Jim White

Cardiff merely the next step towards Old Trafford for ruthless Solskjaer

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Alex Ferguson

At first glance you have to wonder what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s game is.

Has the wind drifting off the fjord in Molde pickled his brain like the local herrings? Has he not followed what happened to his predecessor? Is he naively unaware of quite how quixotic is his new boss at Cardiff City?

And what makes his arrival in south Wales all the more baffling is that this is a man who has turned down plenty of offers of work in the Premier League in the past. He rejected Blackburn’s overtures because he rightly feared the club was so volatile only the desperate would accept a position there. He also turned down Aston Villa, an altogether more dignified institution, on the grounds that he was not willing to uproot his family from their idyllic Norwegian home. And now here he is fetching up at a club that has latterly resembled the madhouse.

Yet, watching him conduct his first press conference as the new Bluebirds manager, this did not strike you as someone without a clue. He looked entirely at ease, in control, totally aware of what he had got himself into.

He certainly didn’t appear out of his depth. Rather, he looked a man with a plan.

And this has always been the Solskjaer way. He is a lot more ruthless than his benign appearance might suggest. Nobody survives a decade in Premier League penalty boxes without an ability to look after themselves, to get their retaliation in first. This has always been a man who enjoys making those who underestimate him pay.

It is that callous streak that will have allowed him to take the job, despite the manner in which Malky Mackay was so abused. A striker whose job was to inflict pain on the opposition was not going to linger long over any moral consideration. Besides that is the way with football: there is little pause to consider wrongs done to others. It is a business in which the momentum is forever forward, in which the new man barely waits for the old to be evicted before he puts his feet under the table.

Besides, in one sense, what happened to Mackay will have strengthened his position. Solskjaer is not someone who sells himself short. He will have used to his advantage the fact that Cardiff’s owner Vincent Tan was in urgent need of a manager of substance, an appointment moreover he had to get right in order to rescue what fragments of his credibility remain.

Tan, after all, inherited Mackay, and in that sense owed him nothing. But Solskjaer will be his own appointment, and therefore Tan is obliged to give the new boss the kind of assurances never available to the outgoing Scot. The length of discussions between the Norwegian and Cardiff’s chairman Mehmet Dalman gave a hint to the hardness of the bargain he will have driven.

And Solskjaer will have understood what it is that Tan wants out of Cardiff. He requires it to be a vehicle to project the scale of his ego across the globe. Apparently stung by the criticism he received for his absurd treatment of Mackay, Tan will want the world to see he can work with a football man, that he does understand the new business in which he is engaged.

Provided he keeps the club in the sunlit televised uplands of the Premier League, Solskjaer will have calculated he probably has at least a season, maybe two, before the unreasonableness of the demands begins to undermine his position.

Put it this way, he has a few months before Tan is publicly wondering why Cardiff haven’t yet won the World Cup. Besides it is not the worst thing in football to have a boss as certifiable as he now has. No-one can blame you if you fail with a madman as an owner.

Solskjaer will have gambled he will be gifted enough time to prove his credentials. We know he has what it takes to be a manager from what he did at Molde. When Uwe Rosler moved to Brentford, Solskjaer took over a club that was 11th in the Norwegian league. In his first season in charge he made them champions for the first time in their history. He repeated the trick the following year and won the Cup the year after that.

But what he has long wanted is the opportunity to prove he can cut it in the far more challenging working environment of the Premier League. He knew he couldn’t wait forever beside his fjord. He knew he had to grasp an opening eventually.

And he is not inheriting a bad side at Cardiff. As he said at his press conference, Mackay’s legacy was a squad good enough to stay in the division. Players like David Marshall, Stephen Caulker, Jordon Mutch and Gary Medel provide a substantial spine. It is not implausible to suggest a man as bright as Solskjaer might be able to find a way to turn them into a solid Premier League operation.

There is one other thing about his decision to move to Cardiff now. As he proved time and again in his playing career, this is a man with the most acute sense of timing. His arrival in south Wales might well prove perfectly judged to help him secure his ultimate ambition. He has made no secret of the job he aspires to.

Right now it is not available. But the way things are going, it could well be in the foreseeable future. Were it to come up, it would never be open to a manager whose sole experience is in Norway. A manager who has proven himself capable of working in the toughest of circumstances in the toughest of leagues, however, is a different proposition.

There will be many watching closely, then, when the old favourite of the Stretford End takes his new club to Old Trafford on 28 January. He will receive the sort of heartfelt welcome that makes it perfectly clear how the locals would feel were he ever to return on a long-term basis.

Many observers have made the point that the time to take over at Manchester United was not immediately after Alex Ferguson retired, but when someone else had failed to fill the great manager’s shoes. Solskjaer has now positioned himself perfectly for the job he has long craved. Just as he used to lurk at the far post, waiting to tap the ball home.