I thought Solskjaer was asking for trouble. They could be appalling at times.”
Sacked in the morning, you’re getting sacked in the morning.”
It’s a song most football fans are familiar with, but this time it was being chanted with a little more spite than usual.
The Cardiff City fans, packed into the south-east corner of Old Trafford, were determined to enjoy their final day out in the Premier League on a sun-soaked May afternoon in Manchester. And Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was the perfect target for their schadenfreude.
A 2-0 win over Manchester United, managed by their former beleaguered boss, was the perfect parting gift for Neil Warnock’s relegated Cardiff after a tough 2018/19 season.
But the noise from the Bluebirds fans that day perhaps said more about Solskjaer’s own ill-fated stint in South Wales five years earlier, than it did about the situations of either Cardiff or Unitedin May 2019.
There was previous between the Norwegian and Wales’ capital city club.
It was a similarly vocal display from the Cardiff fans at Anfield that had preceded Solskjaer’s appointment as Malky Mackay’s replacement, way back in December 2013.
“Don’t sack Mackay,” they chanted repeatedly after the final whistle of a 3-1 defeat to Liverpool that left Cardiff 15th in the table. But it was not the Bluebirds’ form that was spelling trouble for the Scot, who had guided his side to a terrific promotion the previous season. He and owner Vincent Tan were in the midst of an acrimonious fall-out, the details of which were yet to be revealed.
It paved for the way for Solskjaer’s appointment at Cardiff City Stadium in January 2014, on a 12-month rolling contract, joining from Molde where he had won two Norwegian league titles. Cardiff were then 17th in the league, one point above the drop zone.
“I am really looking forward to convincing the Cardiff fans that I am the right man to take them forward,” said a smiling Solskjaer at his unveiling.
“I will try to convince the fans with my hard work, loyalty and my brand of football. I’m a very positive manager.”
That opening gambit reflected the situation in which Solskjaer found himself. Cardiff was a melting pot at the time.
The fans were angry about Mackay’s departure. Their relationship with Tan was already at breaking point following their controversial blue-to-red rebrand in 2012 and Solskjaer was viewed with scepticism by many.
As Cardiff fan blogger, and author of two books on the Bluebirds, Scott Johnson tells The Manchester Evening News: “He was stepping into a really toxic situation.
“Mackay was really popular and that was all really controversial and mysterious. And I remember Solskjaer said ‘Sir Alex Ferguson said to me to choose your owner, don’t choose your club’… and then he chose Cardiff.
“I thought he was asking for trouble.”
Mehmet Dalman was the chairman of Cardiff at the time, the position he still holds now, acting a conduit between Tan and the club’s manager. A former investment banker and a self-confessed United fanatic, he acted as an adviser to the Glazer family during their takeover of United in 2005.
Dalman had been key to Solskjaer’s appointment, desperate to appoint a “young and modern-thinking football manage”, as he now tells the MEN, amid interest in the Norwegian from Aston Villa.
“There were rumours going around that he was going to join other Premier League clubs and so Vincent and I flew out to Norway and met him,” says Dalman.
“We shook hands on it and that was that.
“He is a genuinely really nice guy. I know people say these things but in the case of Ole, he really is. Very straightforward, very plain speaking and he’s a nice person to work with and to spend time with.”
But being a nice guy wouldn’t be enough to turn a daunting situation on its head at Cardiff.
Solskjaer was given a healthy budget to spend in the January window, with Tan and Cardiff keen to right the perceived wrongs of the Mackay era.
As Johnson says, Solskjaer “stuck to what he knew” in the transfer market, signing three Norwegian players — two of them from former club Molde — in Magnus Wolff Eikrem, Mats Daehli and Jo Inge Berget, two from United (Wilfried Zaha on loan and Fabio da Silva on a permanent deal), as well as Kenwyne Jones and centre-back Juan Cala.
In the case of Fabio, a Ferguson signing for United and a player Solskjaer liked from his stint managing the Reds’ reserves, the Cardiff boss was prioritising the personality of his arrivals.
“He called me three days before he actually took charge of Cardiff and he just told me he would really like me to join him,” Fabio says.
“He knew my situation at Manchester United. I was six months off my contract expiring and I didn’t want to sign a new contract, as I wasn’t playing much.
“I said I wanted to think about it, but actually he came to my house and he spoke with me. And for me, when he came to my house to speak with me personally, I couldn’t say no to him, to be honest. He’s a fantastic guy and I really really like him.
“When he called me, I saw the table and Cardiff City was at the bottom and I thought ‘I don’t know if this is the right decision to go to Cardiff now’. I thought maybe I could wait six months until the end of my contract. But he encouraged me, he thought we were going to stay up and so I took the challenge, I thought ‘let’s do it’.”
Fabio proved to be a fan favourite at Cardiff, staying long after Solskjaer had departed. But in truth, the January transfer policy was haphazard, more upheaval than the club could cope with at the time.
