New Cardiff manager shows he can stills turn a game from the sidelines with his tactical switch in the FA Cup.
The hair around the temples is flecked with grey nowadays but the little grey cells are still working strongly. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is still influencing games from the bench, still involved in scoring substitutions, still spreading sunshine when skies are grey.
Trailing 1-0 to Newcastle United here at St James’ Park on Saturday, Cardiff City’s new manager drew on his signature move from his own playing days at Manchester United and unleashed rescue acts from his reserves.
First Craig Noone, and then Fraizer Campbell scored, making it 2-1 and sending Cardiff into the fourth round of the FA Cup, and leaving the 300 away fans singing about going to Wembley.
Solskjaer knows the way, having won the FA Cup at Wembley in 1999 (as well as in Cardiff at the Millennium in 2004). His last experience of English football had been an eight-minute shift in extra time of the 2007 FA Cup final, losing 1-0 to Chelsea. He knows the Cup well, he knows the art of substitutions very well. The constant deputy promises to be a very good sheriff.
Events at St James’ should really have been little surprise. Substitutions have always shaped Solskjaer’s career. His debut for Manchester United was from the bench, equalising against Blackburn Rovers in 1996. Joining the action after 71 minutes at the City Ground in 1999, Solskjaer scored four.
Most famously, the Norwegian rose from the ranks of replacements in the 1999 Champions League final, stretching out a leg and having Clive Tyldesley intoning “and Solskjaer has won it for United”, a commentary that featured as the ring-tone of one senior member of the Old Trafford hierarchy.
The following year, Solskjaer gave United victory against Bordeaux with only his second touch - seven seconds after coming on. He’s the master of the sudden impact.
As ever, his game-changing at Newcastle came in the second half.
His re-emergence into English football was recorded by 15 photographers; never one to chase the limelight, the Cardiff manager marched to the dug-out, ignoring the reception committee, and stood there, waiting for kick-off.
The Solskjaer template was clear: the formation initially looked 4-4-1-1 but as they settled it was clear that the new manager had ordered his team to shape up 4-2-3-1.
Peter Whittingham and Aron Gunnarsson were holding, receiving occasional instructions from Solskjaer as Hatem Ben Arfa briefly threatened to take control. They listened intently, fortunate that St James’ Park was relatively quiet, and then responded with thumbs-up.
Solskjaer gave the main attacking responsibilities to Andreas Cornelius, a player Vincent Tan believes the club overpaid for. Kim Bo-kyung was in the hole, with Don Cowie on the right and Peter Odemwingie given licence to roam in from the left, linking with Cornelius. Solskjaer stood watching, arms folded, sometimes also relaying messages to Odemwingie, encouraging Kevin McNaughton after one dribble upfield from right-back, urging everyone to pass and move.
For all the understandable residual anger over Malky Mackay’s sad sacking, Solskjaer, his attractive brand of football, and particularly the result was well received by the 300 Cardiff fans. Early in the first half, they chanted the name of their new manager, who responded with a brief Ayatollah. “Ole is a Bluebird” they sang back.
If Tan had been shrewd, wanting to smooth further Solskjaer’s entry into a febrile situation, Cardiff’s owner would have chosen this moment to go back on his damaging, history-defying decision to make the team wear red. “You’re supposed to play in blue,’’ chanted the Gallowgate.
“We’re Cardiff City; we’ll always be blue” came the reply as a banner “we want our club back” spelled out in blue. At least Tan’s appointment of Solskjaer already appears vindicated.
After a bleak first half, enlivened only by Ben Arfa’s strike against the post, Solskjaer turned and smiled in that slightly self-conscious way of his at Alan Pardew as the managers headed to the tunnel. Solskjaer tweaked the tactics at the break, pulling Odemwingie inside and pushing Kim wide.
He changed again on the hour, swapping Cornelius for Campbell. But then his defence failed to deal with a Moussa Sissoko drive and Papiss Cisse pounced. But Solskjaer is not one to panic. He never has. So much occurred in his playing career to prepare him for such managerial challenges. Now 40, he’s ready.
Back in 1996, his arrival from Molde as a player was much lower-key than his arrival from Molde as a manager. Back then, the unknown Norwegian sat meekly alongside Ronny Johnsen, Jordi Cruyff, Raimond van der Gouw and Karel Poborsky at a mass unveiling at The Cliff.
The few questions directed at Solskjaer were about the spelling and pronunciation of his name and Molde’s location. General consensus amongst those of us gathered to meet Alex Ferguson’s new boys was that Solskjaer was one for the future.
The main man had other plans. "Fergie thinks Solskjaer will be the best of the lot,’’ confided a United official as we filed out of The Cliff. Too true: Solskjaer soon went from “the who?” to the substitute everyone was singing about. Ferguson liked the way Solskjaer could sit on the bench, focusing intently on the flow of the game and, when required, immediately immerse himself successfully.
So Cisse’s goal did not disturb Solskjaer’s equilibrium. Being good enough for a decade at Manchester United was a tribute to Solskjaer’s talent, hard work and professionalism but also an inner steel. He’s tough.
When Molde were struggling at the start of the season, Solskjaer stayed strong and led them back up the table, ending his reign by winning the Norwegian Cup final on Nov 24, beating Rosenborg at the Ullevaal. Inevitably, there were two late goals to win it 4-2.
He learned so much during that golden period in 1999 when United worked and worked and won the Treble. Those special few weeks will have taught Solskjaer lessons that will serve him well now: of the need for calm, concentration, preparation, camaraderie and tactical flexibility in case of injuries (in the FA Cup final, Solskjaer dropped right when Roy Keane went off injured, Teddy Sheringham came on and David Beckham went central). It reminded him of the importance of not getting carried away by one victory, but rolling on to the next challenge.
The Champions League final certainly underlined the power of substitutions. At St James’, Solskjaer sent on Craig Noone for Odemwingie, looking to give Campbell more support. Noone’s first touch controlled the ball, his second sent it flying from range into the Newcastle net.
Then Campbell headed in as Newcastle’s defence again dissolved, this time at a corner. Solskjaer could permit himself a quiet smile. Campbell owed him that. When a youngster at Old Trafford, Campbell had denied Solskjaer a goal in his 2008 testimonial, shooting rather than squaring to the unmarked icon. Solskjaer laughed that he still hasn't forgiven Campbell. "Never! Ever!''
Cardiff still had to see out the game. They were organised and determined, defending deep and in numbers. At the final whistle, Solskjaer looked almost apologetic as he shook Pardew’s hand.
He then marched on to the pitch, and congratulated his players, all the while making ground towards the away section. Cardiff’s fans chanted his name as he punched the air, before being the last one off the field, smiling.