Solskjaer exclusive: We're fit and focused
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has praised the talent, work ethic and 'human qualities' of his Manchester United players, after their emergence from weeks of lockdown to work collectively towards a first Premier League match for three months.
The manager is clearly very pleased with the way his charges have conducted themselves and maintained their fitness during the long period of isolation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The subsequent sessions at the Aon Training Complex, firstly in small groups and then in full contact, have further increased Ole's optimism for the restart.
As you can read below, that positivity was evident when he spoke to us in a phone call on Friday, shortly after the dates for our next four games in the Premier League and Emirates FA Cup were confirmed.
How excited are you to see the first fixtures released and have it confirmed that the season is resuming?
"Yes, of course, we’ve been looking forward to these games for ages really. We more or less knew what the fixtures were going to be early on. There was a little tweak with Sheffield United being the second one instead of Brighton. It does make it feel like ‘yes, we’re here soon.’ The first game is two weeks from today so we need to step up the training and get an edge to our game again."
"Well, we’ve got games coming weekend, midweek, weekend for a spell so you have to focus on ourselves and not just on that one, first game. Training has been about recapping what we did well, tweaking maybe one or two things and looking at some new ideas but hopefully we can see a lot of what we saw towards the end before the lockdown."
Is the general spirit among the players really positive and are they excited as well to see these games nailed down now?
"In any interview, I’d say, ‘Yes the mood is great and the spirit’s good’ but it has been really good. I think everyone can see over the last few months how the players have behaved and dealt with it and how we as a club have dealt with it. The players have kept themselves fit as well, which has been great. The weather was fantastic when they got going in small groups and gradually now, as we’ve got into contact training, you can see a little bit more of the edge but also the camaraderie and team bonding. That’s vital for me in a team. That’s one of the main things, that we are a team and the team goes before anything else."
How much of a challenge has it been for you as a manager over the last couple of months? We imagine ‘patience’ has been a buzzword for you…
"Yes, patience has been important. Of course everyone has found this period difficult but you’ve tried to keep yourself occupied and positive. The unknown, the uncertainty was the worst because you didn’t really know when we were getting back together but it was maybe worse for players who will have had to keep fit, just in case we got going again. So it’s not like I was training to get fit for something but I’ve spent the time well. I think it’s been good to have some family time, I’ve done some home-schooling as everyone has probably been doing. Sometimes you can appreciate what the teachers do for your kids. It’s been strange times and of course it’s good to get back to seeing the boys every day in training."
"Yeah, why not? Everyone knows that we will have to be at our best, have to be focused. We know it’s a big game for everyone. We had Chelsea when we started the league this season so I’m confident that our players can go into the Tottenham game with that mentality of going there to play a very good game of football."
Do you think there will be some element of that new-season bounce we saw against Chelsea? It’s almost like a new season…
"Yes, it does feel like a new season but then again, the first two games against Tottenham and Sheffield United are vital for the league standings, the table. And it’s a short season, it’s only nine games [in the Premier League] so can we get as many points and good performances as possible. If we do get a good spell now, we could end up with some trophies and something to cheer about."
"Of course, when you get to Man United, you want to end the season with trophies. But trophies won’t be what we’re talking about now. We’ve got to make sure we make this short spell before next season a good one for us and if it ends up with trophies, fantastic. We’ve just got to focus on what we can control and that’s our own performances. If that takes us to a final or two, it would be great. I’m focused on each game as it comes but also on developing this team. It’s a young team with some great talent, some great work-rate, personalities… the human qualities in the group are fantastic. And of course, Paul and Marcus are back, Eric has been out for a long time, Scott was out for a long time, so we want to gel the team together again."
Will the players you mentioned there all be ready for that first game?
"Well, we hope everybody’s going to be ready for the first game. We’ve had time out so I don’t think we can expect that those lads who’ve missed lots of the football can last the full game. But now the rules have changed, we can use five subs and have nine on the bench. I think that’s helpful because footballers, after being out for so long, going into competitive games will be a challenge for them and we have to look after them injury-wise and fitness-wise. We can’t just flog one player and say to them, ‘you play every game and every minute’ because it might be a period when we have to rotate quite often."
"Well over the course of the rest of the season, yes. We have a big squad, a strong squad and at the moment, loads of these players can prepare for the first game and hope to play in the first game and then if you don’t play in the first, you might play the second or the third. So that’s what it is about at Man United, being in the squad, being in the team, being ready when you’re asked upon."
Do you have a message to all the United supporters, including those who would normally be in the stadium but for now will have to join their fellow fans in watching the games on TV?
"Yes, of course, we miss them. The players miss them, we as coaches miss them. I miss and we will miss the matchday atmosphere. Of course, that is special. When you go to Old Trafford, that is special. It’s not a cliché that our fans play a big part in our home games and even away games. My message will be to stay patient, as we have all been, to support the team, and when we get back to normality, we will hopefully see you soon."