The story of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s final days as Cardiff City boss and why Manchester United great was sacked
There are plenty of differences between Cardiff City and Manchester United. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer found out all about them during a nine-month stint in South Wales.
“He was stepping into a really toxic situation. I thought he was asking for trouble.”
There weren’t many Cardiff fans who thought differently to Bluebirds author and blogger Scott Johnson, when assessing the situation Solskjaer inherited upon his appointment at the club in January 2014.
The United legend had earned his coaching stripes within the familiar and warm environment of the Old Trafford academy, as reserves boss, still working under long-time mentor Sir Alex Ferguson, before returning home to manage Molde in Norway. But it was in the Welsh capital where Solskjaer really cut his teeth, appointed as Malky Mackay’s successor midway through Cardiff’s debut Premier League season.
Solskjaer’s appointment had been far less controversial than the sacking of his predecessor, and had come off the back of the Cardiff chairman’s love of United and history working with the Glazers. There was genuine hope that it could work, and launch both Cardiff as a Premier League force, and Solskjaer’s career in elite-level management.
Mehmet Dalman, speaking to the MEN in February about hiring Solskjaer, said: “There were rumours going around that he was going to join other Premier League clubs and so Vincent [Tan] and I flew out to Norway and met him. We shook hands on it and that was that.”
Yet any hopes that Solskjaer would be the man to lead Cardiff away from a relegation scrap were dealt a harsh reality check in the weeks that followed.
They weren’t actually in the drop zone at the time of his appointment, but they soon would be. Results quickly took a further nosedive — they had been solid if unspectacular under Mackay — and the baby-faced assassin soon found himself in the trenches of a relegation battle.
His style of football, and perceived naivety, didn’t go down well. And Cardiff went down with a whimper.
They won just three Premier League games that season following his arrival and on eight occasions they conceded three goals or more. Successive hammerings in the north east, 4-0 at Sunderland and 3-0 at Newcastle, sent Cardiff back to the Championship after one dreadful campaign, marred initially by the acrimony between Mackay and owner Vincent Tan, and then poor results under Solskjaer.
He retained his role as manager despite dropping back into the Championship, but recruitment was haphazard and Solskjaer was suddenly in a league that was alien to him — and where his preference for attacking and open football wouldn’t succeed.
Solskjaer’s Cardiff signed 10 players in the summer of 2014 after relegation, a policy that would land them in debt in the long term — and hardly led to cohesive football in the short-term.
Dalman added: “I think if you really analyse it without any emotion and noise, there were three factors, in my view, that went against his time at Cardiff.
“One, his lack of experience in the Championship. A league he’d never managed nor played in.
“Second, the infrastructure around him — including the extended coaching staff — probably wasn’t good enough and that’s also true of the people he brought in as well. And third, I don’t think he had enough time.”
Plenty of Cardiff fans shudder when they remember Solskjaer’s time in charge, and would seriously contest that last point from Dalman.
Johnson added: “When he went down to the Championship, it was a division he didn’t know and had no experience of. It was a very swashbuckling style and sometimes it would work, but with the calibre of players Cardiff had, they were so wide open and they’d get picked off more often than that. It was cavalier, no-need football, I felt.”
With Cardiff lingering towards the bottom of the Championship by September in the 2014/15 season, Tan made another change. The chaotic Solskjaer regime — which hadn’t been helped by the club’s lavish spending — had to come to an end. His assistants Mark Dempsey and Richard Hartis, both now alongside him at United, would leave as well.
It was dawning on the Malaysian, advised by Dalman, that he’d made several mistakes. Solskjaer was just the tip of the iceberg, but he was indeed sacked on September 18th and replaced by Russell Slade, a less glamorous name who was tasked with reducing the club’s wage bill and taking them back to basics. Tan then reversed his controversial red-to-blue rebrand of the club and would eventually appoint Neil Warnock — the ultimate man for a crisis — to return them to the Premier League.
Cardiff fans don’t look back fondly on Solskjaer’s tenure, but most accept he wasn’t solely to blame for the problems.
He was, though, sacked fairly hastily and quickly after a run of three defeats in seven games and with criticism of his inability to shore up the defence.
Tan, in the statement confirming Solskjaer’s departure, described him as an “honest and hard-working professional” but said: “Unfortunately the football results were not in his favour.”
United fans might see some parallels with their current situation under Solskjaer, amid calls for the Norwegian to be sacked. The situation is very different, of course, and Solskjaer has done far more good work with United than he did for Cardiff. But the end days could be approaching.