O n Friday 5 March 1909, Manchester United went to Burnley for an FA Cup quarter-final. The pitch was frozen, there was heavy snow and with 18 minutes remaining the referee, Herbert Bamlett, decided the match couldn’t go on. For United, the abandonment was fortunate: they had been 1-0 down but won the rearranged game 3-2 and went on, for the first time, to lift the FA Cup.
Bamlett, having refereed the 1914 FA Cup final, turned his hand to management, taking charge of Oldham, Wigan Borough and Middlesbrough, guiding the latter to the verge of promotion when, in April 1927, he was named manager of United.
It was an ill-starred appointment. Two months later, the club’s owner and benefactor, John Henry Davies, died. With money tight United struggled to refresh their squad, leading in 1931 to their relegation and the inevitable decision not to renew Bamlett’s contract. Which perhaps goes to show the folly of appointing a manager on a sentimental whim for something he had done to help the club to a trophy two decades earlier.
That brings us to the present situation. Since he was given the job on a permanent basis in March, no United manager since Bamlett – not Frank O’Farrell, not Wilf McGuinness, not even the hapless Scott Duncan – has a worse win percentage than Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s 36.67%.
It is all very well to speak of youth and promise, to preach the value of patience, but what if in a year or two years or four years, it turns out Solskjær was the wrong man all along? What evidence is there that he is the right man? What if the potential in the squad is squandered as a result? What if, most pressingly, they miss out on appointing somebody of the stature of Mauricio Pochettino as a result of loyalty to the idea of Solskjær?
The idea is appealing. Who wouldn’t want a club legend to return to restore the values he had absorbed as a player at the club? Who doesn’t like to think of their club as unique, as having a soul that only true initiates can understand? It’s why Frank Lampard remains so popular at Chelsea. It’s why Barcelona tried to appoint Xavi. It’s why Sunderland fans, at least until the upturn of a couple of weeks ago, took to singing for Kevin Phillips. It’s why the best football decision Ed Woodward has made as Manchester United CEO was to sack José Mourinho and appoint Solskjær on an interim basis.
He was the ideal man to restore the club’s values, to swill out the toxicity. And it worked. United ran along at 2.46 points per game. They pulled off that hilarious heist in Paris, using nothing more than the folk memory of a famous night in Barcelona 20 years earlier to guide them to an unlikely victory over PSG.
Woodward, ever sensitive to the breezes of public opinion, gave Solskjær the job full-time. Since when United have picked up 1.40 points per game. Bamlett, it may be noted, won six and drew one of his first seven games.
The modern world of football is an impatient place. Demands are habitually excessive. Short‑termism reigns. With today’s mindset, Herbert Chapman at Arsenal, Bill Shankly at Liverpool, Don Revie at Leeds, Brian Clough at Derby and Nottingham Forest and, most pertinently, Alex Ferguson at Manchester United might all have been sacked before achieving success.
But that is a dangerous way of thinking: just because some managers given time were successful doesn’t mean that all would be. As Solskjær approaches his 44th game in charge on Sunday against Liverpool, it is reasonable to ask what, if any, progress has been made.
Mourinho was sacked with a win percentage of 53.8%. Solskjær’s, even if you count those games as interim manager, is 48.8%. United are scoring fractionally more goals under Solskjær than Mourinho – 1.7 per game as opposed to 1.6 – but they are conceding 1.2 per game against 0.9.
In those early sunlit months of Solskjær’s reign, Louis van Gaal observed that United had appointed another counterattacking coach, which prompted widespread derision – but he was right. Whether football is exciting or not is, increasingly, in the eye of the beholder and it’s clear that many found Van Gaal’s focus on possession led to sterile football. But Solskjær’s side look a credible attacking force only against teams who leave space in behind them, whether because they attack United, as Tottenham and Manchester City did in that bizarre week of glory at the beginning of December, or because United have taken the lead, as happened against Norwich, Newcastle and Chelsea.
Modern football at the highest level, though, as Liverpool and Manchester City make clear every time they play, is about structured gambits. Attacking, just as much as defending, is about organisation, about players knowing where to move so that when the chance comes, the play is semi-automatic and too rapid even for packed rearguards to repel. A year on, there has been no sign of Solskjær coming close to achieving that.
One of the reasons Mourinho was ousted was that his football was deemed unbecoming to United’s history. Solskjær has not set his side up in the performatively negative way Mourinho occasionally did – at Anfield the season before last most memorably – but it is remarkable how similar their stats look. Passes per game have gone down under Solskjær, as have successful passes ending in the final third. Goals conceded to fast breaks – an indicator of how effective a team’s press is – are up by a factor of three.
United are a shambles. Their problems will not instantly be solved by replacing Solskjær. He is not some malign presence sapping the life force from the squad. But there is simply no evidence, attractive as the dream may be, that he is equipped, just as all seems lost, once again to turn up to save the day. Other managers are available, but they will not always be. At some point, vague promises of youth and counterattacking are not enough.