The Big Interview: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
His last-gasp goal won the European Cup, but then injury nearly halted his career. Now he's on the way back, hears Jonathan Northcroft
Two is company, three’s a crowd. The sun shone, the waves lapped and the Caribbean was just like in the brochures. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Silje, his long-time partner, had flown there last summer to marry. On honeymoon you want to be left alone, but as the couple walked along the warm sands an unwanted third party was tagging along. Only Solksjaer knew it was there: small word, big presence — pain.
The Manchester United player is too decent a man and loving a husband to have let pain mar his and Silje’s time together, but pain cannot be wished away. So he dealt with it himself. “I thought about it lying on the beach. By the pool. It played on my mind all the time,” he says. “Even going for a walk, you’d get a little twinge. There was always a reminder. It played on my mind: ‘Is it going away? Is it going to go away? Will it ever go away?’ It didn’t spoil the honeymoon. But it was always there.”
How did Solskjaer get to meet his unwanted companion? He remembers the moment precisely. It was a Wednesday night, August 27, 2003, and the game was nearly over. He was playing for Manchester United against Wolverhampton at Old Trafford. “Long pass from Scholesy to the right wing,” he recalls. “The left-back came towards me, I trapped the ball and went to turn inside him. I put my knee down hard . . . and it just happened. I thought, ‘Something’s gone here’, yet it was difficult to believe because it was such a normal situation. How many steps like that do you take on a football field?” Normally an athlete’s thigh muscles help hold the knee in place and absorb stresses, but near the end of the 90 minutes, Solskjaer’s were too fatigued, perhaps, to do the job. Maybe his foot went down at just the wrong angle.
Under pressure, the articular cartilage in his right knee blew a hole, leaving the joint without cushioning and bone to grind against bone. Assuming that he had merely jarred the knee, Solksjaer travelled to Bosnia to play for Norway. “At half-time I couldn’t walk down the dressing-room stairs,” he remembers. He had an operation and came back six months later, but as soon as he played, it was there. The pain. “To shoot with my left foot, I’ve got to stamp my right one down hard, and I couldn’t do it. In the back of my knee it would be like a knife in the back of my leg.”
The failed comeback, that was the low. “The last three months of last season were definitely the worst time. I was playing again but didn’t feel right. I was in pain all the time. Even just walking down the street, it was sore. I was kidding myself I was going to be okay, and deep down I knew it.
“I remember this time a year ago, around the time of the FA Cup final. I was very depressed seeing the lads do things in training I knew I couldn’t do. I’m one of those players who needs to train 100% to be able to play, and mentally and physically I was nowhere near.”
The dread he felt on that Caribbean beach returned on his first day of pre-season training last August. He broke down and pulled out of United’s US tour. The headlines read like death notices: “Time up for Ole”, “Docs say Ole career is over”, “Solkjaer facing retirement”. “Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s playing career was effectively over last night . . . ” one report began.
HE CANNOT recall what it is like to run without pain. His injury was 21 months ago, but the memory of the old, pain-free days seems as distant to him as Barcelona, May 26, 1999. Perhaps somebody from Liverpool will supplant him this week, but for at least a few more days Solskjaer will retain the status he established there: the last man to score the winning goal for an English team in the European Cup final. You know what happened: David Beckham corner, Teddy Sheringham near-post header, and out juts Soslkjaer’s leg to divert the ball past Oliver Kahn. Manchester United 2, Bayern Munich 1. Immortality. People have been knighted for less, yet The Goal is not something Solskjaer likes dwelling on.
“I did a television interview recently and the guy kept talking about Barcelona, blah, blah, blah, and I didn’t know what to say.”
Why? “Because it’s in the history books now. I played 10 minutes in that game. That’s all.”
He is not being falsely modest. Polite when you meet him, warm and wry once relaxed, there are layers to Solskjaer, but here is the nub of his outlook, the dominant trait of his personality. He is a clear, unsentimental thinker. “Why would you want to live on past glories? You can only look forward,” he says.
