan myself and only want what is best for the future."
As Andy Walsh, one of those now involved with the breakaway FC United said yesterday: "The understanding between supporters and players is sadly missing these days. But Solskjaer's approachable, he's a gentlemen, he is almost without fault. As much as for what he did on the pitch, fans have always loved Solskjaer's genuine connection with them."
It should be one that endures, both as a coach and a club ambassador.
'Ole achieved everything. He has been a great servant'
The tributes to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer were led by his Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. "Ending your playing career is a sad day for anyone, in the case of Ole, he has 11 fantastic years," Ferguson said. "Ole has achieved everything a player could wish to. He has been a great servant to the club."
The Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger also revealed his admiration for Solskjaer. "He played with fantastic efficiency. In a quiet way he was one of the most efficient players at Manchester United. If you look at his record, you won't find many better players."
Blackburn Manager Mark Hughes added: "Ole is guaranteed a place in United's history with his goal in the European Cup final. He is a true professional, a very humble man but a very successful one."
Import Success: The most trophy-laden foreigners
Player/Nation/Number of trophies/Which trophies?
1 Bruce Grobbelaar, Zimbabwe, 13 (All with Liverpool), L6 FA3 LC3 EC1
2 Peter Schmeichel, Denmark, 10 (All with Man Utd), L5 FA3 LC1 EC1
3= Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Norway, 9 (All with Man Utd), L6 FA2 EC1
3= Craig Johnston, Australia, 9 (All with Liverpool), L5 FA1 LC2 EC1
5 Eric Cantona, France, 7 (With Leeds and Man Utd), L5 FA2
6= *Sami Hyypia, Finland, 6 (All with Liverpool), FA2 LC2 EC1 Ue1
6= Dennis Bergkamp, Netherlands, 6 (All with Arsenal), L3 FA3
6= *Dietmar Hamann, Germany, 6 (All with Liverpool), FA2 LC2 EC1 Ue1
6= Patrick Vieira, France, 6 (All with Arsenal), L3 FA3
6= *Dwight Yorke, T&T, 6 (With Aston Villa and Man Utd), L3 FA1 LC1 EC1
KEY: L = League title, FA = FA Cup, LC = League Cup, EC = European Cup, Ue = Uefa Cup
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