Solskjær taking his love for the FA Cup to the United dugout
Interim manager has many good memories of the competition from his playing days
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ronny Johnson of Manchester United celebrate in the dressing room with the FA Cup after the 1999 final win over Newcastle. Photo: John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images
Ole Gunnar Solskjær has always loved the FA Cup – he rates walking out at Wembley in 1999 as highly as all the other memories from that year because the Cup final on television was always an event when growing up in Norway – and he is equally happy to be renewing a rivalry with Arsenal that is just as fondly remembered.
“The games against Arsenal were the fiercest battles we had during my time in England, ” Manchester United’s caretaker manager said. “They won the double, we won the treble and the games were just fantastic because they were the two top teams. We had a great team and they had a very good one. It was a special rivalry and I’m not sure the Premier League has seen anything like it since, although perhaps Manchester City and Liverpool at the moment are close.
“We’ll have to wait and see how long that lasts, because we are hoping to get up to that level again soon. Twenty years ago it was just us and Arsenal for a long time, going at each other, going for the title. It was just between the two of us until José came along with Chelsea, I can’t remember any other challengers. Maybe one year Liverpool were half close but that was it.”
So intense was the rivalry that Solskjær was astonished to see Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira make a television programme together a few years ago, when in their playing days they were more famous for being at each other’s throats. “I couldn’t believe that,” he said. “They used to be fighting all the time. There was a nice little fight in the tunnel in that 4-2 game where John O’Shea scored the winning goal [February 2005], but whenever we played Arsenal in those days there were fights in the tunnels and on the pitch. It was just everything I loved about football, that passion is part of the game. I hope the next game is as good as some of the ones we have had.”
In terms of FA Cup meetings the one everyone remembers most vividly is the semi-final in 1999, with its replay, Peter Schmeichel penalty save and Ryan Giggs’s stunning winner. Solskjær played in both, though had been substituted by the time Giggs went on his slaloming run in extra-time at Villa Park. “I watched that goal from the sidelines, but the two sides were so evenly matched we all knew it was such an important game,” he recalled. “I firmly believe that Peter saving that penalty from Dennis Bergkamp gave us the impetus to go on and win the treble. If Bergkamp had scored I think Arsenal would have won the double. That’s how small the margins were, and that is why it is still a standout memory for me.”
While Solskjær would go on to make his own indelible contribution to the treble and Manchester United history with his stoppage-time winner against Bayern Munich in Barcelona, a slightly less celebrated fact is that he did the same thing against Liverpool in a fourth round tie at Old Trafford almost exactly 20 years ago this weekend.
United had trailed to a Michael Owen goal for most of the game, but two goals in the last three minutes from Dwight Yorke and Solskjær saw them through. Newspapers at the time produced the same “smash and grab” headlines they would later use for the jaw-dropping conclusion to the Champions League final, and when Solskjær’s winner went in there were even pictures of Liverpool players dropping to the ground in exactly the manner made famous by Sammy Kuffour and his fellow defenders in the Camp Nou.
Solskjær’s interventions from the substitutes’ bench earned him renown; a month after the Liverpool game he came on in a league match at Nottingham Forest and scored four goals in 12 minutes, but without his lesser known last gasp winner dreams of a treble might have been stifled at an early stage.
Solskjær is presently making a name for himself all over again in a different capacity at Old Trafford. Seven wins in succession is impressive whatever the calibre of opposition, and after beating Tottenham at Wembley this month there is no reason for United and their engaging young manager to fear a trip to the Emirates Stadium. Already proving an inspired managerial solution if the object of the exercise is to provide an antidote to José Mourinho’s suspicion and sarcasm, Solskjær gives the impression of positively relishing the challenge. “Let’s make sure it’s a good game,” he said, after confirming Alexis Sánchez will come in to play against his old club.
Is he not worried about the Chilean being mocked by the Arsenal crowd on account of his stuttering form in Manchester? “I think he’ll love it,” Solskjær said. “As a player, pride kicks in if the crowd turns against you. You think: ‘I’ll show all of you.’ I have no worries at all about Alexis being involved. He’s been fantastic in training, his attitude has been spot on, so hopefully he’ll enjoy the game.”