Continental capers from Scandinavia to the Med
In the same week Sir Alex Ferguson celebrated his 25th year at Manchester United, one of his former players was revelling in his first managerial success. And while Ferguson has to wait three years to get his first trophy, his latest protegé has gained silverware at the first attempt.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær has had something of a fairy-tale start to life in club management back at Molde FK, the club he left to join the Red Devils in 1996. His return coincided with their centenary year and, thanks to Solskjær, their first ever league title.
To take on the challenge, Solskjær had left the relative comfort of overseeing United’s reserve team, but shrewdly he didn't leave Manchester alone. His backroom staff is complimented with friends and former United colleagues Mark Dempsey and Richard Hartis.
A former United youth team player who made two appearances under Ron Atkinson, Dempsey spent nearly a decade under Ferguson coaching the 13- to 16-year-olds. Accordingly, he has split his duties between being Molde's first-team coach and training local youngsters as part of a bank-sponsored scheme.
"He’s a fantastic, teaching coach," Solskjær told the press conference at which all three coaching staff were first presented. "I know the Norwegian players will love his approach to training."
Hartis joined United early in the last decade as director of goalkeeping development, growing close to Solskjær after the Norwegian became reserve-team coach in summer 2008.
"I’ve worked with Richard for three years as a coach and we’ve got a good working relationship," said Solskjær. "I think his methods are very good and he’ll bring something to the keepers and the back four in relation to the keeper."
On the pitch, typifying this mix of Manchester and Molde, is Magnus Wolff Eikrem. Born locally in 1990, he was picked up by Molde after impressing at one of Solskjær's soccer schools despite being underage; he was then signed by United on his 16th birthday, impressed in the reserves and made the first-team bench for a League Cup game, but was brought back to Molde by Solskjær in January 2011 and has played a major part in the club's success.
The son of former Molde player Knut Hallvard Eikrem, Magnus is officially deemed a foreign player, having spent half a decade growing up in Manchester. The fulcrum of Solskjær’s midfield, he has displayed an elegant style which is likely to see him interest bigger European clubs in the near future.
As for the manager, Solskjær employs a very direct counter-attack with full-backs encouraged to go forward – as epitomised by American defender Joshua Gatt. Recently announced as the league’s fastest player, the Michigan-born winger/full-back utilised his blistering pace to great effect across the season.
Gaffer: "Go, Gatta" – Solskjaer sends on speedy sub
Despite cantering to the title, Molde didn't go through the season without problems. An opening-day defeat at newly-promoted Sarpsborg 08, followed by two draws at Tromso and Viking FK, was not quite the start some had expected. With Sir Alex Ferguson having often stated how clever and analytical his former striker was from the bench, many fans had expected the team to hit the ground running.
In the fourth game of the season, Solskjær secured his first win, narrowly conquering Stabaek IF 3-2 at home. That was followed by an impressive 3-1 win away at Brann in which Solskjær showed that tactical nous. Although often preferring Molde to play 4-3-3, he switched to a sturdier 4-2-3-1 for the trip to Brann.
Reverting back to his favoured 4-3-3 for a game against Rosenborg he suffered his second defeat of the season. Although Solskjær suffered setbacks throughout the campaign (including his leading goalscorer Pape Paté Diouf leaving for FC Copenhagen midway through the season), credit must go to the Norwegian for his team’s ability to respond to defeat. It's noteworthy that they never lost back-to-back matches.
Much has been made of the decline of Norwegian football. And the country’s most successful side Rosenborg may have suffered early-on in the season following the departure of key players but the Tippaligen remains a competitive league.
Off the pitch much of the news centered around the healthy financial backing Molde have gained, which allows them top-class facilities. Although many may have expected it, Solskjær has not looked to invest heavily in the transfer market.
By no means minnows, Molde were expected to place in the upper reaches of Norway’s league without ever being considered title favourites. They held on for the title despite a late surge from Rosenborg and solid challenges from Valerenga and rather surprisingly, the financially depleted Brann – whom many had tipped to implode this season.
OGS back at OT for SAF's 25th last week
While it may only be seen as a stepping stone for Solskjær, by Norwegian standards his victory is a major achievement, especially considering how one-sided Norway’s league has been for the past two decades: Rosenborg won the Tippeligaen every year from 1992 to 2004 and three out of the six seasons thereafter.
With Ferguson seemingly no closer to retirement, Solskjær is still a fair distance away from the job that a few of Manchester United’s fans have begun tipping him for. But his achievements on the east coast of Norway have gone someway to justifying the hype surrounding the ‘baby faced assassin’.
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