“I’m on a ferry now,” says Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, talking on the phone in his first in-depth media interview since being sacked as Manchester United manager in 2021.
“We’re going to Surnadal for our under-16s’ second team. I’ve driven from my home in Kristiansund. The team minibus is next to me with 14 boys aged 15 enjoying themselves.
“This is how I remember growing up as a footballer. It’s lovely being with my youngest son Elijah, just as it was when I coached our eldest son Noah after I was sacked at Cardiff — and our daughter Karna just before I joined Man United.
“To be able to turn offers down that I didn’t feel 100 per cent about to spend time with my family is a privilege. When you manage Manchester United, you sacrifice all of that.”
He has not spoken fully about his experiences at Old Trafford. I have regularly asked him to talk, but the time has never been right. A text on Monday morning confirmed he was now ready to speak — and no topics were off the table.
During a one-hour conversation, it becomes clear he is ready to return to professional football. On Wednesday, he begins a new role as a UEFA technical observer but he is thinking about management again.
In this wide-ranging interview, he discusses:
- How signing Ronaldo “felt right but turned out wrong”
- Telling players at half-time of his final match that he expected to lose his job
- Views that some of his players “weren’t as good as their perception of themselves”
- How some players turned down the chance to be captain
- Filming players singing “Ole’s at the wheel” after famous PSG win
- Why he wanted to film farewell video
- Missing out on Harry Kane, Erling Haaland and other stars
- His view of the Glazers
“I’m doing a lot of coaching, four times per week, and we have three teams,” he says en route to the junior game 300 miles north west of Oslo. “I’m helping the kids, who enjoy it. You see a different side to football, the grassroots – except it’s all plastic pitches here. You see the brightness in their eyes, they listen to you, they want to learn.
“But you start to miss it (professional football) when you see the games, either in person or on television. Since I left United, I’ve travelled around as a fan with my kids, going to places like Napoli, Milan and Dortmund to experience games. We loved it.
“My role with UEFA means watching Champions League matches in person. I can watch teams from a different perspective than being a manager: analyse them, solve problems, see how both teams will try to hurt each other.
“Then I’m going to the east coast of the United States in a few weeks to see Wayne Rooney and David Beckham, see a few games and see what’s what.”
Do you want to manage again?
Yes, and I’ve had offers. Most recently, two from Saudi Arabia. My best mate, who is also my agent, sifts through them. If you’ve managed Man United, you put your own criteria about what you want to work with.
I love England and the Premier League. Even the Championship feels stronger than ever, but I don’t feel bound to England. Maybe a different challenge where I need to experience a new culture and learn a new language.
The DNA and identity of the club are important, a club where I can be the best me. It has to be a match. Maybe I made the wrong decision to go to Cardiff, for example, where there was a clash of identities and styles.
What I miss most is working with good people, coming in every day, discussing football and putting a plan together for the next game. It’s not just about formations, but creating a culture where the staff enjoy their job and building a team together.
Nearly two years after leaving, how do feel about your time managing United now?
Well, there’s something missing: a trophy. One penalty could have changed that (in the shootout defeat to Villarreal in the Europa League final) and my time there would be viewed differently.
Trophies are important, but it was also important to lay the foundation of good performances. We managed to do that for a long time, consistently. Ultimately, that’s not good enough, but the remit I was given was to get fans smiling again and we had something going. We were top of the league in September 2021, Cristiano Ronaldo came in, and Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho joined.
And we’d gone strong by signing these players. It was about taking the next step to challenge for the title. And, unfortunately, it just didn’t work out.
There’s a perception among fans and some media that Ronaldo ruined your team, that he was a vanity buy by Ed Woodward. What’s the truth about his arrival and how you found him to work with?
It was a decision that was very difficult to turn down and I felt we had to take it, but it turned out wrong. It felt so right when he signed and the fans felt that at that Newcastle game, when Old Trafford was rocking (after Ronaldo scored twice in a 4-1 win). He was still one of the best goalscorers in the world, he was looking strong.
