December 19 2018: Wheel Status: At the Wheel (L-plates on)
Solskjaer begins his tenure as Manchester United interim manager. Armed with a big smiling face and cheerful voice – an endearing blend of Manc slang with a Scandi twang – he seems the ideal antidote to the bleak, sinful Mourinho days. Whilst by no measure an elite football coach, his task is simple – six months to surgically remove the rotting tumour at the club’s core – the José legacy. Then onto the next one.
Moulding himself as a kind of Sir Alex Ferguson tribute act who considers it blasphemous to act in any way like the original, Solskjaer’s early days were full of theatrical bowing to the past. “Oh I can’t sit there”, Solskjaer would grin – “that’s the gaffer’s chair”. Or, “no I mustn’t say that, that’s what the gaffer’s would say”. Or perhaps, “no no I shouldn’t look like I really know what I’m doing, that was the gaffer’s job”.
Mildly excessive displays of reverence to his managerial lodestar notwithstanding, the early signs were positive. Eventually allowing himself a small number of indulgences from ‘the gaffer’s’ playbook, namely fast attacking football and trusting in youth, Solskjaer picks up an impressive six wins on the bounce- a feat that must certainly be rewarded in song. Somewhere, in a darkened room in a far-flung corner of the footballing Kingdom, the Bard’s of The Barclays were racking their brains and inking their quills.
March 23 2019: Wheel Status: At the Wheel – The Musical
An almighty wave of good vibes and fortunate fixture scheduling reaches crescendo in Paris. Having steamrolled an impressive quantity of relegation fodder and miscellaneous mid-table also-rans, a 2-0 home defeat at home to PSG seemed to show the hard limits of trusting solely in the spirit of Fergie as a management strategy.
But then, in an astounding defeat for logic and a sensational victory for Ole and his fetishisation of United-themed nostalgia, a continental heist reminiscent of so many before it was performed. Aided perhaps by a dubious VAR intervention and the first significant howler of Gianluigi Buffon’s 407 year career, but who cares – And Solsjaer has won it etc etc. Paris was rocking, Neymar was furiously Instagramming, United fans were once again dredging the 80s back-catalogue of Madchester hits for their latest terrace chant. “Waterfall” by the Stone Roses was summoned, reappropriated and in a gloriously defiant display of having no sense at all of the potential pitfalls of hubris*, became this:
“Ole’s at the Wheel
Tell me how good does it feel
We’ve got Pogba, Sanchez and Fred
Marcus Rashford he’s Manc Born and Bred” and so on…
*Solskjaer becomes permanent boss and the all singing all dancing affair is duly followed by an embarrassing run of 8 points from a possible 24 and a 6th place finish. Cue Curtain.
January 22 2020: Wheel Status: Wheels have come off.
Eight months is a long time. From the distant days of joyful frolicking around Paris to this, the dreary new world. As a novel viral strain began its globetrotting, soul-crushing adventure, Manchester United Football Club dutifully functioned as an analogue for the wider picture of society – absolutely chaotic. Infact, the imminent widespread stadium shutting and football cancelling seemed to be a rare silver lining in the dark days of United’s early 19/20 campaign. Following a 2-0 pasting at home against Burnley the home supporters unwittingly trial-ran the incoming fanless era by performing an unprecedented Old Trafford walk-out in protest of all that was wrong at the club.
The fleers might not have been protecting their physical health, the Coronavirus was still just about unknown to the masses at the time, but they were certainly protecting their mental health. It was already the 8th league defeat of a miserable season, and just as was the case for nights out, the global economy and physical contact with other human beings, the end was surely nigh for Ole Gunnar. The Wheels had finally come off, both at United and just about everywhere else.
January 30 2020: Wheel Status: Reattached at the Pitstop.
A phoenix from the ashes, an angel from above, a figurative vaccine to the pandemic of crap football – Bruno Fernandes parachutes in during the January window and there is hope behind the wheel once more. Functioning as a kind of co-driver, sat next to the boss but secretly operating those passenger-side pedals driving instructors have in order to avert catastrophic disaster, Fernandes revs the rusty vehicle back into life. £47 million might seem a steep price to pay for pitstop reinforcements but without it a write-off was certain.
