Timing is everything for new Cardiff manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
It took Ole Gunnar Solskjaer 30 seconds to become a coach.
It was August 2007, and he was in Sir Alex Ferguson's office at Manchester United's Carrington training ground. He told the coach that he was retiring because of his long-term knee injury. He had promised his wife a year off to travel the world. But then Ferguson asked Solskjaer to look after United's strikers.
"I had only been retired for 30 seconds and I already had a new job," Solskjaer recalled to French magazine So Foot.
He knew this was a one-off opportunity and so, with, apologies to Mrs. Solskjaer, he took it. The Norwegian returns to Premier League action next weekend as Cardiff City's new coach with struggling West Ham his first opponent. Given the problems previous coach Malky Mackay had with owner Vincent Tan, his appointment has been seen as something of a coup by Cardiff chairman Mehmet Dalman. But no one can doubt Solskjaer's sense of timing.
He had completed three seasons as coach of his hometown club Molde, winning the title - the team's first in its history - in his first two years. But it was his third season, the most testing of the lot, that will have best prepared Solskjaer for his new role in Wales. Molde had sold key players Vegard Forren (to Southampton) and Davy Claude Angan (to Hangzhou Greentown) and lost its first four league matches.
Before then, Molde under Solskjaer had never even lost two games in a row. It picked up only two points from its first seven games, the worst start ever from a defending champion. Take those games away, though, and Molde was only five points short of eventual champion Stromgodset for points (42 in its last 23 games compared to 47).
Molde finished in sixth place and ended the campaign on a high beating Rosenborg 4-2 in the Norwegian Cup final.
"Other mechanisms come into play when you are losing and it¹s a challenge," Solskjaer told Norwegian outlet Dagbladet. "You have to be a psychologist for the club, the players, the fans and the staff. You must avoid stressing too much, and avoid taking too many hurried decisions. We ended up where we did because of those first six matches."
Maybe Molde's more experienced players, their hunger sated by long-awaited success, grew complacent and took their feet off the gas at the start of season three. Or maybe Solskjaer's methods, seen as disciplinarian and effective when he first took over, simply stopped working. Dagbladet revealed the rules by which Solskjaer ran Molde when he first took over. The Solskjaer Directive (which sounds like an action thriller movie) was as follows:
- The players eat breakfast and lunch together every day
- There are rules for politeness
- There are real consequences when rules are breached
- The players are together from 11 a.m. every match day
- Every training session is led in English (this was to make the non-Norwegian-speakers feel included)
- Headphones are forbidden on team travels
- Every player has concrete personal goals that are followed up on
It was not in The Directive, but it also helped Solskjaer greatly that owners Kjell Inge Røkke and Bjørn Rune Gjelsten were prepared to financially support the coach with new signings; and that, rather like this season in the Premier League, there was no obvious other candidate for the title, with perennial winner Rosenborg going through a transition phase.
Solskjaer had been linked to jobs (without necessarily being offered them) in England before; Portsmouth and Aston Villa last season, and, last month, the vacancies at Fulham and West Brom. But Solskjaer, just as he did when a player, wanted to wait until the timing was right.
As a youngster, his first sport was wrestling. His father was an amateur wrestling champion. It was Solskjaer's misfortune that in his same training group was Norway's best young wrestler, so he always got beaten. At 10, he switched his focus to football where his skinny physique helped him.
He wasn't particularly fast, but soon learned to take decisions quickly to avoid getting tackled. By the time he moved to Old Trafford, he was prepared to willingly sacrifice playing time in return for medals and the opportunity to work with Ferguson.
That loyalty was tested before his finest hour in scoring the 1999 Champions League final's winning goal as, in summer 1998, Tottenham Hotspur tabled a bid for him. Solskjaer rejected the move.
"I said to myself, I will stay and do exactly what the boss tells me to do," Solskjaer told So Foot. "I put my career in his hands and he paid me back grandly."
Solskjaer has made no secret of the lessons he has learned from Ferguson; the diaries he made as a player at United, the opportunity to coach the strikers and then the reserve team. Both men are bad losers and never criticize their players in public. Solskjaer is also a good delegator.
"The most important thing Ferguson taught me is that he is dependent on trusting everyone around him," Solskjaer said to So Foot.
Timing, though, is everything. Solskjaer had taken charge of a team that is currently 17th in the Premier League table, and Tan will give him money to spend in January. He already added Magnus Wolff Eikrem from Heerenveen, whom he coached at United and Molde, and he is expected to sign Norway's most exciting talent, 18-year-old Mats Moller Daehli.
If Cardiff stays up, Solskjaer's job will be considered a success. And if the current problems at Old Trafford remain, and reigning champion United ends the season out of the top four, who is to say that Solskjaer would not be a contender for a possible vacancy in the United dugout?
Solskjaer's timing was one of the smartest around as a player. He might just prove to have the same touch as a coach.
Ben Lyttleton is a regular SI.com contributor and the author of the soon-to-be-released book Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty.