Manchester United: How Ole Gunnar Solskjaer turned around a toxic atmosphere
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could hardly have done any better in his first 11 games as Manchester United’s caretaker manager.
What happens in the next 11 – starting against Paris St-Germain in the Champions League on Tuesday – will probably determine whether the 45-year-old Norwegian gets the job of replacing Jose Mourinho full-time.
But off the pitch, he has hit the reset button at Old Trafford, restoring the ethos of Sir Alex Ferguson’s trophy-laden time in charge.
In eight short weeks, Solskjaer has wiped out the toxic atmosphere of Mourinho’s final few weeks at Old Trafford – and United fans are enjoying going to watch their team again.
So how has he done it?
The personal touch
In 14 years as a player and later coach at United, Solskjaer established his own little routine.
When he went home to Norway, he would always come back with chocolate bars to give to those staff members whose hard work at the club largely goes unseen.
So, when Solskjaer turned up on Thursday, 20 December for his first day in temporary charge, he repeated the gesture.
Receptionist Kath Phipps, who has worked at United for over half a century, was the first recipient. But there were others.
This was not a show of extravagance – Solskjaer was doing what came naturally. And, internally, staff felt this was the first indication of a club being reconnected with the way it used to be.
Later the same day, it was the United staff party. No players were involved. Solskjaer was asked whether he wanted to attend, with an understanding that, given the timing, he might feel he had more pressing concerns.
Solskjaer went. His presence at the bash for 500 people at Lancashire County Cricket Club was unannounced and he took to the stage as executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward and managing director Richard Arnold were addressing staff. He then spent 15 minutes on stage, answering questions.
He told those present – who had serenaded his arrival – it was time to put smiles back on faces. He has been as good as his word.
Order and routine
Post-Ferguson, each United manager has changed little things around long-established routines with the cumulative effect of dismantling an empire.
David Moyes took chips off the menu; Louis van Gaal installed floodlights at Carrington for evening training sessions; Jose Mourinho chopped and changed his weekly news conferences, making the target of his weekly ire either a journalist or – more frequently – one of his own players.
By comparison, Solskjaer sticks to a consistent 08:30 Friday morning genial chat. These weekly media set-pieces are no longer the must-watch sideshows of the combustible Mourinho, but they are longer – and senior figures at the club are no longer on tenterhooks, wondering what demand is about to land at their door via the TV cameras or newspaper back pages.
Tellingly, Solskjaer’s first meaningful call after receiving the SOS from Woodward was to Mike Phelan.
Ferguson’s old assistant wasn’t immediately contactable. He was doing a football coach and education session at Burnley College. Solskjaer kept trying.
He knew Phelan’s input would be crucial. And so it has proved, underlining the mistake Moyes made in letting him go in the fall-out from Ferguson’s exit in 2013.
Solskjaer has made it his business to talk with every section of the club, whether moving around the tables at a Unicef dinner at Old Trafford or visiting the Manchester United age-group women’s teams in training and posing for photos in the rain with as many girls and parents as possible.
Some of those watching didn’t even recognise the discreet Old Trafford boss.
One parent said: “If there’s a nicer person in football, I’ve yet to meet him”.
More overtly, Solskjaer made a point of seeking out old team-mate Nicky Butt, now head of United’s academy.
“He has a real knowledge of the academy,” said Butt.
“He is one of my friends. When he came back, one of the first things he said was that we needed to sit down and talk, get a relationship going and get the players who have the ability up.”
Already two of the academy’s brightest stars, Tahith Chong and Angel Gomes, have been given first-team debuts.
Checking in with Fergie
A misconception has grown around Solskjaer during his short stint at United that he is merely carrying out the orders of Ferguson, who has been installed as some kind of back-seat driver.
The truth is more mundane.
Ferguson has been to Carrington twice since Solskjaer’s appointment – once at the Norwegian’s invitation, and another time to see former player Giuseppe Rossi, who has been allowed to train at the club as a favour.
Solskjaer does tend to call into Ferguson’s office after matches at Old Trafford but the Scot often has company, so the exchange is brief.
Ferguson would only offer advice if he was asked for it anyway but – at the age of 77 and still to be discharged after suffering a brain haemorrhage in May – he is content to watch United’s resurgence from the comfort of the directors’ box.
That is not to say Solskjaer has not based a lot of his managerial philosophy around the his former boss’ beliefs.
He wants attacking football for a start.
Like Ferguson, Solskjaer tends to observe rather than run training sessions, which are largely left in the hands of Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna. Similarly, Phelan tends to be the first one into the technical area on match days.
Keeping his complaints in-house
In Mourinho’s last days, there was clearly an element of players no longer listening to a negative message. Mourinho cut a distant figure, even to his own coaching team.
On one occasion, he jumped on the team coach 40 minutes before it was due to depart and sat there in silence, with no explanation. When word got round, his coaches hurried on board also. They never actually found out why he had sat there.
Solskjaer will not criticise players in public but said at his first news conference that he does possess a Ferguson-style ‘hairdryer’. It is understood that he has used it on more than one occasion and, for the unlucky recipient, it is not a pleasant experience.
But such instances, and their consequences, have been kept under wraps.
Embracing the city
It is easy, but simplistic, to use every detail of Solskjaer’s short time in charge to make further damning comparisons with Mourinho’s gloomy third season.
At that Unicef charity dinner last month, Solskjaer gave up his watch, which raised £32,000 at auction. But Mourinho did the same in 2016.
The Norwegian was lauded for attending the annual Munich memorial at Old Trafford in a smart club suit and tie – the critical comparison being made with Mourinho’s less formal look of club jacket over hooded top at last year’s 60th anniversary ceremony attended by Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton.
But Mourinho’s attire gave a misleading impression. The 56-year-old was acutely aware of the darkest day in the club’s history. He had left his players in no doubt of the consequences should any of them fail either to attend or to represent the club in the correct manner.
Solskjaer, on the other hand, does identify with the wider city and see himself as Mancunian – in stark contrast with Mourinho’s 895 days holed up in the Lowry hotel.
Last Monday evening, accompanied by Phelan, Solskjaer attended a gala dinner held by Manchester City skipper Vincent Kompany to raise money for Manchester’s homeless.
City boss Pep Guardiola was sitting at a nearby table. The pair greeted each other warmly and had a good chat.
Kompany’s reaction to Solskjaer’s arrival? “I think it’s an absolute touch of class.”