Ole 25: The full interview
On 29 July 1996, a Norwegian centre-forward by the name of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer put pen-to-paper on a contract with Manchester United and a true love affair began.
Fast forward 25 years and our current manager will forever be part of Old Trafford folklore after 366 games and 126 goals, including arguably the most famous in United's history.
Club media's Mark Sullivan sat down with the boss as he reflected on his 25th anniversary and what the club meant to him - then and now. Check out the full interview below...
How different is the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sat here now compared to the one who walked through the door 25 years ago?
"Oh, there’s loads of differences. Now I can say I’m a man – you can see that by my hair, and my experiences. I walked in as a boy, a 23-year-old boy who was just starting out as a professional, and had played 18 months for Molde. Before that I had played for my local team in Kristiansund, so I’d only played one-and-a-half seasons at the top level in Norway. I made my debut as a 22-year-old in the Premier League in Norway so I was a very, very late developer. So the change is massive. All the experiences I’ve had – even though I was quietly confident then as well – I believed in myself but it was just the start of my journey. I couldn’t in my wildest dreams imagine sitting here now, 25 years on, having had the success I’ve had."
How different is Manchester United? What changes have you seen and what’s still the same?
"Massive as well. Back in those days, in 1996, we still felt we were the biggest club in Europe and in the world. Now, the world has moved on, technology, but the size of the club has just grown, I don’t know how many-fold. It’s so much easier to be connected to our fans as well. We see that more easily. When I came in 1996, of course the last European Cup had been in 1968 so when we won it in 1999, it just moved us on. It escalated in 2008 and I think we now feel that we’re coming back. The values are still the same, but the size, the magnitude around it, the media attention… the world has changed. You just need to press a button on your phone and you can read three, four, five stories about Man United."
Ole opens up on his United anniversary
Here's another chance to watch Ole's big interview from July, reflecting on the 25-year anniversary of his transfer...
If you could imagine being on your playing journey now, rather than 25 years ago, do you think it would have been different? Would you want to be a young player growing up in the age of social media?
"Well, I don’t tend to spend a lot of time on social media anyway. I would like to think and hope that I would be the same, have the same values – trust myself, trust my friends’ views and just be a confident young boy playing football – but that’s easier said than done. I’m happy I grew up when I did."
Going right back to the start of the journey, what do you remember of your transfer to United?
"I had heard a few stories and of course there was some interest in Norway. The media attention, I tried to escape that. I didn’t think it was me, I just wanted to play football. I still played a couple of games for Molde after I knew I was going to play for Man Utd. It came about after I did well against Azerbaijan in May ‘96. I scored two decent goals, to be fair! One very, very good one, and one good one. Jimmy Ryan was in the stands and he was watching Ronny [Johnsen] and he was sat next to the Wolves manager Mark McGhee who was looking for a forward. So after the game Jimmy Ryan was thinking, I think I need to tell the gaffer about this, I need to ring him and I think we need to be quick and that night, the wheels started rolling."
On the day that you signed, 29 July, were you aware that Alan Shearer had told Sir Alex he was joining Newcastle that same day?
"No. No, I’ve never been the type to worry about others, and what they do. Of course, Alan Shearer is one of the best strikers to have played in England, but I’ll take a challenge – if he’d signed, I’d have easily signed and felt confident that I could make an impact. Because I was very confident in my own abilities as a goalscorer."
What do you remember of the day you signed? Was it just finishing the deal or did you train as well?
"To be completely honest, I can’t remember. It was 25 years ago! I remember we flew over in a private jet with the two owners of Molde, because Martin Edwards [then-chairman] was going on holiday and so we needed to get this deal done and signed. I remember when they were doing the negotiating, I went for a walk around Old Trafford and I met one of the stewards and he asked me who I was and if I was just doing a guided tour. I said I was going to sign a contract, and he gave me his pen to sign the deal with! I think it must have been that day when I had lunch with the gaffer – fish and chips – in one of the restaurants. I’m not sure if I signed that day or whether I flew back and then signed, it’s one of those things. I never really sit back and think, ‘Wow, that was a big day.’ It was just, ‘Now this is your life… move on and make the most of it.’"
