When you look back on the history of the Premier League there have been a number of good British strikers, with 9 of the top 10 Premier League all time goalscorers being English. Thierry Henry is the only non-British player in the top 10, which is crazy when you consider the great goalscorers that have come into the Premier League from foreign shores.
We’ve been blessed with players like Eric Cantona, Jurgen Klinsmann, Dwight Yorke and Dennis Bergkamp to name a few, all with an eye for goal that rightfully gave them the high-profile status that the fans bestowed upon them.
But for me, and for many fans across the world, they may be no bigger cult icon than the man who sealed the 1999 UEFA Champions League for Manchester United with what was practically the last kick of the game. That being the Baby Faced Assassin, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Born in Kristiansund, Norway on 26th February 1973, Solskjaer joined his hometown club Clausenengen in 1990 as a youth team player, at the same time as completing a years National service in the Norwegian Army. Solskjaer made a name for himself as a lethal goalscorer in the Norwegian Third Division, as he scored 17 goal in 6 matches in the Otta Cup in 1990, and scored 31 of Clausenengen’s 47 League goals in the 1994 Norwegian Second Division.
These exploits for Clausenengen had not gone unnoticed, and he was signed by Age Hareide for his Molde FK side, for a fee of 200,000 Norwegian Krone (Roughly £20,000) in 1995, where he quickly established himself as a first team player, scoring 20 goals in his first season and 31 overall in 38 games for the club. This led to substantial interest in his services from some of Europe’s top clubs.
Sensing an opportunity to cash in, Hareide made Solskjaer available for transfer for a fee of £1.2m, however reported interest from Manchester City and Everton was not followed up as they decided it was too much of a risk. Fortunately for him, Manchester United stepped in during the Euro 1996 tournament, and offered £1.5m for him. This began Solskjaer’s rise to the top as he became a club legend, scoring 126 goals from 366 appearances in all competitions.
Solskjaer’s style was hard to pin down, he was a creative player for sure, but was much more comfortable in the forward positions, although he was also adept out on the wing. He was pacy, clinical in front of goal, and always put the club before personal interest, as evidenced by his getting intentionally sent off against Newcastle in 1998, running the entire length of the pitch to commit a professional foul on Rob Lee to prevent him scoring what would have been a winning goal.
He was seen as something of a risky signing when Alex Ferguson brought him in, but Ferguson has always had an eye for a player, and rarely made huge mistakes in the transfer market. As such, Ferguson had no problem putting his faith in Solskjaer, and it paid off with huge results.
As a player, Solskjaer won 6 Premier League titles, 2 FA Cups, 2 Community Shields, an Intercontinental Cup and of course, the 1999 Champions League, where he really solidified his legendary status.The game that truly cemented his status as a club icon, was of course the 1999 Champions League final. With Bayern Munich 1-0 up courtesy of an early goal from a deflected free kick from Mario Basler, and only 10 minutes remaining, Ferguson threw on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in an attempt to at least force extra time and take the game to Munich. What followed next was one of the most amazing endings to a match in football history.
Almost immediately, Solskjaer forced Oliver Kahn into a fine save with pretty much the closest attempt United had in the whole match up to that point. Bayern then almost sealed the game had it not been for the crossbar, though no one expected what was about to happen next.
Just as the 4th official indicated 3 minutes of injury time, United won a corner, and as David Beckham floated the ball in, the ensuing goalmouth scramble eventually led to Teddy Sheringham equalling the score. United sensed this was their moment, and from the kick off, forced another corner within 30 seconds. This time Sheringham rose to flick the ball on and Solskjaer reacted fastest and stabbed the ball into the top right corner of the goal, sending the United fans into a frenzy and sealing the Champions League for Manchester United for the first time since 1968. It was the ultimate comeback and made the fans love Solskjaer all the more.
In the next 3 seasons, Solskjaer continued racking up goals, and was on top of his game, even becoming United’s first choice right-winger with a series of impressive displays. But football is a cruel mistress, and from the highest of highs, soon came the lowest of lows, as on September 16th 2003 in a match against Panathinaikos, Solskjaer suffered a knee injury which kept him out until February of 2004, and while he did return to first team action and star in United’s FA Cup winning run, he was forced to undergo knee surgery in August of that year which meant he missed the entire, 2004/05 season, and made just 22 more league appearances for United before hanging up his boots after failing to fully recover from another bout of knee surgery on August 27th 2007. His testimonial on August 2nd 2008 drew a 69,000 strong crowd, showing just how loved he was by the fans.
His international stats make for good reading too, as he scored 23 goals in 67 games for Norway, showing that he was just as important for his country as he was for his club.
A move into management followed, and after learning the ropes as manager of Manchester United Reserves, he was appointed manager of former club Molde FK in 2010, where he won 2 successive league titles and the Norwegian FA Cup before moving on to an ill-fated spell in charge of Cardiff City. He lasted a little over 9 months at Cardiff before being relieved of his duties and returning to Molde FK where after a couple of years in mid table, he led them to a 2nd place finish in the league, thus ensuring Europa League football.
I spoke to my friend Ben, who is a lifelong United fan, and asked him for his first memory of Solskjaer, and what he remembers of that glorious night in 1999:
“I remember him coming on against Nottingham Forest and scoring 4 goals in 10 minutes in an 8-1 win. He was a fox in the box, who liked sitting on the last man and getting on the end of things. When he scored that goal in injury time against Bayern, what a feeling! The hope was always there thinking if we get the equaliser, we will win this!”
Asking him where Solskjaer ranks in terms of status among United fans today;
“He will always be a hero no doubt about that! He will be known for his important goals, and will always get a mention when it comes to United’s all time great strikers.”
I’m going to hand over to Bryan Robson to have the final word on Solskjaer, as he had this to say when asked about him in an interview:
“Ole was a terrific player for the club and it was not a surprise that came when we had great success by winning the Treble. Of course, he was a key part of that. He’s a terrific character and the boss could play him anywhere he wanted to because he would always give his all. He was just a natural goalscorer and, with him being such a nice character and a good lad around the place as well, he was simply the perfect player to have in your squad.”
A fitting tribute to one of the most beloved footballers in Premier League history.
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