As far as backhanded footballing compliments go, “supersub” sits somewhere between “good shot-stopper” and “honest pro” in the giveth-and-taketh-away stakes. Some players spend their early careers unwittingly cultivating their supersub reputation, only to disown it with increasing irritation later on. But, for the impact substitute, the good news is that any pigeonhole is a goal.
In the summer of 1996, while football was busy coming home and all that, Alex Ferguson was trying to remedy a long-standing problem for Manchester United: a proper goalscorer. Despite Eric Cantona’s touches of genius, and the £7m signing of Andy Cole, only Brian McClair – eight years previously – had breached the 20-goal mark in the league for United since George Best.
With Cole still expected to bloom at Old Trafford, and Cantona still immovable from the side a year before his unexpected retirement, Ferguson was on the hunt for a manageable third option. Word was coming out of Norway’s Romsdal Peninsula of a youthful goal machine, who had scored 31 goals in 22 second-tier games for Clausenengen before stepping up to the Tippeligaen with another 20 in 26 for Molde.
The Molde manager Aage Hareide had played for Manchester City in the early 1980s. He tipped off his old club about the unerring finisher he had under his wing. Everton were also given a nod. Molde expected a fee of around £1.2m for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who, at 23, had developed rather late but was now making up for lost time.
Cagliari, Hamburg and even Bayern Munich joined the queue of clubs sniffing around. But Ferguson dispatched coach Jimmy Ryan to Oslo to watch Solskjaer play for Norway in a World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan. He did this:
United didn’t hesitate. £1.5m was the offer.
“When United came out of the blue with such a big bid, I was taken aback,” Hareide told The People newspaper. “I thought someone was being mischievous and the fax was not all it seemed. But when I inspected it closely it seemed genuine. We still contacted United to double check and then accepted their offer. When the public found out the place went mad because it’s a record fee in Norway.”
Whatever his goalscoring exploits in the Norwegian top flight – which was then simply Rosenborg taking a long run-up to another Champions League campaign, plus 13 other teams making up the numbers – Solskjaer was not expected to hit the ground running in England.
“The gaffer said: ‘For the first six months, play in the reserves and get used to England, then from January we might try to get you into the first team’,” Solskjaer recalled to FourFourTwo last year. “But I scored two in my first reserves game.”
Despite that career-defining fresh face and waif-like physique, Solskjaer was unmoved by the prospect of the rough and tumble of the proudly physical Premier League. “That is the name of the game,” he told the Independent. “It doesn’t shock me, we don’t play football with our hands in our pockets in Norway.”
That quiet confidence, plus the convenient development of Neil Ruddock breaking both of Cole’s legs in a reserve match, hastened his Old Trafford baptism. In late August, with United trailing at home to a fading, post-Shearer Blackburn Rovers, Solskjaer was summoned from the bench just after the hour to replace David May: a positive move if ever there was one. He had his first Manchester United goal within six minutes.
Remember the name? Most people were struggling to pronounce it; Barry Davies notably settled on bemusingly polysyllabic “Sol-SHA-rer!” whenever the Norwegian pulled the trigger. “As long as I keep scoring goals, the commentators will eventually learn it,” Solsharer calmly assured United’s official club magazine that autumn.
By the end of 1996/97, he had racked up 18 goals in his debut Premier League season, the club’s top scorer. Cantona’s exquisitely-timed departure might have cemented Solskjaer’s chances of becoming a Ferguson regular – only for Teddy Sheringham to arrive in the captain’s place.
This wouldn’t be the first time Solskjaer yo-yo-ed down the pecking order during his 11 years at Old Trafford. But back-up strikers – especially at a perennial title-challenger – are a tricky balancing act. Solskjaer’s instant settling into the Premier League groove had made Ferguson’s job more a difficult in that sense, but big expectations went hand in hand with big signings.
