The baby-faced...coach?

Rob Macdonald on how one of Sir Alex Ferguson's many managerial progeny has spread his wings, whilst aiding the development of youth talent.

Like an amorous young father, Sir Alex Ferguson has been churning out managerial protégés at a considerable rate. Never mind son Darren and current assistant Mike Phelan, I'm talking about Bryan Robson Mark Hughes, Steve Bruce, Paul Ince, Roy Keane and Laurent Blanc (alright, bit of a stretch).

The names comprising Ferguson’s most famous five (we’ll exclude Blanc) are of players cut from the same cloth – imposing firebrands, occasionally arrogant, always confident and never scared of controversy. If I was Jamie Redknapp, I might say they were ‘literally big personalities’. None of them served managerial apprenticeships at Old Trafford, with the sense being that if you stay at United and coach under Fergie you’re particularly loyal to him, and thus unlikely to ever leave (see Brian McClair, now Youth Team Academy Director and probably, at the end of the season, Gary Neville).

One former player is about to change all that. Having been in charge of the Reserves at Old Trafford since May 2008, Ole Gunnar Solskjær has officially become manager of another of his former clubs, Molde FK, this month. The differences between him and his predecessors are immediately obvious and it’s tempting to argue that while they were all blood and thunder, fire and brimstone and cursing and cajoling, the Norwegian sat quietly on the bench, learning to read the game and witnessing Sir Alex at work.

However, as we learned from 11 years of watching Solskjær in a United shirt, you underestimate him at your peril. He was sounded out for the Norway job following Åge Hareide’s departure in December 2008, but turned it down. With United’s Reserves, he’s won as many trophies in two and a half years as the famous five put together (four in total). He donated the estimated £2m proceeds from his testimonial match at Old Trafford to building schools in Angola, Malawi and Mozambique. He has coached at, and is actively involved in, the Solskjær Academy in Kristiansund, his home town, a venture in which Hareide also plays an active role.

The Solskjær Academy is particularly well supported, both in football terms and financially. Notable for its involvement is energy behemoth Statoil, who support it as part of their Heroes of Tomorrow programme. Their overarching project might be framed in typically cheesy multinational corporate speak (“for everyone’s benefit and joy” being a particularly dreadful example), but the academy – for boys and girls – was also established with the help of the Football Association of Norway. It has already provided Manchester United with Norwegians Joshua King and Magnus Eikrem (both of whom were in this year’s Carling Cup squad) and Etzaz Hussain (currently in the under 18s), as well as three more Norwegian imports – including coveted prospect Mats Møller Daehli – on trial in the youth setup. This week, Solskjær confirmed Eikrem had signed for Molde from United, albeit with a buy-back clause in the contract should the midfielder flourish in Norway.

These significant strides in Solskjær’s fledgling managerial and coaching career have been taken with his trademark quiet efficiency. When describing his ability, the United legend is typically tacit and self-effacing. It wasn’t talent that made him a great football player, he likes to point out, but rather the fact that he always stayed behind after training to practise his finishes. Similarly, the Solskjær Academy is, according to the man himself, “to give young, eager and enthusiastic boys and girls some inspiration, motivation and good advice on their way to becoming as good as possible… they must be very interested in football, and they must be talented. They don’t have to be the best of their age group right now, but they must have the potential to excel in the future.”

Sounds about right for an Academy, doesn’t it? Hareide, though, is slightly more bullish about its importance. “The point is to make a national selection prior to the national teams. So the players here are the talented ones and what the Academy can do is to take it further. It’s a great initiative… many have moved on to the national teams.” Take that, David Beckham Academy London, now closed.

Perhaps most tellingly of all, the development values Solskjær espouses stand firmly at odds to the style of development in Britain. “Your attitude,” he says to the students in a coaching session, “being humble, determines how good you will be. Please play football because it’s what you want to do and what you enjoy doing. Don’t dream of becoming a pro because you want to become rich… it’s the drive to be good at football that will carry you forward.”

I can imagine similar sentiments being decried as too soft in this country, in much the same way as it was suggested Gianfranco Zola was too nice to manage West Ham. It could of course be posited that this is all well and good if you want to spend a career sitting on the bench, the principal trait unfairly attached to Solskjær. And such suspicions might also extend to perceptions that his understated nature and unflinching loyalty to United harm his chances of success as a manager elsewhere.

But he clearly has an eye for a player and, due to working with the United Reserves and within his own Academy, is mindful of their development when still young. He has gone home to find his feet as manager of a senior side leaving behind a record of 43 wins and nine defeats with United’s Reserves. And he has worked under the best. Perhaps the quality he shares with his illustrious former team-mates is more important than their evident differences in style: they all know what it takes to win, season after season. His Academy might be this philosophy realised, but on the evidence so far, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the most successful graduate from the Solskjær school of thought was Solskjær himself.

Rob is one half of the quite magnificent magicspongers and can be found on twitter as@magicspongers

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