You’ve said that Nicky Butt was the first person you met at the club – who else stands out in your memory?
"I distinctly remember Nicky being the first one to meet me, taking me down to the dressing room. I was looking forward to meeting Eric, practicing my French and all this, and Eric that day was late, of all things. We drove over to the Littleton Road pitches and so I never managed to meet him before my car got there. He came late, jogging over, and so I was never really introduced to Eric. That was the one man I was looking forward to making an impression on when I met him. I think I was okay though, because we just met on the pitch and I did okay in that session."
And Eric was the first person to celebrate with you when you scored on your debut, so that must have been a great moment…
"Of course! I remember speaking to my old coach in Norway, Ole Olsen, and we were talking about making the most of it, seizing the moment and don’t think you’re there for any other reason than you’re good enough, and I knew if I was going to get a chance, I would finish it because I was confident enough. And when I scored and I saw Eric running over, that was a special moment."
In your first few weeks at the club, you let slip in an interview that one of your hobbies was collecting autographs. You had Stallone, Maradona, lots of top-level footballers – how did you feel to suddenly be fronted with Cantona, Schmeichel, Keane, Giggs, Beckham and all these superstars?
"I’ve still got those autographs back home somewhere, by the way – unless my mum and dad have thrown them away! I was a kid who collected those, I was so into football and I got a few decent ones. But how did I feel? No worries. I think I’m quite adaptable, I’m a bit like a chameleon in that I can blend in. It’s like… this is your life now. One of the things I had known was you can’t just come in there and think you deserve it, because you’ll be eaten up if you don’t have the personality or the confidence or the character to deal with these good footballers. I always felt that I didn’t stand out in the dressing room, apart from my boyish young looks, but I felt that I’d stand out when I score goals. That will be where I make my impression and then I’ll gradually be accepted in the group, and I think that went quite quickly."
Sir Alex was keeping a diary of the season. After your debut against Blackburn, he wrote of you: “He amazes me. The improvement he makes each week is startling.” Obviously your goalscoring was already highly-developed before you came – but in what other areas did you look to improve in those early weeks?
"I think I had to adapt to the playing style because when I played for Norway and for Molde, my role was more to be a link-up player, flick-ons, be creative, take more risks, but when I got here it was more, when you’re up front you need to be strong, get hold of the ball, pin your centre-back, lay it off and get the ball wide, get into the box. So I had to adapt to the style of play. Apart from that, I just took it in my stride. I remember reading in the papers that Sir Alex said it’s hard to leave players out when they’re scoring goals, I can’t leave Ole out because he keeps on scoring goals, so I just had to focus on being the best goalscorer, the best finisher, and to be ready when the ball arrived in my path. I always felt that the better the players in my team, that would suit my style of football. If I’d gone to, say Rochdale or Tranmere – and no disrespect to those clubs – but I might have had no career because my team-mates would have been different. Y’know, when you’ve got Becks, you’ve got Giggsy, you’ve got Cantona, you know that you’ve just got to be clever and you’ve just got to make your movements and they’ll create chances. I backed me above any other for a finish inside the box."
Kristiansund is a beautiful place, but it’s a small town with roughly half the population of Stretford – suddenly you were coming on for your Manchester United debut… did you ever have moments where you struggled to believe where you were and what was happening?
"As I said, I think you just take it in your stride. I had good people around me who kept me grounded. There was never any chance of me thinking I had made it, because I looked around at all my team-mates and thought, I’d need to be on my toes to keep my place. We had some fantastic strikers – Andrew was here and Eric, Scholesy was coming up, he’d played a few seasons so if I relaxed, I’d have been out straight away."
You ended your first season as a Premier League champion, but the club was stunned when Eric suddenly retired – how did you feel when you heard the news?
