<
>

An evening with Ole: Solskjaer talks Rashford, coaching, playing and that goal from 1999

Photo by John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images

"I'm not sure it's the manager's job to get the best out of Marcus Rashford. Is it the manager's job to get the best out of him? Or is it mostly himself, or any player's responsibility to get the best out of yourself? That's more important."

It's been more than two years since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer last managed a team but, just as he was in his playing days, he's been watching the game from the sidelines and ready to jump in fully prepared for action. He's full of thoughts and opinions, delivered - as in the case of the above quote - with trademark directness, backed by the insight and quiet intelligence gleaned from a career playing and working alongside football's best.

Always known as a keen student of the game, Solskjaer hasn't let the disappointment of his untimely exit from Manchester United dim his enthusiasm for the nuances and details of football.

He understands, of course, that football has changed ("immensely"). He says, for instance, that the new generation "learns differently," that they not only have all they "need" but also all they "want".

"It's completely different, the way you talk to them... everyone has PR agencies and all these," he says. "Back in the day, if Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to speak to me, he rang my phone and he spoke to me or we spoke on the training ground. Now, we have to go through different agents and management which I find strange, because football is a game played by people, managed by people, and you need to be able to speak together, to connect, to get the best out of each other... and to trust each other."

But for him, the essence of the game hasn't changed. "Football is still 11 v 11," he says. "We still had tactics back then when I played as well, even though now with all the stats and the tools, it makes it easier for everyone to be well prepared. I think coaches back in the day were also tactically very good. But it's also about personalities... simple things, basic things in football: you've got to win your one-on-ones, you've got to have the personality to deal with pressure."

These kinds of throw-back quotes were often held against him at United, but you can sense the basic truth in them. And it leads neatly to what appears to be his playing style, or philosophy: "Football is now more prescribed... many more coaches tell players exactly what to do from academy age, which sometimes is a bit... dangerous, you know? Because I always believe when you are out there on the pitch, you as a creative player have to make a decision," he says. "Yeah, we have a framework to work from and we all look for these things, but... the decision making on the pitch is what would make the difference. If you have players who are not capable of seeing different things, you coach them and say this is what you do: you win the ball, you give it to (for example) Bruno, he will create..."

There's another quote that became, well, controversial: In March 2021, while still United manager, Solskjaer said that winning knockout competitions was not the best way to gauge progress at a top club and called Cups an "ego thing from other managers and clubs to finally win something". He'd been widely derided for that quote but an important part of the quote had been ignored by most -- "we need to see progress and if we perform well enough the trophies will end up at the club again" -- because at the time it had been perceived as laying the groundwork for another excuse for ending a season without a trophy.

Now, almost three years on from when he gave that quote, after being sacked as manager of the club he still professes so much love for after three trophy-less years, does he still believe in that quote?

"Yeah, 100%. Absolutely 100%," says Solskjaer. "A Cup run can be a lucky one, and it's always the league which shows where the team is at, that's always been my belief. I understand the highs and lows of a Cup... when you win a cup: Carabao, FA, Champions League, Europa League... it's a fantastic night for everyone and something to celebrate. You do play to win trophies, of course you do. But I think the general state of the team and the club would be shown in the league position. It's about consistency."

It was a consistency he'd begun to show at United: in the two full seasons he managed, they finished third and then second... but such is the results-oriented nature of football, the pressure of a gig like United's that he wouldn't get to see out a third full season. But he doesn't seem to harbour much resentment about how it all ended.

"It's the best job in the world that you can have as a football manager when you are a Man United fan or a player," he says. "It's more difficult when you do it when Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola are in England... you know, bad timing [laughs] to choose. But that's the challenge. You're always going to manage against the best football people in the world." And now you can sense his genuine excitement when talks about how Sir Jim Ratcliffe and INEOS "have breathed new life into the fans" but did keep repeating the mantra that consistency was key if United were to challenge for the league again.

Solskjaer speaks with a clarity and sincerity that evokes his time as United's manager, when he would hold one tough press conference after another. He looks you in the eye and makes sure he has explained his thought as well as possible, even if that means taking a long-winded route. This is not typical -- Solskjaer is in India on a visit organised by the 'Ace of Pubs' (he was in Bengaluru on Friday and will move to Mumbai and Delhi over the next two days), and most football legends who come in on these fly-bys are happy to give you a couple of soundbites and move on. Not Solskjaer.

That's the thing, though. When Solskjaer commits, he's in it 100%.

In his playing days, he executed actions with a brutal efficiency (he is ranked ninth all-time in goal contributions per 90 in Premier League history) that came from being fully committed to the cause. (See also: that sacrificial red card against Newcastle United for a lunging last man challenge). "There are other players who don't have that mentality..." he says, when explaining what it takes to succeed as a super sub. "They are very disappointed when they don't start, and say I'm not bothering with this. That's not my personality."

He laughs when talking about his most famous goal, one of the most important in Manchester United history, saying it was all a blur, that he didn't remember much about it. What he does remember though is that Sir Alex Ferguson, his coach, had been giving instructions to Teddy Sheringham (the other goalscorer on the night) at half time when United were down 1-0. "I had had a good season," he says, "and I'm thinking 'why are you not speaking to me? Why are you not getting me ready?' But I knew... I knew I had to get myself ready." He was "a little angry", he says. "So I was going to go out there and show Sir Alex that he made a mistake not putting me on earlier [laughs]".

As coach, that commitment, that desire to win come what may, came through both on and off the pitch in his time at United. On it, Manchester United played the most exciting football Old Trafford has seen since Ferguson retired. Off it, he neither threw players under the bus after a bad game nor (publicly, at least) blamed anyone but himself for failures.

What he did do was try and bring back the youth pipeline that had been the backbone of the club. And that applied to both players and managers. "There are so many talented people around. I love working with [those] people... My style of management, I invest time and resources in people. I sat down with [Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna, his assistants then] and spoke about how they would want to do the job, and left thinking 'wow, these are boys who know what they're talking about'." That he has a good eye for talent has become evident now, with hindsight.

"It's just for me to get them to blossom and enjoy themselves and challenge them, and that's the same with the players," he says. As for identifying the best youth players? "There's so many players around the world, but it's the mentality that [sets the best ones apart]... There's a reason why Messi-Ronaldo [are where they are], it's not just the talent."

What he says may seem obvious, but Solskjaer believes it's the obvious that holds the key. Like working with people, which he says is the best part of management.

He speaks with so much passion on the topic, you wonder why he hasn't gotten back into the ring for another round already. "When you're the face of the biggest and best club in the world, you have to be alert all the time... everything you do is scrutinized. I enjoyed it, but I needed a break after."

That break could be over soon, though. "I am sure I have at least one club job in me," he says. "It has to be an interesting one, exciting one, somewhere adventurous, somewhere I can be myself. Because... no disrespect, after you've managed Manchester United for three years, it's like where do you go. I want to feel that pressure again... When you see the games now, you miss it a little bit."