"WITH just under 20 minutes to go, I brought on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for [Dwight] Yorke and Ole scored four in 13 minutes, an incredible feat,” said Sir Alex Ferguson after Manchester United had just beaten Nottingham Forest 8-1 at the City ground on February 6, 1999 – the 41st anniversary of the Munich air disaster.
United were going for the treble. It might have been the quadruple had Spurs not knocked United out of the League Cup in December. That was when assistant manager Brian Kidd left to manage Blackburn Rovers and Solskjaer declined an offer to join Spurs. He would have played first team football, he would have seen his wages rise. North London life might have been considered attractive too.
But Solskjaer was having none of it. He was a Manchester United player and that was that. United had suffered a major wobble in December ’98. Six games in the month, their record read P6 W0 D4 L2. If social media had been around then, anonymous lunatics would have been calling for Ferguson’s head.
So United were third in the league on Boxing Day 1998 behind Chelsea and Aston Villa. United had won eight of the first 18 league games of that famous season.
“I got the players together (after a 2-3 home defeat to Middlesbrough) and told them that enough was enough,” said Ferguson. “I went over the goals on video and told them how shocking they were for a club of our reputation and standing. I stressed it is not going to continue and will not be tolerated, even if it means playing four young lads at the back. Sometimes the blunt truth is better than sympathising.”
The form started to pick up with a 3-0 home win against Forest on Boxing Day, Ronnie Johnsen getting two. After a draw at Chelsea, United won six in a row. Liverpool were knocked out of the FA Cup with two late goals from Solskjaer and Yorke. Leicester were hit for six away, though Solskjaer didn’t feature that day. And then came another away game in the East Midlands, that Forest match. United were now top of the league, Forest bottom with only three wins from 24 games.
The away end was sold out in a 30,025 crowd. The City Ground, a venue United fans miss going to, was smartened up in the 90s with a new Bridgford End replacing the away terrace United fans stood on when a Mark Robins’ goal likely saved Ferguson’s job in 1990. At the Trent End, a new big stand was built for Euro ’96.
United went ahead after two minutes through Yorke and had a second goal after seven, yet Forest had equalised before Andy Cole chipped into an empty net. It was only 2-1 to United at half time before Cole and Yorke combined with the latter scoring the third after 50 minutes. It was 4-1 after 67 minutes. Yorke scored from a Jesper Blomqvist cross before making way for Solskjaer after 72 minutes.
With minutes left on the clock, it was still 4-1 when Solksjaer scored his first, tapping in a cross from Gary Neville. And it was still ‘only’ 5-1 on 88 minutes when David Beckham struck a long diagonal ball down the middle towards Solskjaer. Goalkeeper Dave Beasant beat his first attempt away but the Norwegian was straight onto the rebound, taking the ball around Beasant and smashing it into the roof of the net.
Solskjaer’s third and United’s seventh came two minutes later when Scholes, advancing through the middle, fed Solskjaer on his left to volley in. Solskjaer’s fourth and United’s eighth came in time added on when Nicky Butt centred from the right. Scholes mishit a shot but the ball spun towards the baby faced one and he arrowed it past Beasant. His four goals had taken just 13 minutes and 48 seconds and he was the first top class substitute to score four goals. His rapid reactions were evident in all.
“Devastation on a grand scale,” said Ferguson. “Solskjaer was the substitute from hell. The only one in the dug out who may not have been celebrating was Dwight. He was on a hat-trick again when I brought him off. His usual smile looked a little fixed as he no doubt thought those four goals might have been his!”
It was the first time United scored eight away from home since they were called Newton Heath. Not a bad day for Steve McClaren’s first trip as assistant manager after replacing Kidd. Jim Ryan was also retained as an assistant with the responsibility for explaining to players why they were dropped for a match so that Ferguson could concentrate on the next game.
“It’s going to be all downhill,” smiled Ryan to McClaren. Nobody had to to explain to Solskjaer.
“Ole is a fantastic finisher,” said Ferguson. “If I ever felt guilty about the teams I pick and the players I leave out, it invariably centres around him. He really deserves better than the number of games I give him, but the other factor that influences me is that he is better than anyone else at the club as a substitute. He can come on and not be disturbed by it. He finds the flow easily and has scored an amazing number of goals as a sub. I am sure he hates being called super sub, and it’s unfair, but the fact is…he is!”
Forest’s vastly experienced goalkeeper Dave Beasant had a different take.
“It was the lowest of the low,” he said. “It has taken me 20 years to concede that many goals in a match. The Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke partnership is unbelievable. I’ve faced great strikers in the past but you don’t normally see two at a time like that. And even more frightening is that they can bring on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who would be in anyone else’s team from the start.”
Solskjaer kept his place in the team for an FA Cup 5th round game against Fulham a week later. This time, he set up Cole for the game’s only goal. Solskjaer would guarantee his supersub status for posterity in the incredible late coda to what turned into a spectacular season for Manchester United.