Manchester United fans had cause for celebration on July 29 as the date marks the 25th anniversary of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer signing for the club.
Now serving as manager, Solskjaer began his association with United in the summer of 1996, when he signed from Norwegian club Molde FK.
The young striker, 23 years old at the time, quickly became a popular figure at Old Trafford thanks to his admirable work ethic, unquestionable talent and happy knack of digging Sir Alex Ferguson’s side out of trouble with vital late goals.
Solskjaer was a favourite of Ferguson too, who once singled out the Norwegian as a “marvellous finisher, one of the best I have known” — high praise from a man who has also boasted the likes of Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Teddy Sheringham, Eric Cantona, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo among his attacking options over the years.
With Ole now firmly behind the wheel at Old Trafford having signed a new three-year contract earlier this month, here are 25 things to know about a man who has carved out his own special place in Premier League history.
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1. Shrewd signing
Solskjaer signed for United for just £1.5 million when he arrived from Molde in the summer of 1996. He had already scored 33 goals in 42 appearances for the club by the time United broke the Norwegian transfer record to secure his services. It’s fair to say that United got a decent return on their investment as he bagged 126 in 366 games over 11 years.
2. Plan B
Solskjaer wasn’t United’s first choice to solve their search for a striker that summer, with Ferguson eager to bring in proven goal-machine Alan Shearer from Blackburn Rovers as a priority. However, the lure of an emotional homecoming proved too great for Shearer who instead returned to boyhood side Newcastle United in a then-world record £15m transfer. Having missed out on his prime target, Fergie switched tack and decided to pursue a little-known rookie from the Norwegian top flight — a rookie that Molde had previously been offering to various clubs around Europe to little interest.
3. City’s loss was United’s gain
Molde manager Aage Hareide assumed somebody was attempting to prank him when United made contact over Solskjaer in the summer of 1996, midway through the European Championship that was happening in England that summer. This was because the club had offered Solskjaer to both Manchester City and Everton just a few months prior, and for a significantly smaller fee than United had opened their negotiations with. Hareide said at the time:
“I thought someone was being mischievous and the fax was not all it seemed. But when I inspected it closely it seemed genuine. We still contacted United to double-check and then accepted their offer.”
4. Fresh faces
Solskjaer wasn’t afforded his own individual introduction at United and instead had to settle for a group unveiling alongside fellow new recruits Ronny Johnsen, Jordi Cruyff, Karel Poborsky and Raimond van der Gouw. Some wore jeans, others wore full kit and two even wore flip flops. Transfer unveilings really have come a long way in the past 25 years.
5. Gary Neville wasn’t convinced
Recalling the first time he saw Solskjaer arrive at United’s old training ground, The Cliff, United right-back Neville admitted he assumed the young striker was a “competition winner” due to how nervous and out of place he looked. Neville told Sky Sports’ “Off Script” podcast:
“I remember Ole walking into the changing room at the Cliff for the first time and he walks in with what I can only describe as a jumper from the 1970s, Honestly, no word of a lie, I genuinely thought he must have won a competition like as a fan from Norway or something. He walked in, he looked about nine, he walked in and he was like very thin, he had this jumper on, which I always mention to him.
“Then after about a week in training, I remember we were playing a small-sided game and he had his technique of scoring a goal when he was in short spaces. He would take it to the side and then push it back, pull it back through your legs into the far corner and I’m thinking ‘He’s a bit more clever than he looks.'”
6. Goals over grappling
It’s just Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wrestling his dad. Nothing unusual to see here. pic.twitter.com/KAlsuLxujw
— Game of Throw-ins (@GameofThrowIns) March 1, 2021
Solskjaer has revealed in the past that he dabbled in wrestling for a few years as a kid, but ultimately decided to focus solely on football as grappling “wasn’t the sport for me.” This must have come as a minor disappointment to his father Oivind, who is a former Norwegian wrestling champion. In fact, the elder Solskjaer even has a signature move (“The Solskjaer-Stikk”) named after him. Here we see the pair going through their paces in the family dining room, circa 1998.
7. Scored on United debut
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) August 25, 2017
Any concerns over Solskjaer’s pedigree were banished on Aug. 25, 1996 when Solskjaer scored on his United debut, taking just six minutes to do so. The Norwegian missed United’s first three games of the campaign: the first a 4-0 drubbing of Newcastle (and Shearer) in the Charity Shield; the second a 3-0 win over Wimbledon on the opening day of the league season, best remembered for David Beckham’s spectacular halfway line goal; the third was a 2-2 home draw against Everton. Solskjaer was then named among the substitutes against Blackburn at Old Trafford. He emerged from the bench in the 64th minute and opened his account for his new club in the 70th by tapping home the equaliser in another 2-2 draw.