Looking forward means looking towards the day when there is no pain. He has a vision. He is at Old Trafford, it is late August, perhaps even early September, and he is playing for Manchester United again. Out there, in the soft sunshine of summer’s ending, he is once more twisting, turning, jumping, kicking and running — running free. Pain free. It is 12 months to the day, today, since he last appeared for Manchester United, in the 2004 FA Cup final versus Millwall, and much longer since he scored a goal — against Panathinaikos in September 2003 — but he regards dwelling on such things as wasted energy. He has fought injury for two seasons and had two major operations. We talk for two hours. Not once is there self-pity.
“I’ll sometimes bump into a non- Manchester United supporter,” he muses, “and they’ll say, ‘Are you still playing? Are you in the lower leagues?’ One day you’re a hero and the next you’re in the history books. That’s just the way football is.”
He talks about his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, who over this long, hard period has demonstrated fatherly understanding. He speaks fondly about one colleague in particular, Roy Keane, who has been a friend and brother. His biggest debt is to Silje and their two children, Karna, his two-year-old daughter, and Noah, his four-year-old son. “The positive thing about not playing has been spending more time with them,” he says, smiling.
“When I was younger my father (a Greco-Roman wrestling champion) was a role model for me, and maybe what motivates me now is that my son almost doesn’t remember me playing football. It would be . . . class . . . to play again in front of my little boy, and score.”
He also owes the fans. At Old Trafford for the past season, draped from the top tier of the Stretford End, is a banner: “20LEGEND.” Hanging alongside “The Flowers of Manchester” tribute to those who died in Munich, it is the only flag in the stadium that honours a single player. “Seeing my banner and hearing the supporters sing my song all the time makes me humble. It makes you proud and humble at the same time,” Solksjaer says. “It means people like what I’ve done for the club, and I can promise them I’ll be exactly the same when I come back. I’ll give 100%. You’ve got to give 100% for this club.
“The supporters have been so fantastic, it’s almost embarrassing. You know how painters become more famous when they die? Maybe players become better known when they stop playing — you retire and they say, ‘He was a good player’. In a way, I feel like that when I see the banner.”
A funny thought creases the corners of Solskjaer’s eyes. “You know, I don’t want people to only have memories of me. I want to come back and show them. Hopefully they won’t be disappointed — ‘Is this what we’ve been singing about? Him? Is this it?’ ” Grinning, he shakes his head: “I think I’ll be okay.”
HE KNOWS pain is packing its bags. Why isn’t it staying? On August 23 last year he travelled to Sweden. At the Gothenburg Medical Centre Dr Lars Peterson, perhaps Europe’s foremost knee specialist, performed an operation. Although it had been a year since his injury, the hole in the articular cartilage of Solskjaer’s right knee was still there. The procedure to repair it was this: Peterson opened the joint, removed dead material, smoothed the area and made two implants. The first was a piece of membrane garnered from Solskjaer’s shinbone and stitched into place, like a patch on a pair of trousers, across the hole. The second was a liquid solution injected under the patch. It contained knee cartilage cells — between 5 million and 10 million of them — again harvested from Solskjaer and incubated in a laboratory, having been removed a few weeks previously. From these, new cartilage could be grown. Autologous chondrocyte implantation is nowadays popular in cartilage injury treatment, but even five or six years ago the technique was still evolving and developments came too late for players such as Earl Barrett, the former England defender, who retired aged 31 with a similar injury to Solskjaer’s in 1999.
Coating the inside of the patella and the ends of the shin and thigh bones, articular knee cartilage is only a few millimetres thick, yet has to absorb huge forces. The tension withstood each time an average person takes a step is the same exerted on the fingertips of a 21st man hanging off a window ledge. At the same time, articular knee cartilage has to facilitate movement in the joint. Its friction co-efficient is lower than ice sliding across ice.
Damage is so difficult to repair because cartilage gets little blood supply and there is no natural healing: hence the cells in the lab. Solskjaer has photographs of his operation stored on his laptop. “When I first saw them I was amazed, because the inside of the knee looks almost the total opposite to what you expect, but it helped me visualise what was going on and my rehabilitation,” he says.