"Well, that’s just Eric for you. After the West Ham game, when we beat them in the last game of the season, he rented a restaurant called Tarantella in Poynton, just for his family and friends, his dad and his brother, and me and my wife and Jordi [Cruyff] and his girlfriend, and so it was just us three players there. We had a party, danced all night, doing the famous Pulp Fiction dancing, I can still remember Eric being up there! At 4am we said our goodbyes, and a couple of days later me and Jordi and our partners went down to London, and as we arrived in London, we got off the train and it was on the radio that Eric Cantona had decided to retire. That’s just Eric for you – he had never mentioned anything to us when we were partying two days before. It was disappointing but I really enjoyed my year with him. What a character. I learned so much from him. Y’know, when we had corner kicks Becks was always over there to take them and before the game the gaffer says, 'David on the corners.' So we come in at half-time and the gaffer’s saying, 'Eric, what have I told yo?, It’s Becks on the corners!' because Eric had been taking them all. Eric shrugs, and when we go out again, first corner of the second half, who goes over to take it…? Eric. He had a special way about him."
During more than a decade at the club, you saw a lot of players come and go – were there any that you particularly missed after they left?
"No. Honestly, that’s just the life of a footballer. You get used to it. He’s your team-mate, you become colleagues, friends, but then they move on. It’s a fact of life. They move to a different club, still keep in touch, but gradually you just get used to it. That’s the life of a footballer. Of course you miss playing with Eric Cantona. I became really good friends with Jordi, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Jaap Stam, the Dutch contingent. You miss them for a little while, but then you have to adapt and move on."
The headlines of your story are well known – turning down Spurs, Forest, the Treble, your amazing comeback from injury and bowing out a champion – but aside from all those well-known moments, are there other games or moments that stick out most in your memory?
"Yeah yeah, of course. I remember my first season, all the games, beating Tottenham 2-0 and I scored two, you start feeling like I’m growing here. Some goals stand out – I scored a goal against Sturm Graz that I really, really remember because I’d been practicing a volley on the Monday before the game on the Tuesday or Wednesday. I knew I was going to have a chance [of playing] so I was just over at the back of Carrington training, and then it was probably the sweetest I had ever hit a ball. My comeback – scoring the goal against Charlton, which was Michael Carrick’s debut. My testimonial… you just don’t really think back too often. You catch me out every time you ask me something about the past because I’ve never been that type!"
Here’s a moment you will remember… your red card against Newcastle. You took a rollicking from Sir Alex for it – would you do it again, placed in the same situation?
"Oof. I wouldn’t ask any of my players to do it, because the hairdryer I got after the game, and the reasoning why he gave it to me, is a valid one. With Man Utd, you don’t want to win that way. It’s not the way we do things. The fans loved it though! [long pause] I’d probably do it again though, because I don’t think I’d want to change anything in my career because I don’t think I’d be sat here now then. Whatever little decision you make has a consequence on the next. But… I’d do the same. I did it for the right reasons, and that was that I was only thinking about my team-mates and the team. We lost the league by one point that season and there were two minutes to before full-time when we needed to get back up the other end and win the game."
You played with some of the game’s great strikers – what was the partnership you enjoyed the most?
"I developed and evolved as a striker throughout my career. When I came, Eric Cantona was the perfect partner. He took most of the attention from the central defenders, he made space for me. I remember Sir Alex gave me a man-marking job when we played Juventus once, when we were in possession. So the idea was when we had the ball, I had to find Paolo Montero, run him away so Eric gets space, and I did it. But Eric was the perfect partner. Then of course, the next was me and Teddy, I enjoyed the partnership with him, Cole and Yorkie, absolute top strikers as well but my partnership with Teddy evolved and that was more of a partnership. The next one would have been Ruud, and that was perfect for me then… suddenly he was like the no.9, the last line, running in behind and I dropped in more, I was more in the stage of my career when I could play with more authority, and then towards the end Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo of course. When they came in I enjoyed playing with them as well. At different stages they were all perfect partners for me and I felt I evolved and developed along with that."
