In his 99 days as interim manager at Manchester United, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer delivered a record-breaking set of results, restored the team’s identity and swagger, and lifted the gloom lingering from the end of the Jose Mourinho era.
Somehow, he even kept United on course to win the Champions League – a feat he memorably achieved as a player.
So it quickly became a matter of when, not if, the Norwegian got offered the chance to stay on permanently in what he has always described as his “dream” job.
That moment came on Thursday.
As a reward for his better-than-expected spell in temporary charge, Solskjaer accepted a three-year contract as manager of the biggest club in England.
“This has been my ultimate dream, maybe a naive dream,” Solskjaer said after being presented as United’s fourth full-time manager since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. “But I’ve always had that dream in my mind. It’s a huge, fantastic family of a football club and I’m so honored to be given the responsibility.”
United’s hierarchy is set to give some compensation to Molde, the Norwegian team that Solskjaer was coaching before his former club came calling, as a gesture of goodwill.
It’s the least they can do.
When Solskjaer was appointed on a temporary deal on Dec. 19, United was sixth in the Premier League and 11 points off fourth place – the last spot to gain automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League.
More than that, there was a joylessness hanging over the club from the final months under Mourinho, who had fallen out with some players – Paul Pogba, in particular – and left fans disillusioned with the team’s playing style.
Fast forward three months and United might only be in fifth place in the league but is now only two points behind fourth-place Arsenal, after losing just one of its 13 league games under Solskjaer. In the Champions League, United beat highly favored Paris Saint-Germain – the team of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe – over two legs in the last 16 and next faces Barcelona.
In the process, Solskjaer became the first United manager to win his first eight games in charge and tied the record of Carlo Ancelotti at Chelsea and Pep Guardiola at Manchester City by winning his first six Premier League games. Nine straight away wins under Solskjaer is also a United record.
In all, he has led the team to 14 wins in his 19 games in charge. It is playing with a freedom and commitment to attack not seen since the days of Ferguson, who quit in 2013 after more than 26 years as manager. Indeed, Solskjaer has leaned on Ferguson for advice over the past three months and spoke to him after being approached over the full-time job.
“The results Ole has delivered speak for themselves,” said Ed Woodward, United’s executive vice chairman. “More than just performances and results, Ole brings a wealth of experience, both as a player and as a coach, coupled with a desire to give young players their chance and a deep understanding of the culture of the club. This all means that he is the right person to take Manchester United forward.”
Solskjaer said upon arriving at United in December that he wanted the job on a full-time basis, having played for the English club from 1996-2007 and scored 126 goals in 266 appearances. His most famous goal was his late winner in the 1999 Champions League final.
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino was widely regarded as the front-runner to replace Mourinho, but United’s results under Solskjaer meant the Norwegian quickly became favorite.
The fans also got behind him and have regaled him with his own song, which starts: “Ole’s at the wheel, tell me how good does it feel?”
Pretty good, actually.
“From the first day I arrived, I felt at home at this special club,” Solskjaer said. “It was an honor to be a Manchester United player, and then to start my coaching career here. The last few months have been a fantastic experience.”
Solskjaer, who intends to keep together the same backroom team including assistant Mike Phelan, can finally begin planning for the future and will likely want funds to strengthen the playing squad particularly in defense. Keeping star players like Pogba and David De Gea at the club will also be key in the offseason transfer window.
United hasn’t won the Premier League since 2013, the last year of Ferguson’s long reign.
“I’ve got some targets,” Solskjaer said. “I would want a Man United team that’s one of the hardest working teams in the league, the fittest teams in the league and that will then bring results.
“To lift the Premier League trophy again is what we expect, what we’re used to, what we have done so many times. We can’t wait for too many years, but we have to take it step by step. It’s not like it’s going to happen overnight.”
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80