"The substitute from hell," is how Sir Alex Ferguson describes him in his autobiography, but when Ole Gunnar Solskjær swept the ball into the Celtic FC net on 13 September, it must have felt like a small slice of heaven for the Norwegian.
By stepping off the bench to settle an exciting contest with the Scottish champions in Manchester United FC's opening Group F game, the Norwegian did more than just reprise his role of supersub – he confirmed once and for all his return from the depressing run of injuries that almost brought his playing days to an end. Solskjær had waited two years and 362 days to celebrate a goal in the UEFA Champions League; indeed his winning strike against Celtic was his first in any competition at Old Trafford since scoring United's third goal in a 5-0 rout of Panathinaikos FC on 16 September 2003.
That match against Panathinaikos was Solskjær's last before he entered hospital for knee surgery – and duly 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 under the Swedish surgeon Lars Peterson, the first in August 2004, the second in July 2005.
Even after returning last season, however, he faced further setbacks, suffering hamstring and thigh strains as well as a fractured cheekbone. Yet Solskjær's optimistic outlook served him well throughout his long fight for fitness according to Rob Swire, the United physio who monitored his rehabilitation. "I was always confident he would return because of the type of person he is really," Swire told uefa.com. "He was going to put everything into it that he could do. Some other players you do worry whether they'll come back because they don't seem as committed to the rehabilitation, but that was never a problem with Ole."
During his long absence, Solskjær was never forgotten by the Old Trafford faithful. "You make me happy when skies are grey," they would sing of the player who wrote his name in United history with the injury-time winner in the 1998/99 UEFA Champions League final against FC Bayern München. That close-range finish, delivered nine minutes after replacing Andrew Cole, seemed to encapsulate the qualities of a player whose €2.3m transfer from Molde FK must represent one of the best deals in Sir Alex's 20 years at Old Trafford.
Student of the game
Swire describes Solskjær as "a connoisseur of football", who was eager to watch games during his long absence and "is very interested in coaching and tactics". This may serve him well in the future – there are mooted coaching opportunities for the Norwegian at Old Trafford – but for now he is just glad to be back doing what he does best. "I have been dreaming about this day and now it has finally arrived, I just feel relief," he said after scoring his first Premiership goal of the season at Charlton Athletic FC in August. When Solskjær added that "in an ideal world, I would have scored the goal at Old Trafford," he need not have worried. His strike against Celtic was perfectly timed. The supersub has returned.
This is an abridged version of an article that appears in this week's edition of the uefa.com Magazine. To read the feature in full, click here.
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