Blackburn, Newcastle, Forest, Bayern
Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle United, Nottingham Forest, Bayern Munich. Four teams which are always linked in my mind with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
The Norwegian hero, the Baby-faced Assasin ended his magnificent Manchester United career today and my thoughts went back to the most memorable moments of his United career. And there are teams which pop up more often than others when I think about him.
Blackburn Rovers. Ewood Park, August 25, 1996. A young, unknown Norwegian striker comes in as a sub and six minutes later he scores a goal. And then he goes on to impress throughout the season, culminating in a title success and a European Cup semi-final. Though Sir Alex had bought players like Jordi Cruyff, Karel Poborsky or Raymond van der Gouw, it was Ole who was deemed to be the only successful foreign signing of the summer.
Blackburn Rovers. Old Trafford, March 31, 2007. A veteran cult hero, by the name of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer comes on as a sub and seals a fine comeback triumph with a late goal - a real poacher's effort, turning in Rooney's flick. His last goal in United colours, scored against Blackburn just like the first was.
Newcastle United. April 1998. Rob Lee races clear in a desperately important game but Solskjaer, moments earlier being busy in front of the other goal, sprints back and brings down Lee. Inevitable red card but a standing ovation for an act of self-sacrifice. Unfortunately, it did little as United have lost the title race and could not defeat Newcastle. But he at least saved a point for us with his foul.
Newcastle United. April 2003, St. James' Park. That game is now mainly remember because of Paul Scholes' wonderful hat-trick - but had it not been for Giggs' magnificent, right-footed (!!!) cross and Solskjer's expert, cool finish, we might have lost that game and the 2003 title. And he played as a right-winger, as he did many times in that season.
Newcastle United. Last season, Old Trafford. Ole collects the plaudits with two goals - one of them is a poacher's goal, the other is so outrageously fortunate that I must smile as michievously as he does. I loved that goal, it was simply fantastic.
Nottingham Forest. January 1999. Come on, you all remember that. Steve McClaren shoudl have picked up a few tips from that game, for that was his first as United's assistant manager. He was treated to an exhibition: United were 4-1 up 12 minutes from time and it seemed the remaining time will be spent at ease. Ole, meanwhile had other ideas, came on as a sub, and promptly annihilated Forest with four goals, each expertly taken. Not the most important but certainly the most spectacular contribution to our success.
Of course, our 20legend was not exactly the friend of teams from Liverpool, mind you. Questions were asked when we returned from our club world championship game with Palmeiras, having won 1-0, as pundits doubted if we could cope with the jet-lag. Well, the following Saturday Everton took the lead at Old Trafford and they could rub their hands - but Ole came, scored four goals, United won 5-1 and went on to win the title by an 18-point margin.
And the reds of Stanley Park could curse him, too, for example in 1999. Late goals were aplenty in that historical season but the one that turned our cup-tie against Liverpool on its head must rank pretty high on an all-time list of vital Manchester united late goals. Liverpool led from the third minute, United hit the post, missed countless chances and it seemed they just can't put the ball into the net. Dwight Yorke had other ideas, he put the ball into the net far too often in that season to be neglected and he scored an equaliser in the 89th minute. Then the Norwegian hero, two minutes later, slotted home the winning goal - such a turnaround, we believed, could happen once in a hundred years.
But of course we all know that it happened a few months later. The blogger of the official site is right in saying that it's probably unjust that Ole's Bayern winner threatens to overshadow his whole career. But you just can't help that. Bayern Munich, May 26, 1999. It was without question the most dramatic finish to a Champions League final and I remember almost weeping with relief when Teddy poked the ball into the net...
And I, just like the stadium and the various pubs, almost literally exploded when Ole turned in that winner and slid upon his knees out to the cavorting supporters.
But I daresay he did not win over us with that. He was one of my favourites already at the time of the final, our super-sub, the guy who could change the game in an instant (and such a player would be most welcome in these days). He SMILED. Always. It always seemed to me (and it's possible that I'm too sentimental and biased) that Ole is simply grateful that he can play at United, that he is loved by the fans. He did not need that Bayern winner to become a hero, and you must see that if you read what I have written so far. And these were only the most memorable moments of his United career - in fact, the most memorable FOR ME.
Others might have different pictures to recall when they hear his name but I'm sure every United faithful will have no trouble to picture his celebrations in front of Stretford End. His tally of 126 goals is remarkable from a player who is known for being the substitute from hell. He once said that his greatest regret is that he could not pay back all the faith Fergie had in him by converting a great chance against Leverkusen in the 2002 Champions' League semi-final. Had he scored, we would have played a Champions League final in Glasgow, at Hampden - and that would have been of great inportance to our Govan-born manager.
Well, I think SAF would be ready to forget that particular disappointment, as he received plenty from his striker, whom he signed for Ł1.5m from Molde. And we, supporters, will forget that miss pretty quickly, I think. There are always differing opinions about players among the fans but I haven't met with one United fan yet who did not revere Ole. When I will meet one, I will know we are in great trouble but so far I'm not worried about it.