The good news for Manchester United supporters seeking a little uplift at the end of a depressing week is that Ole Gunnar Solskjær is looking forward to playing on the notorious Tranmere Rovers pitch. “A game on the Prenton Park surface sums up the romance of the FA Cup for me,” the United manager said. “We should be able to go to a League One side and outplay them but, if the state of the pitch makes that impossible, then we’re up for a scrap. We want to go as far as we can in this competition, I’d love to get to the final.”
Solskjær knows perfectly well, of course, that Louis van Gaal not only reached the final but won at Wembley in 2016 and was still sacked the same weekend, but he is not about to break the habit of the past 12 months and start feeling sorry for himself.
“I don’t fear for my position. I just keep on working,” he said. “I believe in this group of players and I’m not going to change. We’ve had a couple of rainy days but there’s nowhere to hide and I’ve not seen any of my players trying to hide.
“We are all in this together and we want to make it a success but everybody knows the importance of results. The mood is still good at the training ground despite all the noise from outside. I understand the supporters expressing their frustration. If things aren’t going well, you get used to that at this club. But it’s our job to shut out the outside noise and put things right.”
Anyone of a generously optimistic disposition might care to note that the FA Cup came to a certain Alex Ferguson’s rescue when the noise around Manchester United was reaching a previous peak 30 years ago. So those preparing Solskjær’s obituaries should at least wait to see how this pans out.
Yet the FA Cup is not what it was 30 years ago, as evinced by Van Gaal’s treatment, and, if the perceived idea of success is now to return to the Champions League and get within hailing distance of Liverpool and Manchester City, it is not going to be achieved by losing at home to Burnley with most of Old Trafford either leaving before the end or complaining bitterly about those in charge.
Solskjær is clearly not the problem here, although we have probably seen enough by now to work out he is not the solution either. A United manager who loses more matches than he wins is not going to last long, simple as that. Solskjær’s advantage, however, is that the executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, cannot afford to wield the axe on another coach without making himself look more ridiculous and inviting even more scrutiny of his highly questionable decision-making in the past.
Solskjær was never going to turn the job down, that was a major part of his attraction, though he must have realised by now that not every managerial candidate would have jumped at the chance to work for Woodward and the Glazer family.
Should Solskjær depart any time soon, it would be interesting to discover what sort of replacement United might line up when so much has been made of their former striker being put in charge of a cultural reset at the club.
No one really knows what that phrase means, even though Solskjær used it at his most recent press conference. The fans who sang of throwing Woodward and the Glazers on a bonfire during the Burnley game are not interested in a cultural reset; they would settle for a few decent performances and an end to the obfuscation over Paul Pogba – results, in other words. Not that much changes in football.
It is fair to say that Pep Guardiola at Manchester City and Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool have changed their respective clubs’ cultures, though at no time during their period in charge was there any real hiatus or complaints about a run of poor results.
It is true that managers with firm ideas to implement need time to make them work but it is just as true that results remain the only way for managers to buy themselves time. It is not entirely fair for Solskjær to say, as he did on Friday, that it took Klopp four years to bring Liverpool up to their present standard. Klopp’s Liverpool have been Champions League ever-presents in every season since he joined the club apart from the first, when they reached the final of the Europa League, and they have been to two successive Champions League finals since.
Klopp took over a good squad, granted, as did Guardiola at City. Yet while the players at Solskjær’s disposal are hardly duffers, he keeps talking of rebuilding the club from the foundations up. That sounds a long process, if not a reminder of Van Gaal and the three-year plan his employers tired of after only two. United might have put up with him for longer but it seemed silly to carry on boring people to death once the entertaining José Mourinho became available.
If the club have learned anything from their recent history it is that there are no sure-fire successes in this game, except the ones that have an annoying habit of turning up at their rivals.
The whole point of Solskjær, it could be argued, is that he is a left-field option who was never billed as a sure-fire success. The trouble at the moment is that he has yet to alter that initial perception.