As Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s biographer, this writer was recently asked whether the military service the Norwegian performed as a 20-year-old aided the formation of a man whose career arc has taken in scoring Manchester United’s 1999 European Cup-winning goal to now being manager of England’s record 20-time champions.
The answer in essence was Solskjær has a self-possession that means it was immaterial; that whether or not he did the mandatory year in Norway’s army his would still have been a life and sporting career that is a triumph of self-determination.
As a kid Solskjær was the starlet striker whose size impeded before he drove himself to catch, then overtake, peers. As part of a gang-of-five signed for United by Alex Ferguson in the summer of 1996 he was “Ole-who?” when photographed alongside Karel Poborsky, Ronny Johnsen, Jordi Cruyff and Raimond van der Gouw. He illustrated precisely who Ole Gunnar Solskjær was by ending his debut season as top scorer, the first of 14 years as player and coach at United.
When taking his first managerial position at Molde FK in 2011 the pressure was intense: here was Norway’s most famous person billed as the No 1 who would secure for the club a first league title in their 100th year. This he did, then retained it in 2012, followed up with the Norwegian Cup in 2013 and thus left for Cardiff City with his opening three years rating him as Molde’s most garlanded manager.
At Molde his blueprint was to make his players believe. Those spoken with for The Red Apprentice say his opening days were invested in working on confidence – confidence that they could overcome the club’s inferiority complex. As with his great mentor Ferguson, being second was of zero interest.
So it was that Solskjær turned a club from perennial also-rans into a champion team, one that strutted through the Eliteserien, winning it by five points. In the biography Magnus Stamnestro, then an 18-year-old midfielder, illuminates how driven Solskjær was. “One man went home early from the celebration,” he says. “He had already started thinking of next season, when we did win the league again.”
If this was all glittering success, in south Wales Solskjær’s will to shape events was most severely tested. He took over in January 2014 and Cardiff listed from the start of an ill-starred tenure. The opening three Premier League matches were defeats before Norwich were beaten on 1 February. Cardiff won only twice more and were relegated with 30 points and goal difference of minus 42.
This was dire and Solskjær has always accepted full responsibility. Yet what Ben Turner, a Cardiff defender, states in the book is intriguing. Turner says: “I know he wasn’t given the full trust to manage in his own way without any interference. There were boys who were called in and told we weren’t playing and it really wasn’t his decision – that it was coming from above.
“As an example, we were in a relegation dogfight, had Aston Villa [on 11 February, 2014] and drew 0-0. It’s probably the best I’ve ever played in my life. Then we played Hull and three of the back four that started against Villa and got the clean sheet were dropped.
“I was told I was dropped for Juan Cala because Ole was told he had to play. Ole said: ‘I know we got a clean sheet against Villa, but I’ve been told that I have to play Juan Cala.’
“I was told I wasn’t playing because we wanted to try and pass the ball out more from the back. They told him – Ole – that on that basis Juan had to play, that was one of the reasons he was brought in. Well, it was a disaster because Juan and Steven Caulker didn’t get on, and they were the centre-backs. It was a concern – what player wants to hear they’re dropped because it’s coming from the owner [Vincent Tan]?
“The way I looked at it was this: the owner’s got all the money in the world. He’s running a football club essentially as a side hobby and he’s got new toys and the new toy that week was Juan Cala. I had no reason to doubt what the gaffer was saying to me, that it’d come from above. He was an honest, genuine guy as far as I was concerned. We got relegated but he always had integrity.”
On leaving Cardiff in September 2014, Solskjær’s departure statement disappointed Tan because it mentioned “a difference in philosophies”. As quoted in the biography the Malaysian’s response suggested Solskjær had hinted at team meddling. “It gives the impression that a different philosophy [is that] maybe I interfere with him, maybe I do this or do that,” Tan said.
Solskjær and Cardiff were never an ideal fit and still Solskjær remained principled. It is why Turner and fellow Cardiff teammates recall him with fondness despite relegation. It is a fundamental reason why Solskjær’s impact on becoming United’s caretaker in December 2018 impressed Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman, enough to award him the full-time job.
It is also a prime factor why Solskjær has a genuine prospect of leading United to another title. Like Ferguson – and unlike David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and José Mourinho – Solskjær is able to alchemise the ideal relationship with players. One which, as the response to United’s 6-1 hammering by Tottenham illustrates (beating Newcastle, Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig and drawing with Chelsea), motivates them to perform for their manager.
For a man who has lived the fairytale of being United’s 1999 Champions League hero, claiming the club’s first Premier League since Ferguson stepped away would be another.
Yet if Solskjær had signed for Tottenham – which he came close to doing in the mid-1990s – his place in United folklore and what could yet be achieved would not be possible.
For that story, though, you will have to read the book.
The Red Apprentice by Jamie Jackson is published by Simon & Schuster, £20. It is available from the Guardian Bookshop for £17.40