8. Scored on first start for United, too
Solskjaer also scored on his first full start for United, against Nottingham Forest — a team he would soon return to haunt — on Sept. 14, 1996. The striker scored United’s first goal in a comprehensive 4-1 win which sent them top of the league.
9. First European goal
Solskjaer’s first European goal for United soon followed when Rapid Vienna came to Old Trafford on Sept. 25 in the group stage of the Champions League, his first start in the competition. He scored the first goal of the game with 20 minutes on the clock before a further strike from Beckham wrapped up a straightforward 2-0 win.
10. Breakout year
In total, the “Baby-faced Assassin” scored 18 Premier League goals in just 33 appearances during 1996-97 as he ended his first season at United as the club’s top goal scorer (with 19 in all competitions). In terms of league goals, this was to be his most prolific ever in a United shirt, with the 17 goals he scored in 30 appearances in 2001-02 the closest he came to equalling his maiden haul.
11. The nickname
Solskjaer definitely wasn’t the first sportsperson to be billed as the “Baby-faced Assassin” (many boxers have shared the moniker over the years), but he’s the only top footballer to have it stick. It’s unclear who is responsible for giving it to Solskjaer, but it was definitely used right from the start — with the British press regularly referring to the impish Norwegian as such during his debut season.
As you may have guessed by now, the nickname is a reference to Solskjaer’s distinctive combination of youthful complexion and ruthless finishing. Even today, he remains one of the few middle-aged men who can still feasibly get away with being called “baby-faced” despite being deep into his 40s.
12. The baby-face could turn heel
?️ Solskjaer: “When I got sent off against Newcastle many years ago. I thought I did the right thing for the team.
— The Sportsman (@TheSportsman) April 14, 2021
Solskjaer proved that he also had a mean streak when he succumbed to the dark arts during a game against Newcastle in April 1998. Still in the title chase, Ferguson’s side were on course for a 1-1 draw and had to avoid defeat at all costs. So when midfielder Rob Lee suddenly broke upfield in the 89th minute with the United goal at his mercy, United’s substitute striker knew what had to be done. Solskjaer charged after Lee and crudely hacked him down. Despite only coming off the bench 10 minutes earlier, he was shown a straight red card by referee Uriah Rennie in one of the easiest decisions the official ever had to make. Solskjaer missed United’s final three games of the season, but his sacrifice was in vain: Arsenal won the title by a point.
13. Four goals in 19 minutes
— Premier League (@premierleague) February 6, 2019
Solskjaer stunned the Premier League when he came off the bench against Nottingham Forest and scored four goals in a mesmerising 10-minute blitz. On Feb. 6,1999, United thrashed a hopeless Forest 8-1 at the City Ground with the Norwegian chipping in with half those goals despite only entering the fray in the 71st minute (when he replaced Yorke, who was looking for a hat trick of his own). Solskjaer’s four-goal cameo remains a Premier League record for a substitute, and we suspect it’s a record that might stand for some time yet.
Solskjaer also holds the record for the most goals scored for Manchester United as a substitute, scoring 28 times after coming off the bench. He held the record for Premier League for most goals scored as a substitute (17) for many years, although three players have since surpassed his tally: Javier Hernandez (19), Olivier Giroud (20) and Jermaine Defoe (24).
?? Late in May 1999, Ole scored a goal in injury time… ?
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) May 26, 2021
May 26, 1999, Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona is a date and place that will live forever in the hearts and minds of United fans, and they have Solskjaer to thank for it. It was his stoppage-time goal that cemented his place in the history books as United roared from behind to beat Bayern Munich 2-1 in the last seconds of the Champions League final. Trailing 1-0 after Mario Basler’s sixth-minute free kick, United brought Teddy Sheringham and Solskjaer on in the second half as they desperately chased the game. Sheringham scored with 90:36 on the clock to level the score before Solskjaer prodded home the winner on 92:17 to complete a dizzying turnaround. Solskjaer looked as though he could scarcely believe what he’d done as he and his team celebrated winning the Treble as the Bayern team were left bemused as to how they lost.
15. History repeating
? Couldn’t make it to our #Treble99 Reunion game two weeks ago today?
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) June 9, 2019
May 26, 1999: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer comes on as a substitute for Cole and scores against Bayern Munich to seal the Treble.
May 26, 2019: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer comes on as a substitute for Cole and scores against Bayern Munich in the “Treble 99” reunion game.
Not quite as dramatic, but still emotional enough to tug at the heart strings.
16. Final game
Solskjaer’s last-ever game for United was the 2007 FA Cup final against Chelsea, which he entered as an extra-time substitute in the 112th minute at Wembley. Unfortunately, Didier Drogba scored the only goal of the game four minutes later to wrap things up in the Blues’ favour.