We’re seeing now with Edinson that experienced players can have a major influence on the younger players in their position – which players do you think you taught? Did Rooney, Ronaldo etc pick up bits from you?
"I went into coaching as well, so I did try to teach them a few things. I think I’ve got more knowledge than most of making the most out of your opportunities. I was never the quickest, never the strongest or tallest, so I had to be clever. Every time when Wayne or Cristiano shifted the ball to the side and put it back through the legs of the defender, and the goalkeeper’s just stranded, I used to nudge my kids and say, “Your dad’s taught them that!” Apart from that I think you’ve got to ask the players. I think I led more by example. I wasn’t the vocal one who went round and tried to tell anyone, I wanted to show with my attitude and what I did, day in day out."
After you retired, you took on a coaching role, then managed the Reserves – how important was that experience for you? What key lessons did you take from it?
"It was a big important step for me. First year I was just the forwards’ coach, with Carlos Tevez and Ronaldo, Rooney and of course some good young players coming up with Danny Welbeck and Kiko Macheda, so I did some finishing sessions with them. And then I took the Reserves which made me certainly understand the whole spectrum of what coaching and management is about. When I was a striker I just felt I knew everything about football. But I knew everything about scoring goals. I didn’t really know about the other bits and bobs that goes with it. With Warren Joyce as a coach with me, I learned so much from Warren. So much – during the game, what you do, your eye for a tactical tweak, Warren was immense. I’m a blend of all the managers and coaches I’ve had."
You went away and managed elsewhere and then, in 2018, you got the phone call about stepping in as interim manager here. What do you remember about getting that call?
"I remember it was just after a bad defeat by Liverpool. Of course you’re excited, you don’t really believe what’s happening, but as I said, there are things that you just take in your stride and throughout your career you learn how to deal with different challenges. You look at yourself and think, ‘Are you ready for this?’ and I felt, ‘Yeah’."
You’re entering your third full season in charge – how do you feel about the current situation as we head into the new season? Where are we right now, in your eyes?
"I think we’re developing. We’re progressing. Last season was a good season, apart from you don’t end up with a trophy. I think everyone can see the progress. The season before, coming third was a great achievement after all the changes we’d made, tried to gel a new team in. Of course when Bruno came in that was a catalyst for winning more games and last season I felt we were so close to challenging for the top. And now the next step has to be there. We just have to improve, hopefully we can add some quality to the squad and we’re ready to start the season well, That’s the main thing – to start well. The first game, then the first little bulk of games, to give us a foundation to build on."
Even if you weren’t our manager, we’d still have been in touch to celebrate your 25th anniversary –could you ever have envisaged having such an impact and being such a part of the folklore of this club?
"No, because I don’t think that way. I wouldn’t sit here and say I’ve had a massive impact either, because there have been so many along the way, helping Sir Alex’s teams and all this, but it is an honour. I’ve got to say when I’m a retired old man and sit back and look back at my career, I would promise you that when I signed for United, I wouldn’t think that I’d be such a big part of it."
Finally, if you could go back now and speak to Ole of 25 years ago, what would you tell him? Would you do anything differently?
"Well, when I look at some of those dodgy hairstyles, I would say, “Cut your hair more often!” But no, I’ve said it before in the interview, I don’t really look back, I don’t regret. You make decisions and you just have to deal with the consequences, so I’d probably say just be yourself again… I’m sat here, aren’t I? And I wouldn’t be any other place at the moment. So, I’d probably just do the same again… except score a goal against Bayer Leverkusen in 2002! That chance… about ten minutes before full-time… that’s the moment in my career that I’ve thought about the most, that miss. Ask Roy Keane as well… he keeps mithering me every time we talk to each other. He reminds me of that chance but I just reply that for me it’s a good chance, but for him there was absolutely no chance he would have scored that or any other… but that bothers me, that chance. We drew 2-2 at home, and we would have gone to the final in Glasgow. And we would have won it as well."