When I looked at the fixtures it was going to be a deciding period: Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham, and Leicester away. Then Chelsea and Arsenal, plus Champions League games. Things went against us. It started with Aston Villa at home (a 1-0 defeat) and a late penalty miss.
When you have a group you need everyone to pull in the same direction. When things didn’t go right, you could see certain players and egos came out. We beat Tottenham convincingly 3-0 away, but then we lost two games…
You lost five league games from seven that autumn. Did you feel you were going to lose your job?
Nobody told me, but I knew at half-time against Watford (a 4-1 defeat in November 2021). We didn’t look like a Man United team; the players weren’t running for each other. At half-time, I told the players it was probably going to be the last time we worked together and to play with pride. We almost turned it around, until Harry Maguire got sent off.
I got a text message the next morning from Ed Woodward saying he needed to see me in his office at Carrington. That was pretty hard when you’ve been at the club for 18 years with all those good and bad times.
I’d had lots of backing and good times with Ed. He’d given me the chance and for that, I’ll always be grateful. I dropped my family at the airport before the text arrived. After the text, I told my wife that I might be back in Norway before her.
It was an emotional day. Very emotional. I didn’t think it would be, but it was like leaving your family. I wanted to speak to all the players and say goodbye. I spoke to the coaches and the staff. Then I went back to an empty house.
You did a farewell video. Was that your idea?
I didn’t want not to say goodbye to fans who’d treated me so well, fans who felt like family. Doing the video felt like the right thing to do.
Were you angry? Did you feel let down by your players?
Not angry. Not bitter. Disappointed. I’d not managed to do my dream job as I’d hoped. I’d gone in to do a job for six months and enjoy it. I certainly did, especially that win at Paris Saint-Germain (a stunning 3-1 away win in the Champions League last 16 in March 2019 to reach the quarter-finals).
And there were some great moments when I got the job permanently. The wins at City away, beating City at home with Scott McTominay scoring with the last kick before the lockdown. I’ve never felt Old Trafford rocking like that. The fans stayed behind for ages.
As it happens, that was the last time they’d be in the stadium for many months. Another win at PSG. Staying unbeaten away from home for so long. It’s not easy to go 29 away league games unbeaten.
Empty stadiums actually helped us in some ways as we could coach during the matches.
Those City and Liverpool teams were the best that their clubs, with fantastic managers, have ever had. I know that’s a bold statement because Liverpool were so good in the ’80s, but they were a fantastic side under Jurgen Klopp.
In my last season, we played Liverpool at home. I felt the players were ready for it, just like I’d felt they were ready when we’d gone to City and won. We could have sat back and countered but my decision was to go for it. We lost 5-0. It was 50/50, more or less, in possession and chances at half-time, yet we were 4-0 down.
I made the wrong decision and that was my lowest point as United manager by a mile. Roberto Firmino was probably the opposition player who caused me the most problems as a manager. The 6-1 defeat at home to Spurs was different and affected by a sending-off.
Is the United job impossible?
No, but it’s difficult, especially for managers following one of the best managers ever. The expectations are very high but we can’t live in the same era as when I played. We had Arsenal and Chelsea as rivals towards the end. Now, most teams have money or even if they don’t, they don’t need to sell.
Back then, Wayne and Cristiano were the best young players and we signed them. Now, United can’t just go and buy Evan Ferguson. We couldn’t buy the players I mentioned to the club.
Erling Haaland, before he made his Salzburg debut. Declan Rice, who wouldn’t have cost what he did in the summer. We discussed Moises Caicedo, but we felt we needed players ready for there and then. Brighton are very good at letting players come from abroad and find their feet for a year and a half. At United, you don’t have that luxury and that has cost the club loads of players.
We wanted Jude Bellingham badly — he’s a Man United player, but I respect he chose Dortmund. That was probably sensible. But it’s why I respect Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Dan James and Jadon. Young players prepared to come into a team that wasn’t 100 per cent there like it was when I arrived.
I would have signed Kane every day of the week and my understanding was that he wanted to come. But the club didn’t have the budget with the financial constraints from Covid-19, there was no bottomless pit.
