Posted by: Christian Wulff | May 19, 2012

Solskjær stands his ground

In the summer of 1998, Ole Gunnar Solskjær was heavily linked with Tottenham Hotspurs. Having experienced a storming first season at Manchester United after signing from Molde two years earlier, he had only 22 premier league appearances and six goals in the following campaign. While Norway experienced an extraordinarily World Cup in France, beating Brazil before narrowly losing to Italia in the second round, Solskjær were perhaps the only disappointment. The contribution of Norway’s highest profile had been underwhelming, his usually deadly finishing skill deserting him against  Morocco in the opening match when he blasted a great chance over the bar.

Early indications were that Solskjær would leave. United had brought in Teddy Sheringham the previous season, and this summer Dwight Yorke was on his way from Aston Villa. At Tottenham Solskjær could expect to be a regular starter, a chance to cement his place as a top Premier League striker instead of being a back-up at United. When the deal fell through, many in Norway saw it as a flaw in Solskjær’s character. He was afraid of the challenge, not confident enough in his ability to carry a team, to be a leading star. Instead he chose to stay within his comfort zone on the Manchester United bench, happy to settle for being a useful part in Alex Ferguson’s squad.

Nine months later Solskjær had scored one of the most famous goals in modern football in the Champions League final, his four goals in 12 minutes after coming on as a substitute against Nottingham Forest being another individual highlight in the season that also saw him become a Treble winner and a United legend.

Looking back there is no doubt that Solskjær made the right decision by staying at United.  But it also spoke volumes about his real character and personality. While it had been assumed that he weren’t up for the challenge, Solskjær had instead shown a different kind of confidence in accepting his place within United; convinced his contribution and value to a team didn’t necessarily lie in being the main man and the star of the show. Perhaps there was also an internal acknowledgment that he was not the  complete striker, not suited to be the natural leader or talisman of a club. Knowing your own limitations, having the humility and acumen to realise how to achieve your full potential and not giving in to external opinions and a misplaced sense of entitlement. Rather than displaying a sense of weakness, Solskjær decision to turn down Tottenham instead showed his real strength and confidence.

That is the context that the transfer saga engulfing Ole Gunnar Solskjær 13 years later should be viewed through. Now the manager of Molde, he had taken three years of experience gained from leading  Manchester United’s reserve team and two coaches – Mark Dempsey and Richard Hartis – back to Norway. In his first season, he confidently guided Molde to their first ever league championship. Solskjær’s return and also a substantial part Molde’s budget had been financed by Kjell Inge Røkke, one of Norway’s richest men, through his ownership of  the Aker group of companies.

Røkke was born and raised in Molde and has provided financial backing for his home-town club for almost 20 years. In an interview with Romsdal Budstikke in 2010 he claimed to have supported the club with two million kroner (ca. £220.000) every month throughout this time, and his investment also includes the cost of building Molde’s new ground – called Aker Stadium – in 1998. Røkke and Solskjær go way back, the multi-millionaire businessman playing his part in the 1996 transfer to United, making his private jet available so that the 23-year old striker could fly to  Manchester to conclude the deal.

According to Solskjær, he had phoned Røkke almost immediately on Monday this week when he heard Aston Villa wanted to talk to him as a possible replacement to Alex McLeish. On Wednesday he got the blessing of the club’s management to speak to Villa, apparently with a condition that it is done ‘discreetly’. Solskjær’s talk with Aston Villa is planned for Friday, the club sending a private plane that would help him save time in terms of preparing for Molde’s league game on Sunday. Then, during Solskjær’s visit to Birmingham on Friday, the wholes story takes a lot more serious twist when Kjell Inge Røkke releases an astonishing press release through Aker, which is worth quoting fully:

‘…Ole Gunnar Solskjær has never hidden the fact that he one day would like to return to England. Aker still finds it surprising that he skipped Friday’s training session and travelled to England in full public view for unofficial talks with Aston Villa just before three important league games in just over a week.

On the 17th May Solskjær received three answers from Aker through the club’s managing director.

  1. Are you considering leaving during this Tippeligaen campaign?
  2. Will you bring part of your back-room staff with you?
  3. Will you – over time – bring part of Molde’s playing squad with you?

These questions were not answered by Solskjær before he left for England.

-This is seen as incompatible with the Molde-community that we both are a part of, says Kjell Inge Røkke, Akers ASA’s chairman and majority owner…’

Aker also stated that they would offer their 100% share ownership of Molde Fotball AS (the company that currently run Molde Football Club) to the club for 1 krone (11 pence) and that they will be allowed to rent Aker Stadium for the same sum every year season. This would in practice mean that after the season, Aker withdraws all their continuous investment in Molde, which is worth around 2 million pounds a year, or about a quarter of the club’s operating budget.

