Ever feel like you’ve been had? As the final notes in Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s long goodbye play themselves out, as statements are issued and narratives massaged, it is worth taking a step back from all that background noise. For all the dead energy, and the ultimate humiliations of the Solskjær era, this has also been an uncomfortable note in English football’s modern history. What exactly just happened?
Solskjær to Manchester United was a weird, doomed appointment from the start, one that bled into a weird, doomed, half-life as United’s sixth-longest-serving post-war manager. It will surely be a relief for all concerned that it is now concluded, not least for Solskjær, who seemed increasingly diminished by his appearances on the touchline – the sadness, the boggling eyes – an ancient mariner tied to the bridge of this zombified ship.
And yet there is no joy to be taken here, no real sense of new beginnings. The least qualified managerial appointee in United’s modern history has been eased out of the job, with the soft landing of a significant payout. But make no mistake, the wrong person is leaving the building.
It is self-evident that the problems at United will not be solved by the removal a single sad‑looking Norwegian. It goes without saying that Ole was never really at the wheel in any meaningful sense, or if he was it was one of those small plastic contraptions strapped into the seat behind the driver. Peep your horn. Waggle the wheel. Do a press conference on Zoom.
But it bears repeating all the same, because that model of ownership, the sweating of the brand, the commodification of the present is a blight, not just on Manchester United, and not just on football, but on so many other aspects of our shared culture.
For now it is necessary to offer the usual reckoning up of the Solskjær era. No doubt the next few days will bring us the inside story of his sacking. The real question is how he got the job in the first place.
It made, and still makes, zero sporting sense. Only three people have ever really succeeded as manager of Manchester United: Ernest Mangnall, whose reign coincided with that of King Edward VII; and Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson, through‑the‑roof geniuses who still took years of struggle to master these treacherous waters.
Solskjær had, and still has, nothing on his CV to qualify him for the job at hand. Had he been parachuted in as an unknown Scandinavian – which he was, in effect – his friends in the media would have shrieked for his dismissal from day one, appalled at this perversion of nature.
Instead we have this: three years of drift and an oddly pointless tale of the tape. Only nine men in the 143-year history of Manchester United have managed the club for longer. Nobody in the post-war years has managed as many games without winning a trophy.
Solskjær took a team that had finished second the season before. A total of £300m net has been spent on players in his time. United currently have four of the five best‑paid players in the league. And yet this Solskjær team still never gave any sense of developing a clear style of play.
For a while bloody-minded counterattack worked well enough to give an illusion of progress. In between there were doomed experiments with playing “on the front foot”, hurling a clump of attacking players into the same cauldron in the hope some kind of alchemy might occur.
It is rare to see such obviously poor coaching at this level, a team playing in atomised units, a setup where it is possible for poor, willing, overexposed Fred to remain a constant presence, while Donny van de Beek, a high-end but difficult footballer, is just too much to deal with.
There were good spells. Third place in his first full season, 23 points behind Liverpool, was followed by second in the year of Covid isolation, when Solskjær’s unusually simple managerial style – based around vibes, feelings, smiling encouragement – seemed to fit the anxiety of the times.
But by the end, watching his United was like a weird cultural experiment. What happens if you just don’t sack the manager? What if football becomes a fish out of water comedy: Eddie Murphy runs the world bank, Steve Martin is the US president, Solskjær is an elite manager?
It seems you end up like this, a team full of high-class players losing 5-0 and 4-1 and 4-2, staggering around the ring like a half-done knockout artist, gassed and holding on, all hope placed in that single golden punch.
No doubt even in those grisly final weeks some part of the United marketing machine will have enjoyed this circus: the domination of social media, the unofficial brand ambassadors jazzing up the story, the whole organisation burning Solskjær for firewood. But those weekly thrashings were unsustainable. Football management takes pieces out of you even at the best of times. Solskjær was being bullied by opposition fans, falling apart a little in his TV appearances. The job had become a paid weekly humiliation.
At the end of which the Glazers have made fools of us all. Supporters who loved Solskjær as a player, who loved the idea of him succeeding, have had their most delicate loyalties preyed upon. Gary Neville, the nation’s top football pundit, and usually so clear in his thoughts, has backed himself into repeating the very obvious untruth that there is something dishonourable and ungallant in suggesting anyone, anywhere should ever stop managing a football team.
There is a serious point behind all this – and a note of warning, too. The Glazers will continue to take money out of English football, to monetise the past to pay for the present, to value share price over silverware, and to make fools of those who still see this as an irresistible sporting romance.
Why should this matter? First because vast sums of money are involved, every single penny of it originating in the pockets of supporters of the club, whose attachment is non-negotiable.
And second because there is a need to preserve the sharp edges, the robustness of competitive sport. A great deal of pride was taken in the rejection of the European Super League, a machine designed to transform elite sport into a secure revenue-generating toy for club owners.
And yet, zoom out and the Solskjær era comes from same place, an interlude in United’s history where the aim has been simply to exist, profitably – in this case by installing a pliable figurehead, by fluffing the brand, by re-signing a 36-year-old legend, and constructing a kind of waxwork museum to the recent past. How are they going to take that thing that you love out from under your feet and sell it back to you in plain sight? Like this, it seems.
For now there is at least an opportunity for instant uplift. With a proper plan, with something more than DNA and shirt-power, passion and memories, this team can still finish in the top four. Players who have drifted, under-coached and badly used, can still bloom.
Jadon Sancho, for example, is a brilliant but raw footballer who needs a brilliant coach to complete him. Who knows how good Mason Greenwood can become?
We may find out. For now the defenestration of Solskjær, enacted by the same people who hired Solskjær and then presided over the age of Solskjær, still feels like a strange kind of new beginning.