NEWS ANALYSIS: The man who’s now considered to be Norway’s most famous Norwegian had anything but a quiet long weekend following the 17th of May and Ascension Day holidays. Drama surrounding the future of Ole Gunnar Solskjær, the former star football player who now coaches Molde’s football club, topped broadcasts and the front pages of most newspapers as the good news that normally follows Solskjær suddenly turned very bad indeed.
There’s a reason why foreign fans have been known to call the boyish-looking Solskjær “Sunny Boy,” a play on his name where sol means sun. Now the skjær part, the rocky reef in an otherwise smooth sea, has surfaced. Solskjær remains his calm, controlled self, but he’s suddenly landed in a bitter conflict with the managers and owners of Molde Football Club over something that shouldn’t have come as a surprise to any of them: Solskjær’s own ambition.
No one gets to be one of the greatest football players of all time, or enjoy a long career in one of the world’s top clubs, Manchester United, without being ambitious. And the two men who first nurtured Solskjær’s career and recently brought him back to Norway to be head coach at Molde — wealthy Norwegian businessmen and industrialists Kjell Inge Røkke and Bjørn Rune Gjelsten — certainly know something about ambition themselves. But when Solskjær answered a call from another top British club, Aston Villa, to come talk to them about possibly becoming their coach, Røkke and Gjelsten and the rest of the leaders at Molde Football Club kicked up an enormous fuss. In the past few days they have angrily withdrawn financial support for Molde, accused Solskjær of being disloyal and even tried to publicly humiliate him by sanctioning the release of a confidential conversation Solskjær had with Molde bosses. One of the bosses blamed for the actual leak, Molde director Tarje Nordstrand Jacobsen, has since left Molde on a sudden vacation but news broke Monday that the leak itself was sanctioned by Røkke.
Solskjær appeared to ride out the storm on Friday and Saturday, not least by calmly and professionally leading Molde’s team to Sandnes on Norway’s west coast and soundly beating the Sandnes Ulf club 2-0. Solskjær didn’t let the turbulence around his job interfere with what he thinks is most important: How his players play. Solskjær, his assistant coaches and the players themselves were jubilant after winning yet another match, after Solskjær in the space of just one year as head coach already had taken Molde to the highest levels of Norwegian football by winning last year’s league championship.
It was, perhaps, the best response Solskjær could offer to all the turmoil brewing around him and his future. Solskjær had also, in a series of interviews with Norwegian media, claimed he’s just as “concentrated and prepared” as always to continue leading Molde. “I’ve given 100 percent so far and I’ll give 100 percent from today onwards,” he told VG Nett on Saturday. He said Røkke’s threatened withdrawal of support for Molde could open up “new opportunities” for the club based in Norway’s scenic Romsdal district. “Maybe others will join in, and contribute,” he added.
By Sunday, though, Solskjær let it be known that he was angry, too. The leak to local newspaper Romsdals Budstikke and VG of his conversaation with Jacobsen, in which Solskjær specified when he might leave Molde, what assistants and which player he might take with him (Mark Dempsey, Richard Hartis and Magnus Wolff Eikrem) if an offer from Aston Villa came through, was also a sign of acute disloyalty by Molde’s men in charge towards their star coach. “I had thought we’d agreed to put (the conflict) behind us and move forward after the press conference in Molde on Saturday,” Solskjær himself told VG. “Now we see what kind of (power) plays are going on.”
Several football commentators in Norway who have followed Solskjær since he was a young teenage talent think the damage has been done and that Solskjær is, maybe always has been, simply too big for Norway. “Everyone in Norwegian football should be glad for the short period Ole Gunnar Solskjær is, despite everything, here with us,” wrote Bertil Valderhaug of newspaper Aftenposten. He’s not at all surprised that Aston Villa is interested in Solskjær, and thinks the entire conflict that’s arisen over Aston Villa’s interest is embarrassing for Røkke, sad for Molde, and unnecessarily draining for Solskjær.
Others agree. Reidar Sollie, head of the sports department for newspaper Dagsavisen, noted along with many others that Solskjær never hid the fact that he eventually would like to coach a club in the Champions’ League. Many have speculated he’ll eventually wind up back at Manchester United. Solskjær is only 39 years old and still in such good shape that he’s joked he’d like to play again.
Røkke and Gjelsten, the moneyed men behind Molde, will likely calm themselves after their weekend temper tantrums. Gjelsten still complained he never would have “invested NOK 20 million” in Molde if he’d known Solskjær would leave after just over a year, but Røkke said he and his wife Anne Grete Eidsvig would continue to support the club personally, if not through the large firm Røkke controls, Aker ASA. As sports journalist Erlend Nesje of Aftenposten, who’s from the Romsdal area himself, commented on Monday, though, Molde Football Club won’t win back confidence until the bosses have fired themselves. They, not Solskjær, have damaged their own reputation, not only within Norwegian football but within their local community, Nesje claimed. Sollie noted that Molde eventually must learn to carry on, without Solskjær.
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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