Early Bruno-era victories against Chelsea, Watford and City are enough to reinvigorate the elan in the United Gospel Choir. In true football fan style, all lessons learnt and festering gripes are immediately forgotten – the songs return, the joy returns, the wheel is sent on its own nationwide victory lap. But just as United reach second gear, the universe screeches to a halt. With football called off, Ole and the boys return to their Chesire pads for some down time, Fernandes excepted, presumably, who trudges off to Pfizer HQ for a new challenge.
July 27 2020: Wheel Status: In tact, just.
With the spectral presence of Thursday Night Football having been eyeballing Solskjaer in the rear-view for the best part of a season, his Fernandes-fuelled wagon pulls clear at the last. Returning to the gung-ho bonhomie of his salad days as interim boss, post-lockdown United delivered trouncings of Bournemouth, Brighton, Sheffield United and Villa in an impressive late flurry of wins. In timely fashion, Brendan Rogers’ Leicester hits a road-block and Ole comes in third.
Less promising however, is the treble of semi-final defeats at the hands of City, Chelsea and Seville – at least one more than can be called coincidence. “I can’t win those, those are the gaffer’s trophies”, he might have quipped.
December 8 2020. Wheel Status: Mangled in Leipzig.
In an empty German Cathedral a thousand miles from home, the wheels had come off once again, this time surely for good. Infact, not only had the wheels come off, the hapless Solskjaer had been flung head-over-heels from the vehicle, landed in a disheveled heap in a lay-by and before coming to his senses, was smacked over the head by his now-disembodied wheel. United were out of the Champions League. Everyone’s ultimate suspicion of Solskjaer had been confirmed at-last; nice bloke, bit clueless.
As flames hissed from the wreckage, the noise was enough to drown out once and for all the wheel-based bravado of yesteryear; a multi-layered soundscape of cackling Schaeundrenfraude, frenetic Ole-Out keyboard bashing and weak, naughty-schoolboy apologising from Harry Maguire. When it was his turn in front of the camera, Solskjaer looked empty, genial grin replaced by the face of a man in the grips of a sudden, fatal bout of Imposter Syndrome. To the well-tuned ear, the jangling of Mauricio Pochettino’s car keys could just about be heard in the distance. But wait…
January 1 2020: Wheel Status: At the Wheel by the Grace of God
Here we go again. From the fringes of despair to touching distance of glory, over and over and over forever – the erratic oscillations of Ole FC continue. To the cynics it’s pure fluke – the chancer in the rickety wagon, wheels held in place by elastic bands and Gaffa tape, stumbling and bumbling and huffing and crashing from win to computer-assisted win. To the embittered it’s surely corruption, how many penalties can one team get – the reestablishment of a historical precedent set under Sir Alex – sneaky back-handers in the tunnel and anonymous bottles of Malbec arriving in Mike Dean’s post. To the sentimental, perhaps the footballing Gods really are smiling down on Solskjaer, ready to indulge their romantic hearts and grant the boy who had a dream the most unlikely of triumphs.
Not to ignore all these possibilities (or others – Divine Intervention? The Occult?), the reality is perhaps more simple. A combination of misfiring rivals and United having some quality match-winners in their team sends the Reds arse over elbows over Spurs over Chelsea over Everton over etc into a title race. After two years of bombastic yoyoing up and down the table, the start of 2021 sees Solskjaer pull level on points with Liverpool at the top of the table. Will it last? Almost certainly not.
March 21 2021: Wheel Status: Into the Sunset?
It didn’t last. Infact, it wasn’t even close, as Pep Guardiola’s slick vehicle leaves Solskjaer in the dust. Despite an impressive 2-0 win at the Etihad, Ole’s propensity for shooting himself in the tyres leaves him 14 points behind the leaders with 9 matches to play, marking one of the shortest title challenges in recorded history. Dropped points against West Brom, Sheffield United, Crystal Palace, Arsenal and others, along with customary disappointment in the cups, means the old question marks return.
For many, this should mean the end of the road, time to break the tedious cycles of nearly successes and car crash disappointments. With the season drawing in, Solskjaer’s future seems once again tainted by uncertainty. For the meantime, however, the wheels keep on turning.