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Top of the league: inside the lives of two footballing minds

Emotion and commitment run deep in two recent books on Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær and former Arsenal boss Arsène Wenger

Arsène Wenger arrived at Arsenal in 1996, at age 47, after a stint in Japan with Nagoya Grampus. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

Two years can be a long time in the world of football. In 2018, Arsène Wenger bid goodbye to Arsenal—a football club he had managed for more than 22 years. After 1,235 matches, 828 of them in the Premier League, it all ended with a 1-0 away win over Huddersfield Town on 13 May that year.

Two years ago, Manchester United bid goodbye, in somewhat acrimonious circumstances, to José Mourinho, bringing in their former player and striker Ole Gunnar Solskjær as manager on an interim basis. A string of impressive wins and performances followed, including an unforgettable Champions League comeback win against Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). In March 2019, Solskjær was appointed the club’s manager on a full-time basis. On 19 December, he will complete two years of a mixed-bag tenure at one of the biggest jobs in club football.

The current story of Manchester United and Arsenal can be summed up in one phrase: how to revive a flailing footballing dynasty. Once dominating giants on both the English and European stages, these super clubs are trying to find their feet again—United under Solskjær, and Arsenal under Mikel Arteta, who is the second manager to be appointed at the north London club since Wenger’s departure. So perhaps it’s only fitting that we now have two books on these two managers with several commonalities: Wenger’s definitive autobiography, My Life In Red And White (Hachette, 899), and Guardian journalist Jamie Jackson’s The Red Apprentice—Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: The Making Of Manchester United’s Great Hope (Simon & Schuster, 599).

Emotions and commitment are themes that run deep in both books. In a deeply personal memoir that stretches back to his childhood in Duttlenheim, on the outskirts of Strasbourg, France, Wenger reveals how over the years at Arsenal, he resisted the temptation of managing teams such as Juventus and PSG. He declined Real Madrid twice. He even said no to managing the French and Japanese national teams. “A commitment is a commitment,” the 71-year-old Frenchman writes.

The Red Apprentice traces Solskjær’s journey from a goal-glutton striker in Norway to becoming the fourth manager appointed at Manchester United after Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down in 2013. (Book cover credit: Simon & Schuster)
The Red Apprentice traces Solskjær’s journey from a goal-glutton striker in Norway to becoming the fourth manager appointed at Manchester United after Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down in 2013. (Book cover credit: Simon & Schuster)

The Red Apprentice traces Solskjær’s journey from a goal-glutton striker in Norway to becoming the fourth manager appointed at Manchester United after Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down in 2013 after nearly 27 years in charge. The 47-year-old Norwegian has been able to deliver a more exciting brand of football than his three predecessors, David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Mourinho, but it has not been smooth sailing all the way.

For instance, in recent months, the club’s decision to back Solskjær has been criticised as one based on emotion rather than pure footballing logic, given his heroics as a former player in United’s most successful era. The criticism has only intensified following the club’s exit from the 2020-21 Champions League group stages. In a recent interview to Sky Sports, though, the Norwegian said: “I want us to be the best...saying that, we have made real strides. The lows are not so low any more, but the highs can be really high. It shows we are on the right track.” The inconsistencies remain, but as Jackson notes in his book, “If Mourinho is Super-Ego, Ole has ego like Carlo Ancelotti has ego—subservient to the players, keen to see his footballers shine and dazzle.”

In a deeply personal memoir that stretches back to his childhood in Duttlenheim, on the outskirts of Strasbourg, France, Wenger reveals how over the years at Arsenal, he resisted the temptation of managing teams such as Juventus and PSG. (Book cover credit: Hachette)
In a deeply personal memoir that stretches back to his childhood in Duttlenheim, on the outskirts of Strasbourg, France, Wenger reveals how over the years at Arsenal, he resisted the temptation of managing teams such as Juventus and PSG. (Book cover credit: Hachette)

A common theme between Wenger and Solskjær is the way they experienced the game in their childhood. Wenger’s parents weren’t football enthusiasts, he writes. They ran an Alsatian bistro. Wenger describes it as the “beating heart” of his village, where he would hear customers speak non-stop about football. “That bistro was my school. I listened to their conversations…their forecasts, their rages, their analyses.”

Solskjær’s father, Øyvind, was a professional footballer and a Greco-Roman champion wrestler. In fact, Solskjær tried wrestling for two years, between the ages of 8-10, but “he found a dislike for it, as the moves caused sickness and dizziness, making him the polar opposite of the natural his father was”, writes Jackson. “It was football instead,” Øyvind says in The Red Apprentice. Solskjær would go on to make big strides, and score plenty of goals, with Clausenengen and Molde, before moving to United in 1996, where he would play until retiring from the game in 2007.

The two books, although about two different footballing minds, find another commonality in the long-term goals Wenger implemented at Arsenal, and “the greater picture, the grand challenge before Ole”. “Can he claim a 21st championship for Manchester United?” Jackson writes in the book.

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer during the Manchester derby on 12 December, 2020. (Photo credit: Pool via REUTERS/Paul Ellis)
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer during the Manchester derby on 12 December, 2020. (Photo credit: Pool via REUTERS/Paul Ellis)

Wenger arrived at Arsenal in 1996, at age 47, after a stint in Japan with Nagoya Grampus. His credibility was questioned from the moment he took charge. The “Arsène who?” headlines in the papers, Wenger writes, “and the questions on the lips of the players and the supporters felt legitimate”. But the Frenchman knew he could respond to these with his “hard work and convictions”. That’s what he did for more than two decades, before leaving the club in 2018. In November 2019, he took up his current post as Fifa’s head of global football development. If there’s one person you would want focusing on the development of young players around the world, it would be Wenger. He holds a remarkable record of signing young players or putting his faith in Arsenal’s academy products for a place in the first team.

At the same age now as Wenger was when he first arrived in England, Solskjær finds himself two years into a cultural reboot at Manchester United. The task is still mammoth: a “Ferguson-sized hole” that three others have tried to fill—and failed. Given time, though, writes Jackson, Solskjær could achieve success with the club. “He has the backing of players, fans and executive. His team plays the Manchester United way. He has a smile and a steeliness. The eternal optimist who is no gentle touch.”

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