East Stand at Old Trafford

What Can Manchester United’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Learn from Busby, Ferguson and Mourinho

Image by Crystian Cruz, flickr.

Jose Mourinho’s time as Manchester United manager was hardly a laugh a minute. The Portuguese ‘Special One’ had his moments during his spell at the club and did lead the club to success in the EFL Cup and Europa League in his first season in charge but it was clear for months before his sacking that it was time for his reign to end.

Sacking Mourinho solved many of the problems that the club had in terms of squad morale. Mourinho’s relationships with several players had broken down to the point of no repair so it was no surprise that players like Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku were reportedly very happy with the news. The board still had work to do to win back the fans though which is why it was such a good idea to appoint a manager held in very high regard by the Old Trafford faithful.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was more than happy to play the role of peacemaker between the fans and the board. His appointment on a temporary basis went down very well as there is a huge amount of good feeling from the Man United fans towards the man who played a key role in so much success for the club during his time as a player.

Everybody at the club seemed happy to try and enjoy themselves as much as possible under Solskjaer’s management until the end of the season when an appointment would be made on a long term basis. However, the Norwegian’s impact has been felt every bit as much on the pitch as in the changing room. He became the first manager Man United manager since the legendary Matt Busby to win his first four games at the club, leading some to question whether he could actually be the man for the long term.

Solskjaer feels confident enough to make it clear that he does not want to leave at the end of the season. He will be very aware that the goodwill garnered by even the best start can quickly erode. With that in mind we thought it was a good idea to look at the careers of three of the biggest names to ever manage Man United and see what lessons Solskjaer can learn.

Busby Shows Confidence Trumps Early Support from the Stands

Sir Matt Busby Statue at Old Trafford
Image: coward_lion, Bigstock Photo

You could almost feel the atmosphere around Man United change when Solskjaer’s appointment was announced. The United fans wasted no time in singing the new manager’s name both home and away and there is no doubt that goodwill has helped the Norwegian in the early days of his new job. However, Man United’s history shows that early backing from the crowd is far from a necessity when it comes to having success.

The name of Matt Busby will be forever linked with Manchester United due to everything he achieved at the club during his time as manager. In many ways, Busby set the tone for the sort of manager that Man United fans want. He was the original dynasty builder long before Sir Alex Ferguson had even retired from his playing career. However, Busby couldn’t be further from a Man United legend when he took over the reins at the club in 1945.

As a player, Busby had spent the majority of his career at Man City. When he left United’s local rivals in 1936 it was for a move to Liverpool. Man United’s rivalries with those two teams have changed a lot since Busby’s time but he was still something of a surprise appointment especially as the inexperienced manager demanded complete control of coaching, first team selection and transfer policy, something that was very rare in English football at the time.

Busby benefitted from a personal friendship with Louis Rocca, who played a sort of fixer role for Man United, but he still had to show great personal confidence and fortitude to make such outlandish demands right at the start of his time as United manager. Those demands were not made out of any misplaced sense of his own ability as a manager though, rather because he believed wholeheartedly in his vision for how the game should be played.

Solskjaer is never going to have complete control of events at Old Trafford but he can learn from Busby’s steadfast beliefs and will do well to show Ed Woodward and the rest of the Man United board that he has a strong footballing philosophy and a process that he is believes in and then work very hard to prove them that he and his views can deliver the club the success that the fans demand. Solskjaer can also learn from Busby that a lack of experience managing a club the size of Man United needn’t stop him from going on to achieve something special.

Luck May Well Play a Part Like it Did for Ferguson

When Matt Busby was negotiating his contract with Man United board he got them to agree to a five year deal rather than the three years they were initially offering because he believed that’s how long it would take for his methods to really start bearing fruit. That turned out to be an accurate prediction as United didn’t win the league under Busby’s management until 1952 although they did win the 1948 FA Cup.

Busby then set about replacing many of his older stars with younger players full of potential, ultimately creating the Busby Babes side of the mid to late 1950s and the incredible side built after the Munich air disaster. Those teams would make Busby the most successful manager in Man United’s history but he was eventually surpassed by Sir Alex Ferguson.

Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford with much more kudos than Busby thanks to his incredibly achievements as manager of Aberdeen. However, he too found life tough early on and was famously on the verge of being sacked just three years after being appointed when Man United faced Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup. Were it not for a Mark Robins winner in that game Ferguson may well have gone down as a failure as Man United manager. Instead, he went on to lift the FA Cup that season and then win 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups and the Champions League twice, in amongst much more success.

The legend around that Robins goal has been built up over the years and its importance over-emphasised. However, it is true that Ferguson was in dire trouble and needed a bit of luck to go his way before going on to become arguably the greatest manager of all time. Solskjaer is never going to get remotely close to Ferguson’s record but he will do well to remember that football is a game of fine margins at times and that sheer dumb luck will play a bigger part in his time at Man United and there is no point trying to deny it. Only by focussing on the things that he can control and what he believes in will Solskjaer have any chance of remaining at the club for longer than one season.

Mourinho Failed to Understand Man United is Bigger Than Any One Person

Jose Mourinho on Touchline Managing Manchester United
Image: vverve, Bigstock Photo

There was always a feeling of unease in the relationship between Jose Mourinho and Man United. Not only did the ‘Special One’ have history when it came to winding the United fans up during his two spells in charge at Chelsea. There were also concerns about how his style of football and management would fit at Old Trafford but the fans and board were willing to put those worries to one side in the quest for more major silverware.

Issues with the defensive style of play employed by Mourinho reared their head at times but the main cause of friction between the Portuguese and the fans came when he denigrated the club’s history. The most egregious example of this happened during a post-match press conference following Man United’s elimination from the Champions League round of 16 at the hands of Sevilla. Rather than agreeing that Man United should be competing in the latter stages of the competition, Mourinho suggested that it was not unusual for them to be knocked out citing his own success at Old Trafford as an opposition manager.

That was far from the only time that Mourinho took the opportunity to talk about his own previous successes ahead of those of the club. Man United are the biggest club in the world and it never goes down well with their fans when managers or players try to make themselves out as bigger than the club.

That should not be a concern for Solskjaer. He has spoken about how nice it is for him to walk down the corridors at Old Trafford and Carrington and say hello to people who he knew during his time as a player. He understands the idea of Man United as a family better than Mourinho ever could but the main challenge will come when players put their head above the parapet and forget that it must always be about the club rather than and he has to instil some discipline. Certain members of the United squad will likely be particularly resistant to discipline due to the way they were treated by Mourinho so it’s something that Solskjaer must be very careful to manage if he is to learn from the mistakes of his predecessor.

If Solskjaer does indeed learn lessons from previous Man United managers, there is every chance he could be a great success at the club, if given the chance to continue next season and beyond.