You came from abroad and needed a week and a half as a player…
I was a scorer and scored with my first kick. I came into a perfect situation. I had Eric Cantona as the best second striker, Andy Cole was injured. I took my chance, I was ready. The Premier League is very different now, it’s difficult.
Ralf Rangnick came in after you were sacked and was critical of the club he found. Was that a slight against you?
The club he found in November 2021 was different from September 2021. I told him when I gave my opinion on every player. Things had soured, the collective had been lost and that’s not Man United, where teams are built on the collective.
Some players felt they should’ve played more and weren’t constructive to the environment. That’s a huge sin for me. When I didn’t start games I wanted to prove to the manager he’d made the wrong decision.
Now, a lot of players aren’t like that. Agents and family members get into their heads and tell them they’re better than they are because they have a vested interest. It’s a disease of modern football.
We had a great group to work with by the end of the 2020-21 season. We got to the FA Cup semi-final in 2020 and the Europa League final in 2021.
Would you have done anything differently in that Europa League final, or that FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea?
Villarreal under Unai Emery were hard to break down. I’ve not watched it back.
But you told me you’ve watched every United game you’d managed…
Not that one. Or Liverpool, Spurs or Watford. No chance. I watched the rest, we were a decent side. But I should have started or at least brought on Nemanja Matic against Villarreal. That game was for him. I didn’t choose him because I felt others deserved it.
It’s difficult to leave players out but you have to take risks. I risked kids for the final game of 2020-21 at Wolves, risked an unbeaten away record. I was proud of how those kids reacted (in a 2-1 win).
You were criticised — online mainly, but it became a narrative — for not having tactical plans and being just a counter-attacking team. Can you talk to us about your philosophy and how important the coaches were in that?
I love Kieran McKenna and Michael Carrick to bits. Top coaches and they’ll prove it. Mick Phelan had experience, Martyn Pert had worked around the world. We felt you needed to defend well to attack well. We always wanted to press our opponents, even at Anfield or the Etihad, even with injuries. And we usually did well.
I wanted us to get forward quickly and it’s physically demanding. It sounds like counter-attacking, but at our best, we’d go to places like Spurs, Brighton and Everton under Carlo Ancelotti and we’d control the game. Or Leeds at home, when we won 6-2 and 5-1 against Marcelo Bielsa’s side.
We didn’t always get recognition for our organised attacks and defending, though other managers and coaches complimented us on our tactical approaches with and without the ball.
Football has changed even since I left as a manager. It’s so different to when I played and we focused on pace, power, personality and individuals who’d win a game. Now, teams are more comfortable playing in their own box, sucking opponents in and exploiting the space they jump from.
You need players who are comfortable and capable of doing that. If you played a pass across your goal in the ’80s or ’90s you’d be taken off. Now, it’s normal and if you can beat that first and second press, you’re in.
Which of your signings were your best?
Bruno Fernandes came straight in and lifted the team. Harry Maguire – it’s a disgrace that he’s getting so much abuse. I feel sorry for him, but he’s a strong lad and I hope it turns for him. He raised our defence big time when he arrived and lifted the mood around the place. I can’t remember every signing I made, but I should because there was a cap on three main ones every season.
Who put the cap on? Does the structure of United work?
I signed up for it when I arrived. I understood my remit and agreed to it. I can’t complain now and I’m not the type to moan after losing my job, but United have spent a lot more in the two summer transfer windows since I was there.
How does that make you feel?
That they’ve seen what the club needs.
Does that not frustrate you?
It’s not about me or how much I got every summer, but how much money the club wanted to spend. I want United to be on top again, to beat City and Liverpool.
I made one selfish decision — to keep Scott McTominay when he could have gone on loan to Derby in 2019 to play more football. We kept him, we played him and after beating PSG away when he and Fred played well at the base of midfield, I think we did the right thing. Scott’s a Man United player through and through.
We watched Ajax beat Real Madrid the night before and that gave us hope that another young team could play with no fear against the best. We didn’t even have time to work on the tactics properly and played a 4-4-2, with the strikers dropping deep. Fred was to play like he played at Shakhtar Donetsk.
