Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had that knack as a footballer of being in the right place at the right time even if his luck was rotten. When he finally nailed down a place in Sir Alex Ferguson’s team seven years after joining, David Beckham’s as it happened, he injured his knee in an innocuous Champions League game against Panathinaikos in September 2004 and his career at Manchester United was never the same again.
When he finally quit in 2007, the club gave him a testimonial that attracted a bigger crowd than those for Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville and he left the place with a speech to the supporters. “A sweet-natured boy, who was never looking to be confrontational with me,” was Ferguson’s take on Solskjaer, like a description of a treasured grandson, in his most recent autobiography.
What Ferguson loved about Solskjaer, apart from him being low-maintenance, was his ability to analyse matches from the bench, where he would assiduously take notes during play to give himself the optimum opportunity to score when he was called upon. “The game was laid out for him like a diagram,” Ferguson wrote, “and he knew where to go and when.”
It does make you wonder, when assessing Solskjaer’s detached, peculiarly Scandinavian level-headedness, how the hell he ended up taking the Cardiff City job. He comes from a country that once broadcast a 12-hour television discussion show on the different types of firewood. The Norwegian psyche could hardly be described as impetuous. And yet Solskjaer, patience personified as a player, jumped at Cardiff.
His reputation as a player, and Ferguson’s unstinting endorsement, would have got him a Premier League job eventually. His was a long apprenticeship, including three years as the United reserve-team manager, and another three years as the manager of Molde where he won two Norwegian titles, turning down Aston Villa in May 2012. On balance he would have been better off with Villa.
Leaving aside the arguments over Malky Mackay’s dismissal, Solskjaer’s time at Cardiff has been a disaster and much of it of his own making. The defeat to Crystal Palace on Saturday leaves Cardiff six points short of 17th with five games to play, of which three are away from home. In his 13 league games in charge he has averaged a wretched 0.61 points a game and overseen a drop from 17th place to 19th.
Up against Tony Pulis on Saturday, Solskjaer looked like the graduate trainee falling for every trick that the shop-floor veteran in the opposing dugout knew. Pulis has had 20 games in charge of Palace and averaged 1.35 points-per-game, double that of the Cardiff manager.
Three months into the job, it does not yet look like Solskjaer has made his mind up what represents his best team. Wilfried Zaha came back into the starting line-up on Saturday, to face his old team. Craig Bellamy went back out again. The teenager Mats Daehli, signed from Molde in January, made his first Premier League start. It must be difficult to resist the temptation to change a losing team, but the results – and certainly the side’s defending – get no better.
Kenwyne Jones has scored one goal for him, albeit the winner against Norwich City. Jo Inge Berget, another one of the three Molde signings, has played 11 minutes in the league, the last 11 minutes of the 4-0 home defeat to Hull City. Zaha is yet to score in his loan spell.
Contrast that to the effect of Jason Puncheon at Palace, a loan signing last summer who Pulis acquired on a permanent deal in January. He has scored the goals in 1-0 wins over Stoke and Hull for his new manager and got two against Cardiff on Saturday. Whatever promise the likes of Berget and Daehli have, it is looking ever more likely that they will have to learn English football in the Championship.
From the end of his playing career, Solskjaer looked like a sensible manager who would take his time over his coaching career, rather than trade on his stellar name as a player to land him a plum job. Now he just looks out of his depth.
It cannot be easy with such levels of friction between the supporters and the owner Vincent Tan, and there was another blue-scarf protest during Saturday’s game. But it is not as if Solskjaer came into the job unaware of the problems and he is now, for better or worse, allied with one of the most unpopular owners in Premier League history.
Solskjaer was one of those rare United players who enjoyed a popularity beyond his own club: the boyish smile, the loyal service, the steadfast refusal to compromise and, say, sign for Tottenham who tried to buy him every summer. He was a decent sort. Watching him ally himself with Tan has been a bit like the dismay one would feel were Ronnie Corbett to announce a one-man state-sponsored tour of North Korea.
Even worse now is that Solskjaer is at the mercy of the Cardiff owner. For the time being he retains that unrelenting cheerfulness in his voice, that it’s-only-football perspective that is admirable in every struggling manager unless he happens to be the one in charge of your team. But it is fading and even he is starting to assume that thousand-yard stare of a man who knows he has to describe his club’s remaining league fixtures, once again, as so many “cup finals”, but can barely bring himself to do so.
In an interview granted to the South Wales Echo this month, the Cardiff chairman, Mehmet Dalman, said that the club were in “better shape than we were six months ago”, although presumably he was not talking about the league position, where Cardiff were 15th after seven games. Asked about the prospect of relegation, Dalman said: “It’s not an option.”
It certainly is an option, and very likely indeed after Saturday’s defeat. Amid this mess, Tan will justifiably be the focus for the fans’ discontent, having broken one of the oldest rules in football with the switch to the red kit on a preposterously flimsy premise. As for Solskjaer, he still has a lot to prove.
Loan ranger Lukaku adds to Wenger woe
All Arsène Wenger’s worst fears about the loan system came true on Sunday when a Chelsea player scored one of Everton’s three goals in their win at Goodison Park over Arsenal. Wenger is right about the abuse of the system and the unfairness of players not being able to face their parent clubs. But even addressing that loophole would not be enough. There is no way a player would ever compete against his parent club with the hunger that Romelu Lukaku did in scoring his goal.
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