In the aftermath and jubilation of Manchester United’s dramatic, last gasp victory over Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 of the Champions League, the club’s star-studded former players were unanimous about the future of the then interim manager of The Red Devils.
That victory in the French capital was the culmination of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s work since he had replaced Jose Mourinho in December. The former Manchester United forward had initiated a remarkable run of victories and undeniably transformed the atmosphere at Old Trafford, lifting the gloom that had settled like smog in the dying days of Mourinho’s tenure.
Coupled with getting the club back into genuine contention for a top-four finish, it was easy to see why the football community was so taken with the Norwegian. That victory in the Champions League broke the dam, and demands for a permanent contract to be offered where suddenly inescapable.
The post-match TV coverage and social media response, populated heavily by former big name United players served to whip up a frenzied demand that Solskjaer’s stay be made permanent. A video of club legend, Gary Neville thrusting a microphone into Solskjaer’s face and asking him about his contract terms went viral. Rio Ferdinand left court at Mike Ashley’s lair to bang the drum for this former teammate during his ever insightful work as a pundit. Just week’s later and, hey presto, Ole was given the role on a full-time basis.
The ex-pros had their wish with Solskjaer handed the keys to the kingdom with a three-year deal offered to almost universal approval.
The football played under the Norwegian’s guidance has also been bolder, more adventurous, with the likes of Rashford, Pogba, and Martial given more attacking license. The stadium was louder and happier, with memories of the 1990’s flooding back for sentimental fans who have been lapping it up and enjoying the ride since Christmas.
Despite the happy clapping and run of form, the problems at United have not dissipated. Solskjaer will be under no illusions; the job he has inherited is more a rebuilding contract than a smooth transition to inevitable success. It’s a job that would taken even the most experienced of managers, a certain degree of time and money to put right.
There is an argument to suggest that a hasty, emotional decision has been made, in offering Solskjaer the job on a full-time basis. True, if his interim appointment was a job interview then he has interviewed very well. But that does not always make you the right candidate for the job.
The loud and persuasive voices, coming from the comfort of the television studios and well-groomed former star players may well have served to hasten a complicated and very important decision for one of the biggest clubs in world football.
Whether or not the decision proves to be right or wrong remains to be seen. However, it appears to be getting harder for club officials to sift through the noisy clamoring off the pitch once it gathers a bit of momentum in the fan base. This momentum is often fueled by the sight of a former star player pouring his heart out and calling for this and that to be done at their beloved club.
In this instance, it was the likes of Gary Neville and Rio Ferdinand, figureheads of a golden era and serial winners with inflated egos. However, United are not alone in this. Other huge clubs share this avenue of added pressure.
On the eve of their Champions League quarter-final clash with United, Barcelona were treated to a bit of wisdom from their former skipper Carlos Puyol. The Catalan legend insisted that this current Barcelona team had to replicate their domestic dominance, on the European stage with Messi still at the peak of his powers.
In his comments, there was perhaps even a hint of condescension towards their league success, but then Puyol was present in three of Barcelona’s European Cup winning sides so you can see why he would make such demands of the current roster of players at the Camp Nou.
With the Champions League chips falling the way they have this season, you cannot deny, Barcelona are the favourites. The added demand from heavyweight ex-players like Carlos Puyol may serve only to put up another hurdle for his former teammates.
This expectation from the touchlines, press rooms and media outlets, populated by former players serves only to heap the pressure on. Yes, top players must be able to demonstrate a certain degree of resilience to these demands; but in this era of 24-hour coverage, with an abundance of retired players in constant demand for punditry work, top clubs must now be wary of those who were once idolized on the terraces.
Of course, this phenomenon is nothing new and has been prevalent for some time. The popular, largely homegrown Quinta Del Buitre squad of Real Madrid in the 1980’s was derided by former legendary players, such as Alfredo Di Stefano, for failing to bag a single European Cup.
This was a side that won five successive La Liga titles as well as two UEFA Cups, but had to deal with the burden and expectation of the former star men putting their two cents in off the field. No doubt, this demanding expectation would have played a role in their mental approach to Europe’s competition.
Managing this vociferous noise off the pitch appears to be getting increasingly harder. The modern age of sports media and demand for 24 news and coverage has only exacerbated the issue. Whether it be a demand for dominant success or a clamoring to hark back to glory days and appoint a manager with ties to many of his former teammates now serving the sport in the media; it appears to be getting harder and harder for top sides to ignore this pressure.
This pressure is not going away and will likely continue to have a strong influence in the drama unfolding on and off the pitch at the biggest clubs in world football. How club directors and players manage this going forward, could well make a huge difference to their success or failure.