OLIVER HOLT: Second to Man City is not worth celebrating for United

OLIVER HOLT: Manchester United look small-time by praising Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s ‘phenomenal success’… he is making progress but they are still 14 points behind City with nine games left to play

  • Questions will be asked of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after Man United’s FA Cup exit 
  • The club’s managing director, Richard Arnold, backed the Norwegian this month
  • Solskjaer has done well at the Red Devils, rebuilding Paul Pogba and Luke Shaw
  • But his issue is being perceived as the main symbol of the club’s lack of ambition 

It is not Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s fault that the managing director of Manchester United, Richard Arnold, appears to be trying hard to be as adept at putting his foot in his mouth as he is at signing new global noodle partners. You can’t choose your parents, they say, and if you’re a football manager, you can’t choose your club executives, either.

A few days before United were knocked out of the FA Cup by Leicester City last Sunday, Arnold launched into a florid reverie about just how amazing Solskjaer was. He talked about him as if he were Sir Alex Ferguson in his pomp or Jose Mourinho beating Barcelona at the Nou Camp when he was winning the Champions League at Inter Milan, or Jurgen Klopp after his seasons in the sun at Liverpool.

‘No one in the world is happier than me with the phenomenal success he is bringing,’ Arnold said after the announcement of a sponsorship deal. ‘When you’re inside the club and you are seeing the work of the man and the character, it makes you so happy. He deserves to succeed and he is, and that makes me very happy.’

Questions are being asked about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after Manchester United’s FA Cup exit

United managing director Richard Arnold (left) spoke positively about Solskjaer last week

What? First of all, it makes Arnold sound as if he’s a five-year-old with posters of Ole on his wall. I mean, it’s oddly reminiscent of that car-crash TV moment when Tom Cruise started jumping up and down on Oprah Winfrey’s sofa to convey how much he loved someone he later divorced. You’re the managing director, for God’s sake. Not a fanboy. And secondly, it bears no relation to reality.

Look, I think Solskjaer is doing a solid job at Old Trafford. Maybe better than solid. After the upheavals under Louis van Gaal and Mourinho, which took the club backwards, Solskjaer has brought stability and order and a sense that United are moving — slowly — back towards the summit of the game.

He has managed a difficult situation with Paul Pogba well, he has rebuilt Luke Shaw, he has used the club’s youth system well, he has guided United back to second in the Premier League and is building — slowly — a squad that ought to be capable of mounting a more serious challenge for the top honours next season than it has been able to this term, even if Manchester City players may not yet be looking nervously over their shoulders.

Solskjaer has United second in the table and in the Europa League last-eight – is that enough?

Solskjaer’s biggest problem lies in the way he is perceived by some as the main symbol of the club’s lack of ambition on the pitch, which is another reason why Arnold would have done better to have kept his mouth shut rather than ram his size 10 Sbenus — former casual footwear partner for South Korea — into that gaping chasm instead.

The Glazer regime at United was already open to accusations that they cared more about success off the pitch than they did about winning trophies on it. ‘Playing performance doesn’t really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial size of the business,’ United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward told investors several years ago.

Then there was the importance Arnold placed on the fact that Odion Ighalo was trending worldwide on Twitter after United signed him in January last year, not realising the reason he was trending was that so many United fans were aghast. There was also the recent suggestion that the club appear to be more devoted to monetising their TikTok sign-ups than they are to signing a centre-half to partner Harry Maguire.

The Glazers are accused of enjoying off-field profits more than the on-pitch success at United

So it’s a familiar narrative and Arnold just fed it. Even those of us who admire the job Solskjaer is doing could scarcely claim that he has achieved ‘phenomenal success’ at Old Trafford. He has not won a trophy in the two years he has been in charge and, unless United win the Europa League in May, he won’t win one this season either.

Solskjaer has made modest advances at United and for that he deserves some credit but the club sit 14 points behind City with nine games to play. There is no chance they will win the title. That is not ‘phenomenal success’, either. Not for a club like United. So that kind of statement makes you look small-time. Really small-time.

It is the kind of wide-eyed claim that only increases fans’ fears that they have commercial men running the club who know little about football and think that being knocked out of the Champions League in the group phase represents ‘phenomenal success’. 

Solskjaer has made improvements and there is a sense that he has turned the club round. But he is still only hovering just above the ‘minimum requirement’ mark for a club of United’s size and record. United still need to make a big leap forward next season if they are to compete with City at the top of the table.

The Red Devils beat Manchester City earlier this month but are 14 points behind their rivals

Arnold (right) and United CEO Ed Woodward (left) need to invest in the club this summer

To do that, Arnold will need to stop talking drivel. If he and Woodward are really so happy with Solskjaer, if they are not content with commercial gains and ordinariness on the pitch, they must persuade the Glazers to back their manager handsomely in the transfer market in the summer. Because City will strengthen again. And so will Chelsea. And Liverpool will not have as dire a league campaign as this season.

Arnold needs to ditch the happy-clappy vibe. Someone who understood the history of United would be spitting at the club being 14 points behind City, not basking in the hollow glory of being a distant second. Someone who understood the history of United would know that if Solskjaer does not win the Premier League or the Champions League next season, a club who call themselves the biggest in the world ought really to be saying enough’s enough.

Solskjaer deserves until the end of next season to prove he can deliver. Until then, someone should tell Arnold to keep his idea of ‘phenomenal success’ to himself. 

White and Stewart are true heroes 

The Sheldon Review left many questions unasked and even more unanswered. It was unsatisfactory, it lacked zeal and it lacked conviction. The opposite was true of Football’s Darkest Secret, the three-part BBC documentary into the epidemic of sexual abuse in the English game, which aired last week and was one of the most powerful pieces of television I have ever seen.

It was powerful because it was so upsetting and so moving. And in a way, it was uplifting, too. Because it focused on men who had been abused in their childhoods and who had found the courage to come forward and tell their stories and, in the process, had not only brought evil men to justice but had reduced the chances of football ever turning a blind eye again.

So David White was a hero of mine when he played for Manchester City. I loved watching him flying down the right wing. I marvelled at just how fast he was. Sometimes, his pace seemed other-worldly. He was so quick, he could make it look like defenders were running in treacle. He was a hero of mine then, and here’s the thing: he’s even more of a hero of mine now.

The BBC’s Football’s Darkest Secret documentary looked into sexual abuse in the English game

The same goes for Paul Stewart. He was never one of my favourite players in the way White was but I found his testimony in the first episode of the series deeply upsetting and profoundly moving. I am aware that there is a danger of patronising men like him and Ian Ackley, Dion Raitt, Andy Woodward, Gary Cliffe, Steve Walters, Dean Radford and so many others who have spoken out by saying how brave they are or how much I admire them, but it is still worth saying.

It is worth saying because, through their actions and the power of their testimony, they have done more to stop the emergence of another Barry Bennell or another Bob Higgins than the Sheldon Review ever could.

They have changed the culture that allowed football to sleepwalk into a situation where abusers were allowed to ruin the lives of children unchecked. They and people like the journalist Danny Taylor, who told Andy Woodward’s story for the first time, empowered so many others to come forward. They have stopped more lives being blighted. They have dragged football out of its complacency and the closing of ranks that was once its defence mechanism against ugly secrets like this.

That’s why I admire them. Because they are men who have made a difference. So I loved David White as a footballer but he is more of a hero to me now than he ever was. And Paul Stewart? He scored a goal in an FA Cup final and he played for England but it pales besides what he has achieved in the last few years. He wasn’t a hero of mine before. But he is now. 

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