By Kristan Heneage
The last seven days has seen Ole Gunnar Solskjaer first lead then depart the figurative race to become Aston Villa’s next manager. The 39-year-old had even flown to Birmingham for discussions with the Midlands club - surprisingly much to the displeasure of Molde’s owners. So why is the former Manchester United striker courting interest so early into his coaching career?
There was a hint of fairy tale to the beginning of Solskjaer’s managerial life. Leaving Molde FK in 1996 to join Manchester United, the man nicknamed ‘the baby faced assassin’ returned in the club’s centenary season to deliver the first league title of Molde’s history, weaving himself into the tapestry of Norwegian football once more.
The return to his homeland followed a stint overseeing Manchester United’s second string, a period that left an indelible mark on the young manager. When he decided to vacate the relative comfort of Manchester for his first full time job, he wisely chose not to depart alone.
His backroom staff was filled out by friends he had made in Manchester in the form of Mark Dempsey and Richard Hartis. Dempsey had spent his time coaching 13-16 year olds for the Red Devils. As well as coaching Molde’s first team, Dempsey also works with local youngsters as part of a bank sponsored scheme.
Hartis took control of the club’s goalkeepers after operating in a similar guise for United. Solskjaer gave glowing appraisals of both in his presentation press conference, and was expected to take both men with him had he opted to join Villa - an early display of loyalty and appreciation to those who have helped him earn his reputation.
Although much has been made of Molde’s billionaire backer Kjell Inge Rokke, Solskjaer has not enjoyed a period of extravagance in the transfer market. Operating on a stringent budget, Solskjaer has looked to promote youth, and never more is this typified than with his captain, Magnus Wolff Eikrem.
The son of former Molde player Knut Hallvard Eikrem, Magnus was born and bred in Molde, before being discovered at one of Solskjaer’s soccer schools. From there the talented playmaker was sent away to Manchester United’s academy before being allowed to leave with Solskjaer in 2011.
Ironically deemed a foreign player having spent so much of his teens in Manchester, Eikrem is the playmaking fulcrum of Molde’s midfield. Revelling in his role as captain, the youngster has fallen foul of his manager on one occasion for diving, a rare blot in an otherwise unblemished copybook.
Tactically, Solskjaer has developed a fast counter-attacking side in which full-backs are encouraged to venture forward, revolutionising Molde as a team. As a consequence of Solskjaer’s philosophy, American defender Joshua Gatt has become a much-admired member of the squad. The Michigan native was recorded as the league’s fastest player last season and the admiration of him seems justified when you consider his wonderful solo effort against league leaders Stromsgodset last month.
Despite spending time away from Sir Alex Ferguson, the impact his tutelage had on Solskjaer has not been diluted. Still referring to Sir Alex as ‘the gaffer’ in interviews, Solskjaer seems to have adopted the Scot’s infamous hairdryer motivation technique, as Jo Inge Berget learned to his cost this season after a poor attempt at diving.
It’s claimed Solskjaer’s disdain for simulation harks back to his time under Sir Alex, when he was given a similar blast and told that diving ‘was not the Manchester United way’ - something Berget said Solskjaer stressed to him. “I had to stand in front of everyone in the locker room to apologiSe. Ole Gunnar said that such things we do not have at this club.” Berget said. In fact, so incensed was Solskjaer with the striker, he even forced him to apologise to the referee, and opponents Stromsgodset.
Having been tipped for success by his former mentor, many had expected Molde to hit the ground running in Solskjaer’s first season. The story began diverting from script as Molde suffered an opening day defeat to newly promoted Sarpsborg 08. Arguably a better test of his abilities, the manager responded well to a difficult opening trio of results which included draws against Viking FK and Tromso.
It should be noted that Solskjaer suffered setbacks throughout his inaugural campaign, including losing leading frontman Pape Pate Diouf to FC Copenhagen midway through. Credit must go to his team’s ability to respond to defeat. They never lost back-to-back matches, a testament to his side’s character.
A narrow win against Staebaek in round four earned him his first victory and served as the precursor to a second win away in Brann days later. It also allowed Solskjaer to display his tactical expertise, a quality Ferguson had often noted. Converting the side from its usual 4-3-3 into a more defensively sturdy 4-2-3-1, they recorded an impressive 3-1 victory against the financially stricken side.
With pace out wide a key component of his style, Solskjaer plays in an unique way compared to the majority of Norwegian sides that prefer a more stable 4-4-2. Under the watchful eye of backer Rokke, Solskjaer has taken advantage of the top class facilities that have allowed him to nurture his winning side.
In an eerily similar situation to last year Molde suffered a difficult start as they looked to defend their crown - three defeats in their first six games meant an average opening to the season. However, a 2-0 victory over the weekend against Sandes Ulf saw Molde record their fourth straight win - placing them one point behind leaders Stromsgodset.
When fielding potentially awkward questions regarding his future, Solskjaer has been refreshingly honest in admitting he holds the same ambitions that any young manager does: “We strive for personal development and players who do well get requests all the time,” Solskjaer said. “I was asked by a friend whether I was interested in speaking with Villa. I called Kjell Inge straight away. We agreed that I could speak to them on Wednesday - that it was okay. Roberto Martinez has been given permission to speak to Liverpool, who are a fantastic big club and you know he has ambitions - not a problem.”
Having spurned the chance to join Villa in favour of staying with Molde, Solskjaer will now prepare himself for a Champions League second round qualifier - an amazing prospect when you consider the position the club were in when he joined. Far from minnows, they were also not title contenders.
As for his future, Solskjaer was often a substitute for Manchester United and you sense the striker is aware that much like in his playing days, his time to enter the big stage will arrive eventually.