A Tale of Two Clubs

To start off this blog, here is a recap of what has happened to Norway’s greatest footballing export, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, over the last few days.

Since giving up his legendary playing career at Manchester United in the late 2000s, Solskjær has ventured into coaching. At first, he stayed loyal to his old boss, Sir Alex Ferguson, and coached Manchester United’s reserve team. However, during the dying days of 2010 came an offer he could not possibly refuse. Molde, the top flight club nearest to his home town of Kristiansund, offered him a position as Supreme Overlord (aka Manager) and amazing sums of cash to help him build up a good team.

Molde was not and has never been a poor side in Norwegian football, mind you. Hailing from a town of barely 25 000 inhabitants, they reached their first cup final in 1974 and had racked up two cup triumphs and an almost heartbreaking display of second and third places in the league by the time Solskjær arrived. Over the last decade and a half, they had also received extensive financial aid from favorite sons Bjørn Rune Gjelsten and in particular Kjell Inge Røkke, who was Norway’s richest man at the start of the new millennium. Røkke also built a new, modern stadium for the club in the late 90s. The 2010 season, which followed another second place (their seventh) in 2009, was dominated by a combination of misfortune and mismanagement which resulted in a disappointing 11th place finish and the firing of Swedish coach Kjell Jonevret.

Solskjær’s arrival prompted a promise of practically unlimited funds from Røkke’s Aker Group, and many Norwegian football fans believed the floodgates had now opened for a Norwegian Manchester City (irony of ironies). Instead, Solskjær based his team mostly around young, mostly local talent as well as building on the excellent squad he already possessed. Thus, Molde ended up taking home their first league title in November 2011, and speculations were ripe that he would end up being picked by an English Premier League club – and even that he would become Sir Alex Ferguson’s eventual successor at Manchester United.

Well, that is exactly what brought up the story that has amused and puzzled football pundits and fans across Norway over the past few days. Aston Villa of Birmingham fired their under-performing manager Alex McLeish on Tuesday. The English footballing press launched Solskjær as a candidate to take over. So, only 24 hours after leading his team to a 2-0 win over Fredrikstad on Norway’s “National Day of Football”, and on the evening of Norway’s Constitution Day (May 17), Solskjær was informed that the private jet of Aston Villa owner Randy Lerner (also owner of the Cleveland Browns v2.0) had landed at Kristiansund Airport. The plane left the town on the morning of the 18th, carrying Solskjær and his wife with it. The couple returned from Birmingham only a few hours later to find that total chaos had erupted in all channels of Norwegian media.

Several media sources, most notably TV2 (broadcaster of the English Premier League in Norway), had practically decided that Sunny (his nickname at Man Utd, somewhat easier than Solskjær for the average English speaker,) was going to end up at Aston Villa. The man himself defused the rumors, claiming that the parties were only in “beginning, informal talks”. By evening of May 18th, however, all hell had broken loose. Kjell Inge Røkke, the man who is responsible for the financial element of Molde’s success, announced that due to Solskjær’s “disobedience” (sic) he would be withdrawing Aker Group’s financial support starting in 2013. Molde fans understandably felt like they were experiencing their worst possible nightmare coming true.

For the rest of the evening, the media focused on the contradicting statements made by Røkke and Solskjær. Both claimed that the businessman had asked his manager multiple questions before the flight across the North Sea. Solskjær also claimed that he had answered these questions, and had received Røkke’s approval before beginning talks. Røkke claimed the exact opposite.

Chaos in the late evening of the 18th. Top story: “Solskjær to nrk.no: ‘I have answered Røkke’s questions’. Bottom left: Røkke claims “Solskjær went to England without answering my questions”. Bottom right: “Supporter club: ‘Everyone has failed’.” From public broadcaster NRK’s website nrk.no.

By morning, there was extensive fence mending going on in all camps. Molde and Ole Gunnar Solskjær confirmed in unison that he would stay on at the club (though Solskjær admits that he wants a job in the Premier League at some point, and Molde confirmed that they have lost some confidence in him), and Røkke seemed to confirm that he privately would still support Molde financially. Norwegian media analysts seemed to be in agreement that both Solskjær’s actions and Røkke’s reaction were ill-placed, and many even classified the latter as a temper tantrum. Over the web, rumors and speculations spread that Solskjær will leave Molde during summer break. Candidates for his successor were launched, among them German Uwe Rösler (currently manager at Brentford, and the only coach in Norwegian football who has been seen above the Arctic Circle in shorts in March). Aston Villa sources report that he is still top candidate for the job in Birmingham. “Og sånn går no dagan”, as we say in Norwegian (1). The entire story may very well turn into something resembling an ancient saga.

(1)    = “Og sånn går no dagan” is an expression meaning something along the lines of “And thus the days pass”. It can be interpreted as meaning “An absolutely ridiculous situation that has become normal and expected”.

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