“The boss was asking how you are you doing and if you are missing him?” asked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer when he sat down to face the media after his side’s second consecutive win against Huddersfield on Wednesday.
“Which one?” replied a journalist.
“There’s only one,” smiled the Norwegian, who was late because he’d been speaking to Sir Alex Ferguson beneath Old Trafford’s main stand.
The legendary United manager is now back to full health and is a regular attendee at games. More than that, he has a significant voice again at Old Trafford after feeling marginalised when he stepped down in 2013. That was partly because he wanted not to be seen as interfering, preferring instead to let his successor (or successors) manage the club with the ultimate power. He didn’t want a repeat of United in the post-Sir Matt Busby era of the early 1970s, when United’s other legendary manager kept an office at Old Trafford, kept players close to him and retained a huge influence. In 1974, United were relegated six years after winning the European Cup.
Manager Frank O’Farrell, for one, told me that “Matt’s office was the manager’s office.”
“He said that a new office was being built for the new manager,” explained O’Farrell, who coached United from 1971-72. “I was uneasy with that and said to Matt: ‘Before I came here the press were speculating that no one would come here because you would still be here. It will be symbolic if I don’t use what is regarded as the manager’s office.’ I said it in a polite way and I had to say it. I was impressed by him, but I wasn’t overawed and I was confident myself. Matt relented and moved his stuff out.”
But there were still problems, O’Farrell added: “While Louis Edwards was chairman, Matt was the real power behind the throne.”
So you can see why Ferguson wanted to stand back, but what was he supposed to do when his former players called him and pleaded to meet him because things weren’t working out under David Moyes? He eventually relented and saw them at his home in private, where he maintained that the manager was the manager and must be left to do his job.
While Ed Woodward spoke with Solskjaer, a visitor to United’s home game against Young Boys in late November, Ferguson had a role in the Norwegian’s return to Old Trafford, plus that of his assistant Mike Phelan. Both are absolute Fergie loyalists; they adore the man who gave them the greatest moments of their professional lives. Solskjaer will continue to meet with the man he calls boss.
“It [Fergie’s absence in decision-making] is something that has been neglected for a number of years, as far as I’m aware,” former United striker Brian McClair explained.
“Most people would imagine that if you had the experience and intelligence of a very successful regime prior to the situation we are in now, that you would use that. Alex Ferguson spent as much time as he could talking to Jock Stein and Matt Busby when he came to United. He used their experience. So it’s good that Ferguson has some input again: It was a shame not to ask him questions beforehand.”
As he goes into his third game at home to Bournemouth on Sunday, Solskjaer is still enjoying a honeymoon period, one that’s brought a buzz for several reasons. There’s relief that Jose Mourinho is no longer in charge, and there’s happiness because he has won his first two games with the side scoring eight goals. Paul Pogba is one of several players who looks rejuvenated. The atmosphere is far better at games.
There’s an extra thrill because it’s Solskjaer, the man who scored the treble winning goal, but unlike his three predecessors, Solskjaer understands the little nuances that chime with fans. He’s not nervous or unsure of his message before meeting the media, and he doesn’t ask what he should be saying, either, because he’s sure of his own mind.
“Solskjaer has been involved in United for a long, long time as a player and he also dipped his toes into coaching at Manchester United. He learned a considerable amount in that short period,” explained McClair. “That helps him understand the club.”
The Norwegian wears a club suit (a small but important detail), he talks of the importance of promoting young players from the academy, he bigs up the players that are already at the club and says that they are miles better than he was. That’s debatable. He also knows that the club needed a boost; that’s why he turned up at the club’s staff party, where younger employees were singing, “Who Put the Ball in the Germans’ Net?”
When Solskjaer arrived, the club hoped he would be someone who could put smiles back on faces. He’s doing that and has brought a festive cheer. There are more songs about Solskjaer at matches than any player. It’s football; it’s not life and death, so why can’t fans have a bit of fun?
Of course, United fans don’t expect miracles from him, not with this squad, at least. They’ll not be getting carried away after beating two lowly teams, nor will they if victories over Bournemouth and Reading in the FA Cup follow. The first real test is against Spurs away two weeks into the new year, a game in which United were outclassed last season and Pogba was substituted after an awful performance.
The better Solskjaer does, the more he’ll be talked about as a permanent successor, which is something few people are expecting at present.
“He has experience in European football — that’s a big plus with regards to taking the job on a permanent basis,” said McClair. “That would count against any other ex-United player who has managed recently because they haven’t had recent European experience.”
But that’s a long way down the road. For now, fans are just enjoying their football again.