Norway is most famous in sporting terms for its skiers, but the most famous Norwegian in the world is not known for his proficiency on snow – he is a footballer named Ole Gunnar Solskjær who, at 38, looks barely older than he did during his days as the “baby-faced assassin” of Manchester United. Now he’s launching a coaching career, but it’s not off to a great start.
The ex-footballer – adored by Manchester United’s millions of fans the world over as a player – has now returned to Norway as the new manager of Molde FK football club. Whether his managerial career will ever be able to rival the honours of his playing career is unlikely, but Norwegian football fans will hope that their greatest son will be able to revive the fortunes of their country’s football league.
Solskjær was born on the west coast of Norway in Kristiansund on February 26 1973, and would complete his military service before embarking on a career in football. Starting at youth team Clausenengen Fotballklubb as a teenager, the striker enjoyed his first taste of top class football with the team he now manages, Molde FK. Scoring an eye-catching 31 goals in 42 Norwegian Premier League games for the club between 1995 and 1996, the then-23-year-old striker was a surprise GBP 1.5 million signing for the world’s biggest football club, Manchester United, on 29 July 1996.
The Norwegian joined Manchester United as the club was becoming the biggest franchise in world football, expanding into new, untapped markets where TV-rights and merchandise began to sell in the millions – and the number 20 shirt worn by Solskjær would be seen and bought all across the globe. The young forward was nicknamed the “baby-faced assassin” by English football fans, who were instantly impressed by his goal-scoring talent. In his first season in Manchester, Solskjær scored 18 league goals, and became a valuable part of the first team. During his 12 years at the club, a recurring knee problem would often hinder his involvement – but he went on to make 366 appearances in all competitions for the club, scoring 126 goals and earning another moniker, the “super sub,” for his ability to transform games after coming on as a substitute.
Most famously, Solskjær scored the winning goal in the 1999 European Champions League Final – the premier club football competition in the world, which pits the best teams across the continent against one another. Manchester United had been losing 1-0 against Bayern Munich until the final few minutes of the game, when they managed to equalize from a David Beckham corner. Almost straight afterwards, another Beckham corner would bring a surprise winner from the outstretched leg of Solskjær, whose famous eye for goal gave United their first European Cup victory since 1968. Solskjær wrote his name into footballing folklore, and has been beloved of Manchester United fans ever since.
For all his achievements, Solskjær – a father of three – became the youngest ever recipient of the First Class Knighthood of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav by King Harald V on October 25 2008. He has also been awarded the Peer Gynt Prize by the Norwegian Parliament in 2009, honouring his role as an ambassador for football and a number of social causes.
He can play, but can he manage?
After the knee problems that had held him back finally forced his retirement in 2008, Solskjær became a coach at Manchester United, managing the reserve team. He was credited with his ability to nuture the club’s talented youngsters, and won the 2009-10 English Reserve Premier League.
But coaching reserves is one thing – at Molde FK, he is in charge of the full first team, with all the responsibility that entails. Indeed, it is not just the hopes of the Molde FK fans that he carries on his shoulders, but the hopes of the entire Norwegian Premier League, which itself is looking for something to reinvigorate its sporting and financial fortunes.
The early evidence is that the expectant masses will need to be patient with their idol – Solskjær’s men lost the opening game of the season 3-0 against far lesser opposition. But one game will not dampen expectations or erase Solskjær’s legacy for Norwegian football. There will be few who would dare predict that the “baby-faced assassin” will not be able to transfer his on-the-field talent into managerial success.