17. Early retirement
Solskjaer reluctantly called time on his playing career on Aug. 28, 2007 at the age of 34 after a four-year battle with a recurring knee injury. He still managed to score 11 goals during his final season as United won the Premier League, thus bowing out with his sixth title.
18. An all-time United great
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer loved scoring goals ? pic.twitter.com/kqxwd94SVX
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) March 31, 2020
In spite of all that time spent on the bench and the injury issues that dogged much of his 11-year career at United, Solskjaer still finished up with a total of 126 goals in 366 games. He is seventh on United’s all-time goal-scorer list behind George Best (137 goals), Van Nistelrooy (150), Paul Scholes (152), Ryan Giggs (163), Denis Law (182) and Wayne Rooney (253).
19. The ultimate “super sub”
Of the 366 appearances Solskjaer made for United, 150 were made as a substitute. Of the 126 goals he scored, 33 came during the last 15 minutes of matches.
During the 11 years he spent as a player at United, Solskjaer won nine major trophies: six Premier League titles, the Champions League, two FA Cups, two Charity/Community Shields and the Intercontinental Cup.
21. Taking the wheel
The epic story of how we beat PSG last time out… ?
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) March 10, 2019
After serving as United’s reserve-team coach for several years, Solskjaer returned home to Norway in 2010 to begin his managerial career with Molde, leading his other former club to their first-ever Norwegian championship in 2011 and retaining it the following year.
Solskjaer left Molde in 2014 for a fairly disastrous eight-month spell at Cardiff City which saw him lose 16 of his 30 games. He went back to Molde in October 2015 where he bettered his win percentage (55.9%) from his first stint (54.7%)
He then returned to United as caretaker manager in December 2018 following the dismissal of Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford, the club hoping that the return of a club legend would help dissipate the sour mood that had engulfed the club. However, Solskjaer had only just signed a new contract with Molde a few weeks prior to agreeing to step into the breach at United — which appeared to leave him, temporarily and confusingly, in charge of two clubs at the same time.
Solskjaer told the Fotballklubben podcast four months into his caretaker reign: “I’m not sure how it works. I think the [Molde] contract is expired and that I’m now under contract with Manchester United.”
All the legalities were eventually smoothed out, with the original plan being for Solskjaer to spend a few months steadying the ship at Old Trafford before returning to Molde for the start of the Eliteserien season. However, things went so well at the Red Devils straight out of the gate that his return ticket never did get stamped, with a permanent three-year contract at United following in March 2019. This came after a run of 10 wins in 13 in the league, and a stunning comeback victory against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League,
22. Record so far
As we head into the 2021-22 season, Solskjaer has been in charge for 132 first-team matches at United, 115 of which have come in the Premier League. Of those, Solskjaer has won 54, drawn 30, and lost 31. After losing his first four cup semifinals in the job, he came closest to landing his first silverware as United boss in the 2020-21 Europa League final, only to lose to Villarreal in a penalty shootout in Gdansk. His best league finish was also last season when he led United to second in the table, finishing 12 points behind champions Manchester City.
23. Points on the board
Since Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s first game as Man United manager, only Man City (221) and Liverpool (217) have picked up more PL points than United’s 180 ? pic.twitter.com/Ulqmk3kZfJ
— ESPN UK (@ESPNUK) July 24, 2021
Since Solskjaer’s first game as United manager, a 5-1 destruction of his former club, Cardiff City on Dec. 22, 2018, only Liverpool and Manchester City have picked up more Premier League points. Both of those clubs have been crowned Premier League champions in the three seasons that have prevailed since — twice in City’s case.
24. Deep pockets
It should be noted that Solskjaer has spent big to sign players in that time too, with United ploughing over £300m into bolstering their squad. Harry Maguire, Bruno Fernandes, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Donny van der Beek, Edinson Cavani and Alex Telles are among the names to arrive at Old Trafford for vast sums since the January market opened up in 2019, with Jadon Sancho’s £73m arrival this summer the biggest outlay of the lot. The imminent arrival of Raphael Varane from Real Madrid likely to push that total up by as much as another £41m.
25. Legacy assured
Of all players to have made 10+ appearances in a single Premier League season, Solskjaer has the highest goals-per-minute ratio ever recorded, having averaged a goal every 71 minutes during the Treble-winning season of 1998-99. Gareth Bale managed a goal every 84 minutes in the Premier League for Tottenham in 2020-21 but that is the closest anybody has come to usurping Solskjaer, whose legacy as a Manchester United and Premier League is assured no matter what the future holds for him at manager at Old Trafford.