All managerial appointments are, at some level, expressions of hope. Hidden behind the claim, “This is the best person we could get for the job,” is another claim, “Here is the person we want to be right for the job.” And hidden behind that one, another: “Here is the kind of club we want to be.”
This is because, at least under the traditional and still largely extant English model, managers are the club. They have a weird, multifaceted role: half motivational speaker, half analyst, half strategist, half psychologist, half mascot, half puppet dictator, and half priest.
Three and half jobs, at the very least. All at the same time, all in public. And, of course, rightly or wrongly, there to take the flak for witless owners and the blame for underperforming players.
So what does Manchester United’s decision to appointment Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as permanent manager tell us about the club? What do the decision makers want? What do they want us to think they want?
Perhaps some consideration of his predecessors is important here. David Moyes got the job thanks to the idea that United, under Ferguson, had acquired something like inevitability, and all that was required to keep that going would be a kind of mini-Ferg: hard, stern, fair, Scottish. That was the hope; it failed.
Then came the big beast, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho. Appointments by a club that had realised, belatedly, that they should make some kind of gesture towards past excellence, a record, and a large pile of medals. Strong, proud, idiosyncratic managers. Tacticians and winners. That was the hope; it failed. At least by United’s own standards — wins in the FA Cup and the Europa League would do for most clubs.
Which brings us to Solskjaer. If Moyes was an appointment made in hope of “smooth continuity,” and if Van Gaal and Mourinho were different flavours of “brilliant dictator,” then Solskjaer is, on the face of it, a kind of strange compromise, a retrofuturistic appointment. On the one hand he’s young, and by all accounts a thoroughly up-to-date coaching nerd, such as all sensible clubs are looking for. In Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna he has two assistants of similar provenance, if unproven quality.
But he only has the job because he’s a figure from Ferguson’s United, a goal-scoring cult hero, and somebody who gets it. Exactly what “it” is may be up for debate — “the United Way” is a mishmash of memory, aspiration, and myth — but we know for sure that Moyes, Van Gaal, and Mourinho didn’t get it.
And Solskjaer does, which is the key. Even “it” is entirely imaginary, it still has a certain power, as long as enough people can be persuaded to buy in. Solskjaer may not be much of a football manager, at least not yet, but he’s very good at doing a convincing impression of what a United manager should be.
There’s the hope. Moyes quailed, Van Gaal huffed and puffed, and Mourinho retreated behind the high walls of his own ego. Solskjaer fits.
The Norwegian has one major advantage over his predecessors and his putative rivals in that he’s actually had a shot at the job, and has looked pretty comfortable so far. Even if some of the results have felt a little fortunate, and even if this has all taken place in the warm, cosy, consequence-free world of the caretaker, there’s been enough tangible, observable improvement in style and mood to suggest something has worked.
That doesn’t make him a good manager, of course, let alone the great one that United are hoping to stumble across. It remains to be seen if he will still look the part if results turn. Perhaps even more importantly, we still don’t know if United will support his appointment with the behind-the-scenes reformation they so desperately need. It’s easy enough to imagine a clutch of underwhelming signings, a halting start, and ultimately tearful press conference in 12 months time.
But back to hope, again. United’s statement announcing the appointment made reference to “a desire to give young players their chance” and “a deep understanding of the culture of the club,” which might as well have read, “look, he’s not the last guy, who hated kids, or the guy before that, who mostly went sideways.”
And that, ultimately, is the point. Solskjaer is simultaneously familiar and different, and that breeds both trust and optimism. It doesn’t guarantee success, but then nothing does. Except, perhaps, careful and sensible long-term planning. And that hasn’t been the United way for a good long while.