Ronny Johnsen.

Treble Icons: Ronny Johnsen

Thursday 25 April 2019 16:11

One of only five players to start all three of the trophy-nabbing deciders at the climax of the Treble season, Ronny Johnsen was a vital figure at the heart of Alex Ferguson’s defence in 1998/99, and a valuable alternative in midfield.

Now the Old Trafford faithful will get another chance to honour his contribution when he returns for the Treble Reunion game against Bayern Munich at the Theatre of Dreams on 26 May. Tickets for the game are available to buy here, with all proceeds going to Manchester United Foundation.


One of our four Norwegians alongside Henning Berg, Erik Nevland and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Johnsen endured an injury-interrupted season by missing September through to December – but made 37 appearances during his third campaign.

The duo started the Champions League final against Bayern Munich, after some deliberation from Ferguson regarding who should play in central midfield, in light of the suspensions that prevented Roy Keane and Paul Scholes from involvement. Johnsen was an obvious candidate – as was Ryan Giggs – but after David Beckham impressed there against Newcastle in the FA Cup final (following an early injury to Keane) Johnsen was enlisted in his familiar role at the back alongside Stam.

Johnsen left Old Trafford in the summer of 2002 after 150 appearances and nine goals for the club. In six seasons, he was part of four Premier League successes, also winning an FA Cup, the Champions League and two Charity Shields.

Ronny Johnsen and fellow Norwegian Ole Gunnar Solskjaer celebrate at the Nou Camp after United's victory over Bayern Munich.
The famous night in Barcelona started awkwardly for both United and Johnsen, when the Norwegian was harshly penalised after a tangle with Bayern forward Alexander Zickler. “He came through, I was running past him. He put his leg out, I fell forwards and he fell backwards and he got the free-kick,” said a frustrated Johnsen afterwards.
The resultant free-kick was taken by Mario Basler, who surprised Schmeichel by attacking the post to the Dane’s left and gave the Germans a precious lead. But Ronny soon regathered his composure, making a crucial intervention to deny Carsten Jancker a chance to double Bayern’s lead later in the first half.
“Time after time, we would find ourselves in a situation where we were behind and chasing the game,” noted Ronny, “often with time running out, so we just pushed on. We had all this attacking talent, with so many amazing midfield and forward players, so we knew that we always had a goal in us and it was worth gambling to try to get it."
When, in the second half, the game grew strained and desperate, the defender believes the team came into their element, and began to play to their strengths. 
“Such a risky approach to games was dangerous, but it usually paid off because we were so good at keeping the ball away from our opponents. Sometimes we lost it and they kicked it high and long, so at the back we had to be first to the ball, but for us it was usually not a problem. You had to be awake to situations. Sometimes the full-backs tucked in a little bit or one of the midfielders would hold a little bit, but if we were down, we just had to go for it. There was no other way.”
The Norwegian defender played 37 times in 1998/99, starting on 30 occasions. That figure would undoubtedly have been higher had it not been for his injury problems during the autumn, but he started and finished the season as Ferguson’s favourite partner for Stam.
It was the Dutchman’s first season in England, and Johnsen was vital in helping him settle and find his groove in the team’s defence. “He was easy to play with,” remembered the defender, “and we formed a good partnership that season. I think it worked because we both knew our strengths. We were both quick one against one, we could keep a high line because we trusted each other very much – otherwise, if you don’t have faith in your partner, you start to cover up a little bit behind him and leave your man a few more yards, then they can play on him. 
“It was all about trust. You could go really tough into the strikers and not be afraid about what was behind us. We clicked. It was automatic and you don’t even have to say too much to each other – even though we said everything we needed to say and were always communicating when we needed to.”
Johnsen was also extremely useful to Ferguson in midfield, when needed, and also popped up with three goals. The first arrived against Coventry, when he deftly turned home a spicy Paul Scholes shot from outside the area, and his final two came in the same match, against Nottingham Forest. His header and thunderous volley gave United a 2-0 lead that day, and were the goals that kickstarted our incredible 33-match unbeaten run, which stretched from Boxing Day until that balmy night in the Nou Camp.
At the close of the season, with Stam's Achilles injury leading Ferguson to omit him from the starting XI for the decisive league match against Spurs and the FA Cup final, Johnsen partnered David May to guide United's defence through the first two steps on the way to the Treble.
Ronny Johnsen on the treble reunion Video

Ronny Johnsen on the treble reunion

Johnsen discusses playing in the Treble Reunion

Arguably the versatile Norwegian’s best performance of the season came against Inter Milan, in the imposing environs of the Giuseppe Meazza Stadium, aka San Siro, where he was used to neuter Ronaldo - after sterling work in Norway’s legendary 4-2 win over the then world champions in 1997.
"I deployed Ronny Johnsen alongside Roy Keane in centre-midfield so that either one could choke the space in which the great Brazilian likes to operate,” wrote Ferguson in Managing My Life. "Knowing that neither Ronaldo nor [Roberto] Baggio would press for the ball or hunt it down, I urged on our full-backs, Gary Neville and Denis Irwin, the importance of profiting from the possession they would have."
Gary Neville remembered: "In the San Siro we were pelted with oranges as soon as we went on the pitch for a warm-up. I’d not heard noise like it since Galatasaray. The manager must have wondered if we’d stand up to that sort of pressure but he’d already taken precautions. He picked Ronny Johnsen in central midfield instead of Scholesy, and it proved an inspired choice. Ronny was everywhere, taking the sting out of the game."
His compatriot Berg might be more frequently remembered for his role in the two games against Inter – thanks to some staggering clearances – but our former no. 5 did the dirty work that quieted the Nerazzurri and their crowd, providing the platform for Paul Scholes to replace him late in the game and seal United’s path to the semis with a priceless away goal.
“He's got fantastic ability. If he remains fit, you will not get a better centre-half in the country.”
Johnsen battles with Inter legend Javier Zanetti, during one his best displays of the campaign.
A nasty knee injury meant Johnsen did not kick a ball after the Bayern match until April the following year, on the day that United clinched another title by beating Southampton 3-1. 
Quirkily, it meant a trophy had been secured in each of the Norwegian’s last four consecutive appearances! He would win another Premier League medal the following term before another knee problem thwarted him, leading to his departure for Aston Villa, on a free transfer, at the conclusion of the 2001/02 season.
He spent two years in Birmingham, before moving to Newcastle in 2004. He announced his retirement the following year, but ended up reversing his decision and playing several further seasons for Oslo outfit Valerenga in his homeland.  
Thanks to United fan and Old Trafford season-ticket holder Stanley Chow for his illustrated portrait of Ronny Johnsen. To see more of his ‘Treble Winners’ collection, visit
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