I knew Marcus would score that decisive penalty. I looked at the away fans; they just erupted. My young team had won. Sir Alex Ferguson and Eric Cantona came into the dressing room after the game.
The players were singing “Ole’s at the wheel”. All of them, singing and dancing on the table. What a moment. Players who couldn’t really speak English jumping around kicking pizza boxes and singing “Ole’s at the wheel”. It felt good. It’s the only time I got my phone out and filmed my players.
United have signed some good players — Rasmus Hojlund will be exciting and is the type of player United need to be signing.
Did you feel the players threw you under the bus, as some of your former team-mates have stated?
No. Not really. Some weren’t as good as their own perception of themselves. I won’t name names, but I was very disappointed when a couple turned down the chance to be captain. I was also disappointed when others said they wouldn’t play or train because they wanted to force their way out.
There was stuff in the media after I left about how I treated some players, which were complete lies, but I had a solid, honest relationship with most of them.
When you see what Erik ten Hag is having to deal with off the pitch, do you have sympathy?
I know what he’s going through. It’s a dream job, but it’s difficult. You’re dealing with humans with all their problems and backgrounds — this isn’t a computer simulation. But most are good professionals who want to do well. Some think about No 1 first, most think of the club.
What do you think of the Glazers owning United?
In my conversations with them, they were honest and upfront. I had to be patient and mentally strong — and I was. And they’ve backed the manager now.
How did you feel when the group of fans turned up at the training ground to protest about the Glazers? What was your view of what went on that day?
It was their right — and I went to speak to them. Security didn’t want me to, but I wanted to go and speak to them. I listened and I felt we had a good conversation.
Speaking to fans is part of being United manager. You’re encouraged to have security around you but I didn’t feel comfortable with that and usually wanted to be on my own.
I’ve not been back much since the whole family moved to Norway last year. People give me the thumbs-up in Manchester, though they’re more likely to do that in real life. It’s easier to say, “You’re s***” when you’re anonymous behind a keyboard.
Did you feel supported by United fans?
Apart from Watford away, I can’t remember any negativity at games, bar the odd comment. At Watford, I went to the away end after and remember thinking, “I really don’t have the backing of all of them”. Bruno was there too, but I knew I was finished. The 4-1 looked awful, but it was 2-1 after 90 minutes. We conceded two more. I understand how fans felt — 4-1 is 4-1.
Did you want to sign Sancho and how do you think he’s done?
Yes, I wanted to sign him. Manchester United will never sign a player the manager doesn’t want. That’s not the case everywhere. Jadon was put up as the No 1 target for the right wing by the scouts and when you look at his talent, I could see why.
Unfortunately, it has not worked out. When he arrived, he had to go to hospital and that was a setback as he couldn’t start the first games. He’s immensely talented and we haven’t seen the best of him. I hope we do, but he prefers to play left wing… where Marcus plays.
By that time, things had turned, but you’d had such a bright start when you arrived to replace Jose Mourinho in December 2018…
Those first 15 games, I loved it. Right from arriving and walking into the staff party at Lancashire Cricket Club. The fans loved it, the media too. With the media, it was a game in itself. Clubs want to control the narrative. Maybe I should have been more open, I don’t know.
I never leaked a single piece of information when I was manager. I need my dignity, I need to look at myself in the mirror in the morning. I’m idealistic, I still think it’s the beautiful game.
Why was there a downturn in results after your interim position became permanent?
Some players wanted to go. Tiredness, since we demanded a lot, and that caused injuries. The air came out of the balloon at the end of that first season but in my two full seasons, we finished third and second in the Premier League.
There appears to be this cycle under the Glazers of manager arrives, things pick up, things take a dip, then within a couple of years, the manager gets sacked. How do you see it?
Let’s hope Erik is successful and if there is a cycle, that he breaks it. Someone is going to do it. It’s difficult when great managers go — Valeriy Lobanovskyi with Dynamo Kyiv, Rosenborg with Nils Arne Eggen. In Norway we have a saying, “You don’t want to jump after Wirkola” because Bjorn Wirkola was one of the best ski jumpers. We’re now five or six down the line. It’ll happen.
(Top photo: John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)