Each week on Football FanCast we will be celebrating the special breed who lit up the Premier League with their unique brand of utter genius. This time out we pay homage to the Scandinavian king of the cameos.
Is there a more back-handed compliment than that of ‘supersub’? Certainly in the wrong hands it can be deemed a slight and really how can it not be? “See that lady there. She’s a fantastic mistress.” An unrefined analogy but you get the point.
With Ole Gunnar Solskjaer however there were never any negative connotations in the lauding of his immense contribution from the bench. He turned it entirely into a positive and this is illustrative of not only how and why he made such a huge impact on the Premier League but of his character too.
Of his 366 appearances in red 150 of them came as a substitute and while his team-mates in the dugout kept warm and bantered about this and that, the Norwegian striker would carefully study the opposition centre-backs; assessing their movement and weaknesses: a baby-faced assassin scoping out his target. His assiduity to detail initially astounded Sir Alex Ferguson and it took an awful lot to astound Fergie.
Then the call would come and the board would be raised and there would be a late hero. From Solskjaer’s 126 goals for Manchester United – a prolificacy that is comparable to all but the Shearers and Rooneys – 33 of them were put away in the final 15 minutes of games. That’s just over a quarter. That’s incredible.
A caveat before moving on. Of course the arch-poacher was significantly more than a king of the cameos. He was a formidable forward talent who won six Premier League titles and a Champions League. He was an expert exponent of leading the line and possessed rare pedigree in real-time dissection of a football match (a skillset that has seen him move into coaching and this week begin a temporary tenure at Old Trafford). He was a hundred times more than a mere ‘supersub’.
And yet, coming on fresh but cold into a game and turning it on its head is a special talent in itself, and Solskjaer was so good at it that he made it a heightened art-form. That’s what is being celebrated here. That was his slice of genius.
It is February 6th 1999 and a title-chasing United are at the City Ground, effortlessly but ruthlessly dismantling a relegation-haunted Nottingham Forest. The result has already been concluded: two goals apiece by Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke have seen to that and on the forty-first anniversary to the day of the Munich air disaster the visitors were on course to post an impressive haul.
In hindsight it probably wasn’t fair to bring on Solskjaer with eighteen minutes remaining. In his three years at the club – arriving for a bargain fee of £1.5m from Molde – the curly-haired striker had already accrued a peerless reputation for supersubbing. He came on – usually for Yorke but on occasion for Cole – and he scored. That’s what he did. Sometimes they would be vital last-gasp winners. Sometimes not.
Here the Forest players were ‘gone’ and clearly wanted the final whistle. They had been thoroughly outclassed and another chance for precious points had been taken from them. You can imagine how they felt looking across and seeing the energetic Scandinavian bouncing on the spot by the touchline. His sniper sights set.
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With ten minutes left on the clock he converted a low, drilled cross by Gary Neville. For the next few minutes United played keep-ball. There were now two minutes to go and in the game’s final flourishes Solskjaer was just getting warmed up as proven by his artful beating of an offside trap. It took him two attempts to beat Dave Beasant but beat him he did.
Back to the pretty possession with Forest pulled out of shape and lulled into following the ball not the player. On the edge of the box Solskjaer loitered and was duly found by Paul Scholes. One touch to set his sights and one ferocious volley later and it was that rarest of beautiful things – a substitute hat-trick.
He wasn’t finished yet though. In the third minute of stoppage time and 7-1 up, United were not finished yet.
A scuffed cross by Nicky Butt landed at the feet of Scholes who uncharacteristically fluffed his lines. But the ball ran loose in the penalty area with a predator lurking. Throughout an eleven year spell in the north of England we saw 126 times what happened in that scenario.
A year later he would go on to make an altogether more famous and infinitely more important contribution from the bench. Four goals in thirteen minutes though: that’s super indeed.