Belfast Telegraph

Norman Whiteside: Solskjaer has brought back United style we love


Norman Whiteside
Norman Whiteside
Back in Ole routine: Ole GunnarSolskjaer celebrates during his dream start as United’s interim boss
Marcus Rashford shows some of what the Norwegian has taught him

By Jim Gracey

Revered by the Manchester United legions, there isn't a Red Devil in the land who doesn't envy Norman Whiteside.

From gracing the Old Trafford sward as he rose to 1980s legend status, he now enjoys close-up views of the action from the best seats in the house as a matchday host in the hospitality suites.

It's a dream role for a former player steeped in the club history and tradition since joining as a 14-year-old straight from schools football on Belfast's Shankill Road.

But lately the Saturday job had begun to lose its lustre for the now 53-year-old. After four decades of playing and then watching football the United way of attack, attack, attack, he was looking on disbelievingly as the once great entertainers routinely fluffed their lines on club football's biggest stage.

And then the unthinkable happened, convincing him that regime change was inevitable as the curtain fell on Jose Mourinho's lamentable final act.

"People were leaving the ground early, they were so hard to watch," relates Norman incredulously. "I'd never seen that at Old Trafford before. Even in the hospitality suites, where they pay top dollar, they'd just brush out past you. The results weren't good, the football was unattractive, visiting teams no longer feared coming to Old Trafford. It couldn't go on."

But if the managerial departure of Mourinho was no surprise to a seasoned United observer with his insider's antenna tuned to the mood of the club, the appointment of another Red legend, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, was a bit of an eye-opener, he admits.

Wonder quickly turned to admiration and approval at the immediate impact of the Norwegian hero of the treble-completing 1999 Champions League win.

Five wins out of five ahead of tomorrow's acid test against Tottenham at Wembley have put Solskjaer on a plinth with the fans who adored him as their smiling assassin goal poacher, giving him the best start as a United manager since the father of the club, Sir Matt Busby, in 1946.

And few are better placed than Norman to happily confirm: "Everything at the club has changed in a few short weeks since Jose departed before Christmas. The atmosphere at home matches has gone from doom and gloom to excitement surging through the stands again.

"It's the United style of play we know and love. It's not just Ole's results that have lifted the mood - it is the way he is getting them.

"United are a team going forward again with the crowd behind them. Players who looked inhibited and afraid under Jose have now thrown off whatever shackles were holding them back and are expressing themselves freely.

"Ole hasn't exactly waved a magic wand. He's simply reminded the players of their quality… that's why you are in the team, go out and show it.

"I can't pinpoint a single reason why it all went wrong under Jose. Just as good players don't become bad players overnight, neither do managers.

"He won three trophies in his first season, including the Europa League, a hard one to achieve, and a year and a half later, it all turns to dust and he is gone. It is hard to fathom.

"What I would say is that even when he was successful and winning trophies, for United and elsewhere, his style of play and methods were never the United way.

"Communication, I feel, was a big problem. A gulf seemed to develop between him and his players, Paul Pogba in particular. A lot of fans won't have been enamoured by Pogba and his social media persona but the problems between player and manager can't have been all one way.

"Something wasn't right in the dressing room, whispers were starting to find their way into the media, it obviously wasn't a happy camp and that translated into performances on the pitch.

"Part of the problem, I felt, was that Jose lacked a buffer between himself and the players. He believed he could handle everything.

"That was an area Sir Alex Ferguson handled brilliantly. Part of his genius was realising the importance of a good No.2 and go between, someone players can talk to and relate to, who can defuse issues before they develop into clashes with the manager. When I was there, it was Archie Knox. After that came strong figures like Brian Kidd, Steve McClaren and Mike Phelan, whose return and influence has played a big part in the turnaround under Ole.

"The whole player-manager relationship seemed to break down under Jose. Look at the way he habitually bawled out young players like Luke Shaw and Marcus Rashford.

"That was bound to affect their confidence. I saw players reluctant to express themselves for fear of a rollicking from the touchline. In the end, there was a chasm between him and the players. Anyone who understands United knew he had to go.

"To be honest, he wasn't my choice for the job in the first place. I would like to have seen Pep Guardiola given the job but that isn't going to happen now."

And while Solskjaer, who Whiteside has met and likes, has got a reborn team off to a flying start, the Northern Ireland World Cup hero of 1982 and 1986, and still the tournament's youngest player, believes the Norwegian's temporary role is not destined to become permanent.

"If Ole keeps winning and adds a trophy or two, he will have presented a strong case the club will find hard to ignore," said Norman. "But I do believe he is keeping the seat warm for Mauricio Pochettino, who seems to have been identified as the long-term target - that is if he and his club Spurs can be persuaded. There are no guarantees on that score.

"Some people see the hand of Sir Alex in Ole's appointment. It has certainly proved to be an inspired choice in the interim. But while I am sure they've enjoyed chats and cups of tea together, I don't think Fergie is pulling any strings. Ole is his own man and I've been very impressed at how he has gone about his work.

"He was a goalscorer supreme and already has begun to show Rashford and even the experienced Lukaku and Sanchez how to improve. I've always thought Rashford was a great prospect but he has a tendency to just whack the ball when he gets sight of goal. Ole will show him how to be more subtle to increase his strike rate. He has told Lukaku to face the goal more and use his physical presence like an old fashioned centre-forward and I hope he can find a way to give Sanchez a new lease of life. He is the one player whose failure to make an impact I don't think can be laid at the door of Jose. He never really settled or brought the form he showed at Arsenal. His main problem seems to be positional and if Ole can find a fit for him, he could become an asset."

Whoever succeeds Mourinho permanently will inherit some of the same problems faced by the Portuguese unless, Whiteside believes, United invest in a new central defender.

"The best United teams have always featured strong defensive characters like Martin Buchan and Paul McGrath, in my time, Gordon McQueen, Steve Bruce, Jaap Stam, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. I like Eric Bailly of the current crop but he is injured a lot and Victor Lindelof still has a bit to do," he argued.

And as for tomorrow's first major test of Solskjaer's credentials, against Tottenham at Wembley, Whiteside predicts honours even.

"I like Tottenham and the way they play. The present side remind me of the entertainers of the Ardiles and Hoddle era. They just aren't winning trophies.

"Still, they have smashing players in Kane, Eriksen, Son and Dele Alli. United will be up against it but I think they can come away with a 1-1 draw," he added.

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