Everyone has a set of ‘Where were you?’ memories. Events that have left such a lasting impression that one has instant recall of what you were doing and where you were. For me, on of the first is in the early summer of 1999. I was in the front room, sitting on a two seater leather sofa. I distinctly remember eating spare ribs and sweet and sour chicken from the Chinese take away, Blossoms, up the round. I sat there, fixed to the television, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer fired the ball into the net to win Manchester United the Champions League.
I grew up in a house without digital TV so the Champions League was the only live football I got to see regularly. For most of my childhood watching football meant either sitting down, half asleep, on a Sunday morning to catch the repeat of Match of the Day (I still remember the Des Lynham days) or Wednesday evenings glued to ITV, wishing the ad breaks would speed up. Even now, long after my full throttle love affair with football has ended, the atmosphere of a Champions League night can still make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
The baby-faced assassin was, along with Scholes, Giggs, Schmeichel and Sherringham, one of my football icons. For me he is linked to a time when football was still fun to watch, England could go to the World Cup with at least a vague hope of doing well and big money hadn’t yet monopolized success in the domestic game. This weekend Ole was back, winning his first game in charge of Cardiff City, and I couldn’t be happier.
It is not just teary-eyed nostalgia that makes me hope Cardiff under Solskjaer can remain a Premier League club. The coming together of the Norwegian, widely cites as a calm, mild mannered manager who builds strong relationships with his players, and Vincent Tan, Cardiff’s divisive billionaire owner, is set to be fascinating.
Tan is everything that a stereotypical billionaire owner is expected to be. Big spending, unfeeling and with no real knowledge of how to run a football club. Having already changed the club’s name, shirt colour and installed the son of a business partner as the club’s head of recruitment, he then turned on manager Malky Mackay. There were times when he must have noticed that Cardiff’s supporters were more enthusiastic in cheering their under fire manager’s name than the team itself. Not that the support of fans and commentators across England could save Mackay, who was fired in late December, in circumstances that did nothing but further soil Tan’s reputation at the club. If there were a handbook on how not to run a football one would expect Tan to own a well-thumbed copy.
Appointing Solskjaer may be the only sensible move Tan has made this season, and it comes at a time when, for the first season in many years, the top flight of English football feels ready to change. Big money investment, from Roman Abramovich, Sheikh Mansour, the Glazer Family and others, has become the norm. Even clubs without famous billionaire owners are spending eye-watering sums on transfers, Tottenham Hotspur parting with around £100m on new players over the summer. The league is the most open and competitive is has been in a long time. In the pursuit of instant gratification the big spenders may well have changed the nature of the league for good, with money being spent up and down the table. How Solskjaer balances the needs of a demanding owner and the realities of the Premier League, and whether he can convince Vincent Tan to give him a fair shot at building a team for himself, will be test case for English football in a wider sense. If he succeeds it will be a triumph of football over business that might make others sit up and take notice. No pressure, Ole.