In other words, some very expensive toys being thrown out of a very expensive pram.

While we don’t know all the details of Solskjær’s response to Aker’s questions he was obvious not cowed by Røkke’s reaction, and left for the talks with Aston Villa. When learning of Aker and Røkke’s reaction on is return to Norway on Friday night, he showed a professionalism and calmness that was in stark contrast to the corporate hissy fit thrown by Aker and the amateurish behaviour of the Molde management, who had first approved Solskjær’s trip but were now hiding behind their request that it was ‘done discreetly’.

Solskjær paid tribute to Røkke’s ‘fantastic’ contribution to Molde, saying he had made Molde what it was today. But he also said that Aker’s decision to divest their interest in Molde gave the club a new challenge it was ready to handle, that it would continue to operate in a sensible matter and that they could still achieve good results and success.

It was a master class in communications; humble, yet principled and steadfast. Molde management’s, the editorial of the local paper Romsdal Budstikke and even the leader of the official supporters club  all expressed criticism of Solskjær while saluting Røkke’s continuous support of the club. While all those three parties stand to lose a lot more from Røkke’s withdrawal than Solskjær ever will, it was an embarrassing kowtowing to the whims of millionaire, annoyed that his wishes where not followed.

It will also show Solskjær how much he is really valued at Molde. He is a world-wide brand that brings attention and revenue to the club. The behaviour of the Røkke and the club have made Solskjær’s departure more, not less likely. While, as his old boss and mentor Ferguson, he knows how to play the company man when needed, he will also surely not tolerate the way he has been treated by so many of Molde’s stakeholders. As he showed 13 years ago, he has the character, self-awareness and quiet confidence to make such big decisions solely on his own terms.

At the press conference in Molde this morning, Solskjær again thread the fine diplomatic line expertly. He said he hadn’t got a offer from Aston Villa and that they would probably be speaking to other candidates, but that we would consider a job offer if he received one. While saying that he was not actively in the market for a new job and that he was looking to the future with Molde, it was clear that he did not rule out leaving. Part of the English press seemed to have just thrown all those quotes into Google translate and come out with a ‘Solskjær snubs Villa’ headline, which is just not a true reflection of what was said, or indeed the reality of the situation.

If anything, Solskjær is now probably closer to accepting an offer from Aston Villa should it materialise. If he turned it down it would be on his own terms, not only for the opportunity to defend the title and take Molde into the Champions Leaguegroup stages, but also out of consideration to his family. The surly reaction of a multi-millionaire investor is highly unlikely to sway him one way or another.

That much was evident in today’s press conference. Talking about all the commotion caused and the consequences of his decision to talk to Villa he said: ‘I wish that we didn’t have to stand here today talking about it. But even now when I see the outcome of all this, I would still have done the same thing again. I owe that to myself, my family and my ambitions’.

*Update

Late Saturday night Molde took their incompetence one step further by disclousing what  Solskjær had answered to the three questions posed by Aker through the club’s management. During this morning’s press conference, neither Solskjær or Molde wanted to say anything about what been discussed, but in an interview with the local paper, Romsdal Budstikke, Molde’s managing director Tarje Nordstrand Jacosen gave his version of what Solskjær had said:

Are you considering leaving during this Tippeligaen campaign?

‘That’s a hypothetical question, but if I get an offer I’ll go as soon as possible, probably after the game against Hønefoss’

Will you bring part of your back-room staff with you?

‘I would want to bring Mark (Dempsey) and Richard (Hartis).’

Will you – over time – bring part of Molde’s playing squad with you?

‘Yes, I would give an offer to Magnus Wolff Eikrem’.

Apparently these answers upset Kjell Inge Røkke so much that he is now pulling out all his company’s investment in Molde from 2013.

Solskjær himself was last night far from happy that the Jacobsen had gone public with the discussions. He said to Romsdal Budstikke:

‘It’s sad that a conversation between myself  and a Molde director has come out. This shows what kind of game this is…it’s not a 100% correct version of my answers, but I can confirm the main points. Today we had some good discussions internally in the club where we agreed to look forward. And this comes out. Nobody in the club benefits from this’.

‘I have a team around me that it would be only natural to bring with me. But that’s not the situation now. I haven’t received any offer from Aston Villa. Now I just want to look forward with Molde’.

So there you have it. There seems to be a collective meltdown within the Molde management, who should now really stop digging from far down in their hole. Their relationship with Solskjær was already strained, but with this unnecessarily briefing to the local press it might very well be fractured beyond repair. As for Ole Gunnar Solskjær, he is unlikely to walk away from Molde but Jacobsen now looks to have ensured that he’ll certainly move as soon as a suitable club does make an offer.

The Romsdal Budstikke article can be found here

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