It is a moment that will forever be etched on the minds of Manchester United FC supporters. David Beckham's corner is flicked on by Teddy Sheringham; one metre from goal Ole Gunnar Solskjær stabs out his right leg and deflects the ball into the roof of the net.
United had been trailing FC Bayern München 1-0 as the 1999 UEFA Champions League final entered stoppage time. Goals from substitutes Sheringam and Solskjær then turned the match on its head. "The team played so well, we had to score some goals because of the pressure we had the whole game," Solskjær said as United celebrated their first European Champion Clubs' Cup triumph since 1968. "Someone had to do it." It was a typically self-deprecating comment from the Norwegian, whose popularity with the Old Trafford faithful was the result of more than just one goal.
His professionalism, drive and commitment as well as his fierce determination to overcome a debilitating injury won him admirers well beyond United. But as the tributes flowed in following the 34-year-old's retirement on Tuesday, there was one reason in particular he caught manager Sir Alex Ferguson's eye. "Ole is one of the best finishers I have known," Sir Alex said. "We have had a few good natural finishers at the club but he is exceptional."
That close-range goal against Bayern, delivered nine minutes after replacing Andrew Cole, seemed to encapsulate the qualities of a player whose €2.3m transfer from Molde FK in 1996 must represent one of the best deals in Sir Alex's two decades at Old Trafford. Solskjær would go on to score 126 goals in 366 appearances for the club, often after coming on as a substitute. Dubbed the 'Baby-faced assassin' for his deadly finishing and youthful looks, the supersub tag stuck for good when he came off the bench to score four times in United's 8-1 rout of Nottingham Forest FC at the City Ground in February 1999.
Solskjær would have scored many more for United had injury not disrupted his career. His strike in the 5-0 defeat of Panathinaikos FC on 16 September 2003 proved to be his last for almost three years as a knee injury threatened to bring a premature end to his career. After that match Solskjær entered hospital for surgery and embarked on the toughest period of his professional life. After the first operation to repair the articular cartilage in his right knee, Solskjaer returned to action the following February. The knee was still not right, however, and Solskjær duly underwent two further operations in August 2004 and July 2005.
Even after returning during the 2005/06 season, however, he faced further setbacks, suffering hamstring and thigh strains as well as a fractured cheekbone. Yet Solskjær's positive mindset served him well throughout his long journey back to fitness. And he eventually made it back. Sir Alex described him as the "substitute from hell" in his autobiography but when Solskjær swept the ball into the Celtic FC net on 13 September last year, it must have felt like a small slice of heaven for the Norwegian who had waited two years and 362 days to celebrate a goal at Old Trafford. "If he's on the park for 45 minutes he will get you a goal," Sir Alex said after Solskjær's winner against Celtic. "It was a pure goalscorer's goal. He did what he was best at - using his brain in the penalty area. He knows where the ball's going to land before anyone else. It's a fantastic quality."
Egil Olsen, who coached him at his international peak for Norway, concurred. "He isn't especially quick, strong or good in the air. What set him aside from others was his finishing. He almost always scored when he got a clear chance and he was always where the ball fell in the area." Solskjær played 67 games for Norway, scoring 23 goals and representing his country at the 1998 FIFA World Cup and UEFA EURO 2000™, achievements that rank alongside the six Premier League titles, two FA Cups and UEFA Champions League medal he won with United. His swansong appearance was as a substitute in last season's FA Cup final, which United lost 1-0 to Chelsea FC. Solskjær, though, who will remain with United in an ambassadorial role, has no regrets.
"I would like to thank the manager, the coaching and medical staff and most of all the supporters, who have supported me through my career,” he said. “They have been fantastic and were a real inspiration to me when I was out injured. The support the fans and the staff showed me during that time was the main motivation for me making my comeback. I feel proud to have represented Manchester United for eleven years and have some very special memories." There is a banner that hangs at the Stretford End at Old Trafford that reads '20LEGEND'. United will never forget.
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