He makes a circle with thumb and forefinger. “Say this is the hole. At the start the cartilage was just liquid, then it was soft and squashy and now it’s more like hard cheese. In a few months it’ll be proper stuff. The pain is getting less and less.
“I saw the surgeon the other day and he was very pleased with my progress. He spoke to me with a big smile. He said I was ahead of schedule, but 12 months, realistically, is still the quickest I can possibly make it back. So we’re talking about the end of August — but it could be September or October. The important thing is not to set an exact date. If you do, you’ll push yourself and do daft things. I have to let the knee be my guide. When I play for United again, I’m going to be not 95% but 100%.
“When you go down in a tunnel, at first you’re leaving the light behind you, but then, though there’s still dark in front of you and you have to go uphill to reach it, you can see the light again. That’s how I feel. It’s put things in perspective that I have friends, close friends, who’ve suffered things in life that are really bad — not a little problem like this.”
PAIN is still with him, but the pain he feels now is “different” and “better”. It is the natural throb of his new cartilage as he works to make it stronger. For 12 weeks after the operation he had to stay on his back with his knee strapped to a brace-like contraption called a CPM (continuous passive motion) machine that stimulates the joint through controlled movement. He would lie, moving his knee back and forth, for eight hours at a time. “It sounded like a printer and my wife was going crazy with the noise,” he says, adding sheepishly: “I even wore it in bed a few nights.”
Now he is on the way back to full training. His current routine: “In, swim for half an hour. The bike — I try to make sure I’m at least an hour on the bike. Weights — I do light ones for my upper body. I’ve started jogging and just started doing some ‘fast feet’ exercises. I can juggle a ball and shoot without pain.”
In the Carrington gym he is always bright and sunny, reasoning that he can still contribute to the squad by being a positive presence around the place. Alan Smith and Louis Saha both said working alongside Solskjaer when they were injured earlier in the season helped keep their spirits up. As we speak, on a sofa inside the main training-ground building, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ryan Giggs walk past and stop for banter. Rod Thornley, the United masseur, appears , to show off his new baby.
“It’s like a family here. I’ve been here nine years and can’t say a bad word about it,” Solskjaer says. “The club have been fantastic. Before the operation there were text messages from Keano and phone calls from (chief executive) David Gill and the gaffer. He said, ‘You just make sure you’re ready, whatever it takes, and then come back’.”
Ferguson’s caring side is not always projected in the media. “Yeah. What I see in the press is a totally different picture to the one I’ve formed of the man over nine years. If you give him 100%, he’ll give you 100% back. And he’s totally honest with you, all the time. It’s important not to hide things from your players. I’ve knocked on his door so many times with a problem. With the knee, he knows he’s not a doctor, so he just listened, said he would support me and left it for me, Rob Swires (the United physio) and the surgeon to sort it out.”
Ferguson invited Solskjaer to travel with the squad to Italy in March for the second leg of Manchester United’s Champions League tie against AC Milan. Knocked out, everyone was raving about the Italian team on the flight home. “The lads were sitting their shaking their heads. Milan were just that little bit better than you normally play against. They had no bad touches on the ball.”
What has it been like, sitting powerless and watching his team fall short, not only in Europe but in the Premiership this season? “You look at things differently. I can see all the players, how they act, who’s concerned and who’s not concerned about different things. Who’s always doing their best . . . ” And who is not, is the implication.
“When you’re playing you don’t always see these things. It’s very, very interesting.”