It translated into chaotic performances on the pitch, with muddled tactics and a porous defence making Cardiff far too easy to beat.
What could have been an exciting period for the club, despite many fans’ fears over the appointment, would quickly turn sour again. Solskjaer’s doubters were proven right.
WalesOnline’s head of sport Paul Abbandonato was among those in the media who had plenty of goodwill towards Solskjaer.
He says: “Malky was very pragmatic. It was percentage football, getting 1-0 wins and being difficult to beat. But Ole came in with a more romantic ideal and wanted to play more attacking football. Fabio, Zaha and Daehli were all exciting signings, but in hindsight it wasn’t what Cardiff needed.
“They had the odd excellent performance and you could see the germs there, but they could be appalling at times.”
Scott Johnson adds: “It was jarring to go from Mackay to Solskjaer and the problem was that he was going into a relegation battle and he wanted to play attacking football, like he does now with Man United, but it was too big an ask.
“And when he went down to the Championship, it was a division he didn’t know and had no experience of. It was a very swashbuckling style and sometimes it would work, but with the calibre of players Cardiff had, they were so wide open and they’d get picked off more often than that. It was cavalier, no-need football, I felt.”
It was a damning indictment on Solskjaer that Cardiff won just three Premier League games that season following his arrival and on eight occasions they conceded three goals or more. Successive hammerings in the north east, 4-0 at Sunderland and 3-0 at Newcastle, sent Cardiff back to the Championship after one sorry season.
Tan’s decision to stick by Solskjaer was a surprise to some, as was the sanctioning of yet more transfer funds as they looked to bounce straight back up. Cardiff signed 10 more players, including Federico Macheda from United, to add to the seven they signed in January.
But by September 2014, with the club sitting 17th in the Championship, he was sacked.
The club had no option to end what had been a chaotic nine month tenure, though Dalman still wonders if they gave Solskjaer enough time, given the turbulent circumstances.
“I think if you really analyse it without any emotion and noise, there were three factors, in my view, that went against his time at Cardiff,” he adds.
“One, his lack of experience in the Championship. A league he’d never managed nor played in. Second, the infrastructure around him — including the extended coaching staff — probably wasn’t good enough and that’s also true of the people he brought in as well. And third, I don’t think he had enough time.
“And if you fast forward to today, he has experience in the English game as a manager, he has probably the best infrastructure and technical coaching staff around him at Manchester United, and the board of directors are giving him time, which I think he needed. “
Solskjaer’s recent United stint has certainly put into question everything at happened at Cardiff. There is the obvious factor that he is now managing a club he knows inside-out, at a level he is comfortable with.
Was he simply a victim of circumstances? Or has he changed and improved as a coach?
“I think he’s more pragmatic now than he used to be,” adds Johnson.
“Maybe Cardiff was too early in his career, there was some naivety, maybe the players weren’t good enough to do what he wanted them to do.”
It felt appropriate that Solskjaer’s first game a the United wheel came at Cardiff in December 2019, when the shock caretaker appointment showed he was the right man to lift the mood following Jose Mourinho’s sacking, and masterminded a 5-1 win. He then went on an incredible winning streak and — to the surprise of many Cardiff fans — earned himself the permanent job.
There have been ups and downs at United since that first season, though few connected with the Bluebirds can say they ever expected Solskjaer to be challenging for the Premier League title as a manager.
He was well liked, Abbandonato says: “I’m glad he’s gone on to prove himself a success as manager, as I always thought there was a good manager in there. I never felt he was as bad as he showed at Cardiff City.”
Dalman, who was always an admirer, agrees: “I’m delighted for him on a personal basis, as I like him. Ole is being true to himself in Manchester so, of course, I’m over the moon for him.
“I don’t think there’s a single Cardiff fan who didn’t like him as a person, but his transformation to a new style of football took patience and like I said, he didn’t have enough time. He’s certainly capable of achieving great things at United.”
Fabio sees a situation that now suits Solskjaer the manager down to the ground: “Tactically, he can play more with the ball and of course he knows Man United very well, which is going to help him a lot, being a legend for Manchester United and playing for more than 10 years there. Definitely, he is building something great at United.”
There will always be those in Cardiff, however, who view Solskjaer as a fraud; the man who took them down and sailed them close to ruin.
“There’s a bit of spite now,” says Johnson.
“There was never any animosity towards Solskjaer the man, it was more the situation but you’ll notice Cardiff fans pipe up on social media when things are going wrong for him at Man United, and go quiet when he does well.”
Conversely, Neil Warnock is remembered as a God among the Bluebirds for the repair job he carried out years after Solskjaer had gone.
Hence the joyous scenes in the Old Trafford away end that day May 2019.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got things wrong at Cardiff City from the very start, as he now admits himself.
But more than seven years have now passed and the man who was out of his depth at the bottom of the Premier League, is now proving his critics wrong, by challenging at the top.