Thankfully, despite his personal ambitions, Solskjaer was a manager’s dream. Ferguson merely needed to top up the platitudes every now and then – “he’s an intelligent lad”, “Ole is bang in the picture for Wednesday…” – and even deployed the most Fergusonian phrase of all, his verbal rubber-stamping that wasn’t given out lightly: “The boy’s a finisher. There’s no question about that…”
“…but he’s a terrific sub.”
The carefully-managed situation – made even harder when the £12.6m Dwight Yorke was added to the mix in 1998 – came close to a tipping point. That same summer, a fee of £5.5m was agreed with Tottenham – “Solskjaer to leave Old Trafford” declared the BBC – but neither manager nor player were convinced. “The gaffer called me into his office and said: ‘I don’t really want to sell you because if you stay here you’ll play enough football.’ That was enough for me.”
4 – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the only player to score 4 goals in a @PremierLeague game after coming on as a sub (Feb 99 v N.Forest). Assassin
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 25, 2016
The 1998/99 season underlined Solskjaer’s role, across all three of United’s spinning Treble plates. He was an 81st-minute substitute against Liverpool in the FA Cup fourth round: Solskjaer buried the winner in the 90th. A February thrashing of a sorry, Division One-bound Nottingham Forest was padded out mercilessly from the bench in the last ten minutes. “Scored four, didn’t he?” sighed the Forest manager Ron Atkinson. “Good job they didn’t put him on earlier.” Then came the Nou Camp, and the ultimate act of supersubbery.
Sheringham was first to be called from the bench. “He did speak to Teddy at length at half-time and that pissed me off,” Solskjaer admitted to FourFourTwo. “I thought: ‘I’ve scored 17 goals for you this season, mostly coming on as sub – aren’t you going to speak to me?’ Then Teddy went on. That’s the way to trigger me; to make me feel: ‘I’m going to prove you wrong’.”
Solskjaer’s role as a king of the cameos makes it tricky to place him among the Premier League’s usual goalscoring suspects. Sitting favourably high between the Shearers and the Akinbiyis, Solskjaer should be remembered in the grand scheme of things as a distinctly upper-mid-range operator: a Tesco Finest finisher, a Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference option from the bench.
For better or worse, his output lacked the variety of the very best, partly because he was such an unfussy finisher who knew where he operated best. His compilation reels (incidentally, he has the most infuriatingly low-quality YouTube videos of any 90s Premier League striker, averaging about a pixel per goal) are a succession of rifled or bending finishes into either corner with either foot. Simple.
Top scoring PL players with G, O, A & L in their name:
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer 94
Gabriel Agbonlahor 74
Gianfranco Zola 59
— Duncan Alexander (@oilysailor) April 5, 2016
The context-tastic Nou Camp goal aside, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive Solskjaer goal among all of them. His debut strike in 1996 was as bread-and-butter as his very last for the club in 2007. Neatly, that one also came against Blackburn at Old Trafford.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) March 31, 2015
If you had to pick the finest Solskjaer finish, though, you have to go back to a rare moment during the 1990s where Manchester United fell short.
April 18th, 1998: Arsenal thrashed Wimbledon 5-0 and were heading top of the league, United were desperately seeking a winner at home to Newcastle, Solskjaer was on as a late sub, Beckham curled a cross into the box…but away broke Newcastle’s Rob Lee on the counter-attack, with only green turf ahead of him.
Quite magnificent, and – whatever Ferguson thought about it afterwards – entirely deserving of the standing ovation.
These days, the Baby-Faced Assassin (a nickname marginally easier to type than to actually say out loud) doesn’t really look older so much as “older”, with the same elf-like face of the 23-year-old Solskjaer that United first signed from nowhere, but run through that novelty iPhone app.
His management career is best left untouched here. Rather than bellowing out instructions from the touchline, a player like Solskjaer was always best suited to sitting in the posh seats at Old Trafford, waiting for a Sky camera to pick him out and the commentator to say “there’s a man who knows a thing or two about where the goal is!”