Ole Gunnar Solskjaer welcomes Alex Ferguson back into Manchester United family made by Matt Busby
The legendary manager now attends most home games, long days which take a lot out of him, so he takes it easy beforehand and help is always at hand. Away days are a rarity for Ferguson, but he’s loving watching United again with his family – especially now the family spirit is back at the club. Ferguson was with his wife and assistant coach Mike Phelan with his family and Solskjaer on Saturday.
United is a vast football club, but at its heart it always felt like a family, something the club’s other legendary manager Matt Busby encouraged. Hundreds of years of combined service lead to feeling; Kath, one of the people accompanying Ferguson on Saturday, started working at the club 51 years ago.
She also knew Busby well, the man born only 14 miles from Ferguson in nearby Glasgow. Busby died 25 years ago and fans paid their respects at the weekend.
Solskjaer’s winning start helps keep the enormous pressure than comes with managing a major football club at bay, as well as strengthening his case for taking the job permanently. If it’s working, why change it? Solskjaer’s not a big name but does he need to be?
He’d be far cheaper than employing Mauricio Pochettino, he’s already in situ and knows the club inside out. In Phelan, there’s a respected coach used to not only taking training sessions, but being a foil for the manager, someone to push back against the commercial demands of the club.
Scared by those demands and a logistical nightmare in 2016 which saw a Manchester derby cancelled, Jose Mourinho did not want United to return to China this pre-season – despite such trips contributing to his massive salary. He’s now gone and United are set to play in Shanghai in late July following preseason matches in Perth and Singapore.
It’s still early days for Solskjaer, but seven wins is hugely impressive and the football’s much improved, too. He speaks well to the media, knows the nuances at the club, knows the people.
Gripes about him are few, but they’ll come as they do for every manager. Players are unhappy when they’re dropped, but they also know that now is not the time to complain. The reputations of many of them were on the line after failing under Mourinho. Supporter patience with Paul Pogba was wearing extremely thin a month ago, but he’s happier and far more effective now. He’s also his team’s leading scorer this season with 10 goals.
So what does the Norwegian need to do to get the job full time, something almost no United fan considered when he was appointed as caretaker in December? Simply keep doing what he’s doing.
His vision of what United should be is already similar to the fans’. He’s benefitted from not being Mourinho, from not trying to fight a war on three fronts and from being able to pick the mood up off the floor with a run of winnable games. Then he beat Tottenham away – a huge result.
Finishing in the top four would be a major achievement. United were sixth, eight points off Arsenal in fifth and 11 points off fourth when Solskjaer took charge. They’re still sixth, but the gap has shrunk dramatically in only six games. Just three points now separate United from Chelsea in fourth.
Similarly, United’s goal difference was zero; it’s now plus 13. The next league games are at home to 16th place Burnley, away to ninth placed Leicester and then away to 19th placed Fulham. Then there’s the small matter of Liverpool at home on 24th February, another major test.
Liverpool are the best team in England. If United can beat the club which Solskjaer was a paid-up member of until 1995 on the way to a top four finish, he’ll be clear favourite for his job to become permanent.
The resumption of the Champions League brings ties against PSG. United have the second highest wage bill in world football and were not built to exit the Champions League in the last 16, yet PSG are clear favourites for the two games. Knock PSG out and nobody will be looking towards anyone but Solskjaer, the first manager in United’s post Ferguson-era to regularly use Ferguson for advice. David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Mourinho were all respectful of Ferguson, but they didn’t want his presence hanging over them.
Solskjaer is far more comfortable with it – as he should be.
Why not be reverential and pick the brains of the man who knows more about the inner workings of the club and football management than anyone else on the planet? Ferguson is no threat to him, he’s just happy to be alive and to be enjoying going to games again.
Happy to be visiting the training ground – a place he exiled himself from when he stepped down out of respect to those who would follow him. But now he’s back visiting and showing people around, the buzz is back with him and the team which still features eight players Ferguson worked with.
United’s DNA started to unravel after Ferguson left, but there’s evidence that the bonds that helped make United great have come together again, at least until the end of the season.
In the FA Cup on Friday night, Solskjaer’s men intend to make it eight wins from eight against an Arsenal side they were eight points behind when he took over a month ago. Now they are level pegging, helped by the man who had brought a bigger smile back to the face of Old Trafford than anyone could have imagined.