Solskjaer returns to unrecognisable Manchester United

The Old Trafford hero has been dedicated to the Red Devils' philosophy in his short managerial career, but will return on Tuesday night with the club in very different shape
By Sam Lee

A lot can change in a short passage of time. Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes, Roy Keane, even Eric Cantona. Many of Sir Alex Ferguson's former players have prematurely been tipped to manage Manchester United at some point or other.

So it is with great trepidation that anybody should tout a young coach still in the early stages of his career for one of the biggest jobs in football.


6 Premier League titles

2 FA Cup wins

1 Champions League title

3 Community Shield wins

1 Intercontinental Cup win
Anyone who has ever worked with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, though, will tell you that this is a young manager who has everything required to go to the very top.

He will be back at Old Trafford on Tuesday night as manager of Cardiff City, keen to take his managerial career on to the next level with success in the Premier League.

To those not familiar with Solskjaer, though, his career so far may sound something of a cliche.

He is the archetypal 'student of the game', always said to be one of those young, progressive coaches who like to get the ball on the deck and play football 'the right way'. He is described by everybody he has ever worked with as a genuinely nice bloke. But, they all insist, he has that tough streak which makes him a hard task master.

But he is no cliche, these things are all true.

He was preparing for life as a manager long before the end of his playing career, making notes of training sessions and even standing on the benches at behind-closed-doors friendlies to get a better view of the action. He approached a startled Jan Age Fjortoft shortly after being called up for the Norway national team for the first time and informed the striker, seven years his senior, that he would be following him around and learning from everything he does.

He took his coaching badges during the twilight of his playing career, became striker coach under Ferguson, and enjoyed success as United's reserve team manager.

Since flying the nest in 2011 to continue his career away from Manchester United, in geographical terms at least, he has led Molde to their first title in a 100-year history. He then followed it up with a second the year later, and the cup the year after that.

He left United in a geographical sense alone because he will never be able to separate what he learned at Old Trafford from his outlook on football and how it is preached.

He took United coaches Mark Dempsey and Richard Hartis with him to Norway (and Cardiff), with the aim of creating a 'mini Man United' in a league with a history of long-ball, up-and-at-'em football. Hartis said Solskjaer's philosophy at Molde was the same as Ferguson's at Old Trafford: "Pass to a blue shirt in Norway, pass to a red shirt in England." Perhaps that versatility is what landed Solskjaer the job in Wales, after Cardiff 'rebranded' from blue to red.

Nobody has a bad word to say about Ole. Ryan Giggs, Darren Fletcher, Rio Ferdinand, Sir Alex Ferguson and Javier Hernandez were full of praise in an MUTV documentary about his first steps at Molde, but these were not just the usual platitudes commonplace on in-house channel programming.

14/1 Cardiff are 14/1 with Betway to beat Man Utd
A contact who worked closely with Solskjaer for 10 years describes him as "by far the nicest character you will come across in football". Sir Alex Ferguson insists he was not one for favourites during his distinguished career, but he would call his "substitute from hell", who lived nearby, and ask him to nip round and pick up his forgotten copy of the Racing Post on his way into training.

But, like Ferguson, he is definitely capable of dishing out a rollicking when needed. Magnus Wolff Eikrem, who followed Solskjaer from Manchester to Molde, and is now at Cardiff, once said pointedly, "You can’t be gentle all the time, and he isn't".

It will be a strange occasion on Tuesday night as a true hero returns to United as manager of the opposition.

The last time he appeared before a bumper Old Trafford crowd was in his testimonial against Espanyol in 2008, when he looked head and shoulders above his team-mates despite having retired a year earlier. He could perhaps get a game now if the performance against Sunderland last week is anything to go by.

In that match against the Spanish side, he was denied an emotional late goal by a truly fantastic save by keeper Christian Alvarez. Ole always used to say there was no such thing as a good save in football, just a poor finish. Except on that occasion, and when Arsenal's Jens Lehmann somehow kept out his low strike in 2006-07. "How the **** did he get that one?!" you can see him ask John O'Shea on the footage, both with their heads in their hands.

The atmosphere at Old Trafford these days is very different to what Solskjaer will remember. This is a man who sent the crowd wild with late goals on a regular basis, a man who scored four goals in 10 minutes, and even earned a standing ovation for running the length of the pitch, tripping up Rob Lee and getting a straight red card. If Danny Welbeck has to take one for the team on Tuesday night with Cardiff leading 1-0, David Moyes will have a mutiny on his hands.

United fans by no means dislike Moyes, but it would be no surprise if many present at Old Trafford greet Solskjaer with far more gusto than Ferguson's chosen replacement.

This is not the Manchester United that Solskjaer took away with him in 2011. Moyes fully intends to rebuild the squad after a disastrous run of form, but should those troubles continue then Ole might be the man to pick up the pieces.

His immediate objective, though, is to achieve three Premier League points to help move Cardiff off the bottom of the table. Having learned almost everything he knows during 15 years in Manchester, he might just pull it off against the man who is still coming to terms with the United way.