Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may not have been Alan Shearer, but for a tenth of the price he will still go down as one of Manchester United’s best-ever signings.
We celebrate all sorts of players and teams on Planet Football. We regularly pay tribute to Legends of the game, but we also honour Cult Heroes that are loved for slightly different reasons, and Fallen Giants that are no longer the force they once were.
We are also working our way through the small group of One-Game Wonders players with a solitary Premier League appearance to their name, and now we’re giving acclaim to the players that cost their club pittances but were worth fortunes, the Bargain Buys that can make a scout a hero.
Next up, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
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In the summer of 1996, Manchester United needed a new striker.
This in itself was nothing new. United hadn’t boasted a golden boot winner since George Best in 1968, and though they had won three of the first four Premier League titles, they had yet to break the two-goal-per-game barrier. Ferguson was in charge for 21 Premier League seasons; four of his worst eight seasons for goals came in the years 1992-1996.
Eric Cantona, Mark Hughes, and Brian McClair offered guile, power, and work-rate, but their rates of return were not up there with the best in the country, with the trio’s goals-per-game average over their time at Old Trafford coming out at 0.31 (Cantona was the best of the three with 0.45).
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By comparison, the country’s best striker at the time, Alan Shearer, scored at a rate of 0.81 goals per game for Blackburn Rovers.
Signing Andy Cole in January 1995 certainly helped, but Hughes would leave for Chelsea later that year and McClair dropped into a deeper midfield role, leaving Cantona and Cole as the club’s only recognised forwards.
Paul Scholes deputised in the position when needed, but it was clear that his future lay in midfield.
Cantona turned 30 in May 1996 and always seemed unlikely to play well into his 30s (indeed, he would retire in summer 1997), and Cole had an absolute shocker of a season in 1995-96, with the ultimate confidence striker looking barely able to keep his head in the game for long stretches of the season.
Shearer was United’s prime transfer target after capping four incredible seasons for Blackburn by winning the Euro 96 Golden Boot, but he proved elusive in the face of rival interest from his hometown club, Newcastle, whom he would eventually join for a world record fee of £15million.
The previous year’s Bosman ruling opened up squad places for overseas players, however, allowing United to join the rest of the division in looking abroad for the answer to their problems.
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It had already been well-established that if you were looking for value from abroad, you went to Norway first.
Ten Norwegians played in England’s top four divisions during the 1995-96 season, more than any nationality outside the UK and Ireland.
Australians were second, with eight, while Canada’s six representatives put them joint third. The pre-Bosman era was weird.
For £1.5m in the summer of 1996, Manchester United could have had:
– 30-year-old Niall Quinn (Manchester City to Sunderland, £1.3m) or fellow 30-year-old Steve Claridge (Birmingham to Leicester, £1.2m) plus change
– Paul Furlong (Chelsea to Birmingham, £1.5m) or yet another 30-year-old, Nigel Clough (Liverpool to Manchester City, £1.5m)
– 10% of Alan Shearer (Blackburn to Newcastle, £15m)
Molde FK manager Aage Hareide thought someone was having him on when, in the middle of Euro 96, the club received a fax from Manchester United offering £1.5million for star striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
It wasn’t that they didn’t think Solskjaer was worth it – a phenomenal 33 goals in 42 games showed he was well worth breaking the Norwegian transfer record for – but because they had offered him to both Manchester City and Everton earlier that year for £300,000 less, and neither side had shown any interest.
It was only after Molde got on the phone to Old Trafford that they finally accepted the bid was genuine.
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“I thought someone was being mischievous and the fax was not all it seemed. But when I inspected it closely it seemed genuine,” said Hareide in 1996.
“We still contacted United to double-check and then accepted their offer.”
By offering more than the asking price, Ferguson saw off rival interest from Cagliari and Hamburg to secure the 23-year-old’s signature.
The Baby-faced Assassin started his Red Devils career in a way that would become incredibly familiar to both United and their opposition: he came off the bench on the hour mark with United losing 2-1 at home to Blackburn, and just six minutes later put a debut goal past Tim Flowers that rescued a point for United.
It was the first of 18 league goals for Solskjaer in his first season in England, putting him comfortably top of United’s goalscoring charts as they claimed the title by seven clear points.
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Even after Cole recovered from a horrific double leg-break inflicted by Neil Ruddock in a reserve game in October, he largely played alongside Solskjaer and Cantona, rather than instead of the Norwegian.
Crucially, Solskjaer’s arrival heralded a new age for United on the European stage. English clubs had been simultaneously embarrassed and embarrassing in the reformed Champions League up to that point, failing to get past the initial group stage when there was one, or the second round of a straight knockout when there wasn’t.
In 1996-97, however, Ferguson showed he had begun to solve the problems posed by challenging for multiple honours, including European glory. That season saw United beaten 2-0 on aggregate by eventual winners Borussia Dortmund in the semi-finals, the first time the club had reached that stage of Europe’s premier competition since 1969.
There is only one place to start when discussing Solskjaer’s legacy at Manchester United, and it is no slight on a fantastic career at Old Trafford that one goal stands out so far above all the rest.
Solskjaer developed a reputation as a super sub for United, and none of his 29 goals off the bench were more important than the one he scored in Barcelona on May 26, 1999.
Teddy Sheringham had just scored a scarcely-deserved injury time equaliser against the dominant Bayern Munich, who had led since the sixth minute through Mario Basler’s goal.
Within 30 seconds, United had another corner. Sheringham nodded down David Beckham’s delivery, and Solskjaer stuck out a foot to volley it into the roof of the net from three yards out. The most unlikely comeback was complete, and United were England’s first-ever treble winners.
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Remarkably, Solskjaer was also key in another turnaround that season, adding a winner to Dwight Yorke’s 88th-minute equaliser against Liverpool in the fourth round of the FA Cup. The Merseysiders had led since the second minute.
As Michael Cox relates in detail in his excellent book ‘The Mixer’, it was no accident that United seemed to benefit from late goals so often that we still refer to decisive injury time strikes as occurring in ‘Fergie time’.
Solskjaer, and others like him in the United squad, were key to United’s dominance in that period, not despite starting irregularly, but precisely because they started irregularly.
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Solskjaer started just nine league games that season and completed just four of those but still finished the season with 12 league goals. That wouldn’t have been possible if he hadn’t been a top-class striker, of course, but Ferguson was the first man to fully implement the kind of squad rotation that would later become commonplace.
He would not have been able to do that if he had not had selfless players in the team who were willing to do unglamorous jobs without kicking up a fuss: the likes of Brian McClair, Jesper Blomqvist, Darren Fletcher, and Park Ji-Sung.
Nobody epitomised that better than Solskjaer. The Norwegian would have been an automatic first choice at practically any other English club, with Ferguson saying: “He was a marvellous finisher, one of the best I have known.”
But such was the quality on offer at United at the time that Solskjaer found himself consistently overshadowed by other strikers throughout his United career: first by Cole and Yorke, then Ruud Van Nistelrooy, and finally Wayne Rooney.
Yet he stayed loyal to United for 11 magical years, making 366 appearances – 150 as a substitute – and scoring 126 goals. 50 of those came in the last 30 minutes of games, and 33 of those were in the last 15 minutes.
He finally finished his Old Trafford career exactly how he had started it: scoring six minutes after coming off the bench against Blackburn – just perfect for a man whose whole career was built on being completely reliable.
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