He agrees with Ferguson that Manchester United are in transition and says: “We’ve been unlucky in that we’ve been on the receiving end of two unbelievable seasons — Arsenal last year and Chelsea this time. So we’ve got it all to do.” He is too canny to come right out and say it, but it is clear Solskjaer thinks a little more pride and effort is required from some in the team. “We can win the league next year if everybody pulls in the same direction, thinks about Man United, sticks together. We’re a new team but we’ve all got to know each other now, so fight for your teammate. Give 100%. Commitment’s what’s needed. Everyone can look at themselves in the mirror and . . . a player knows if they’ve been 100% committed. If some, after this season, end up saying, ‘Well, I ’ve not been committed’, that’s something they can learn from. If you are not 100% committed, you’ll end up with f***-all — sorry, that’s a bad word for The Sunday Times. But it’s two years on the trot where we haven’t won the league. Next year we have to make it ours. The fans will be desperate for it to happen. Next year I’m going to show my bouncebackability as a player, and the team will too. Bouncebackability — that shows I’ve been watching too much telly since I’ve been out.”
Solkjaer has never played with Wayne Rooney and he is desperate to do so. “He’s Noah’s favourite now — isn’t that hard for a dad to take? I’ve played with some great players here, Cantona, Scholesy, Keano. Now I want to play with Wayne.”
He picks out another youngster as key to United’s future, perhaps a surprising name. “Darren Fletcher. When he played his first game for the reserves, I played with him. He was 16 and it was against Everton. It’s great to see him come through and be as good as he now is. He’s the most consistent of the younger players. He doesn’t capture the headlines, he’s got absolutely no personal agendas, he’s not, like, ‘Look, here I am!’ when he’s on the pitch. He just goes out and performs for the team.”
SOLSKJAER always performed for the team. Before his injury he allowed Ferguson to convert him to a right-sided role and he basked in it. Licensed to utilise his acute reading of the game and roam into the spaces he spotted infield, he was still getting into the box to score goals and create chances. Meanwhile, he was a revelation when asked to perform the more orthodox winger’s tasks of crossing and defending against the opposition full-back. How much better would Ferguson’s 4-2-3-1 of this season have been had Solskjaer been one of the three supporting the main striker? Before the injury, it could be said that he was playing his best-ever football. “Exactly. And that’s something I don’t want to think too much about. I’d just broken into the team, in that I’d had my first season as a first-choice player. The new position took my career away from that super-sub thing. I was really happy because it was a free role. You’re facing goal and you don’t have a defender up your backside out there — I felt very confident. If I can get my fitness back to 100%, I can be that same player. Actually, I can be a better one.”
He says this because he believes that before the injury he was still developing as a player. He is 32, but look at the mileage. He is veteran of fewer than 150 Premiership starts. “I only became a professional when I was 22. I’ve played for 10 years but been out for almost two. I was on the bench for all those seasons. I should still be fresh. In footballing terms I’m still young. If I hadn’t got injured, I’d have retired when my contract ends in 2006, but now I’d happily extend it and there wouldn’t be any personal agendas like, ‘I need this money, I want you to sign these players’. I want to coach some day, but in an ideal world I’d keep playing until they dragged me out of the door here. When you’re out you get so much motivation back. I’d been at the stage of thinking things like, ‘My international career — should I quit?’ Now I want to play at the highest level for as long as possible.
I’m missing my football. It’s all inside me waiting to come out. I can feel it so much that I don’t even want to think about the first game. Rome wasn’t built in a day. That’s what Roy always says. He’s been a really good friend to me.”
So off Solskjaer goes, off home to Silje, Karna and Noah, off to eat a sensible meal, go early to bed and be 100% ready for Carrington the next day. As his head touches the pillow he will conjure a thought: it is August and he is playing again for Manchester United and there is no pain.
I couldn't possibly read all that but what a great player he is. United have sorely missed him. If he comes back though I can't see him being as good as he was. Another breakdown and surely he's a crock.
2OLEgend. Just knew he was going to be a star once he scored against Blackburn on his debut. He probably would'nt have got the chance in the 1st team had Shearer joined United instead of Newcastle but the say every cloud has a silver lining. Dont think Shearer would have had a banner on the Stretford End all to himself.
""..so I said 'come on have a go at me,' that's it. If their players want to intimidate people then why not look at other players. They think Gary Neville is an easy target and I'm not having it."