By Simon Evans
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – If Manchester United chief executive Ed Woodward was still fretting over whether to give caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the job on a permanent basis, Wednesday’s triumph in Paris surely tipped the scales in the Norwegian’s favour.
United’s heroic 3-1 win over Paris St Germain, with an injury-ravaged team, to eliminate one of the favourites for the Champions League on away goals, will go down as one of the club’s greatest in European football.
In isolation, making an appointment on the basis of a heady night of unexpected glory, helped by a disputed penalty award, would be unwise.
Yet Woodward has plenty of other evidence of how Solskjaer has transformed the club since taking over from Jose Mourinho in December.
The Norwegian has won 14 of 17 games in all competitions with the solitary defeat, 2-0 to PSG in the first leg, more than compensated for by Wednesday’s efforts.
In his 12 league games, United have won five more points than champions and leaders Manchester City, seven more than Liverpool and 10 more than Tottenham.
On top of that, they have won away to Arsenal and Chelsea in the FA Cup and won all nine away games, scoring 23 goals on the road.
Not a bad audition for a man whose return to the club where he played under Alex Ferguson was apparently an exercise in buying time for Woodward.
When he was brought back to the club, along with Mike Phelan, Ferguson’s long-term assistant, United made it clear that their former forward was in charge “while the club conducts a thorough recruitment process for a new full-time manager.”
Despite all the speculation that Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino was their number one target, it is not clear if any potential managers have been sounded out.
What is evident is that the chief executive, who had a frosty relationship with Mourinho according to British media reports, is enjoying the rebirth of the club under Solskjaer as much as anyone.
At a recent club charity dinner, the pair sat together, clearly enjoying each other’s company.
Woodward has also enjoyed being at United’s Carrington training ground after Solskjaer made it clear that the era of strict separation between club staff was over.
Those who have witnessed Solskjaer and his staff at work, say the transformation of the mood and atmosphere is something of which most clubs would be envious.
Sports psychologist and performance expert David Horrocks, who has worked closely with Phelan for a number of years, was at Carrington recently watching a session on a ‘recovery day’, within 48 hours of a match.
“I can honestly tell you the pace, the desire, the tackles, the freedom and willingness to create and win was infectious,” Horrocks told Reuters.
“What’s more there were at least 10 players who were either injured or forced to sit out due to their last match exertions, who were not only voluntarily watching, they were there cheering every touch, every attack, and quite literally demanding both quality and entertainment from their peers — and believe me it was being delivered in abundance.”
Horrocks says that the mood among the players is reflected throughout the organisation, from the receptionist to the gate man.
“Everyone was 10 feet tall, everyone had a smile on their face, time for each other, time for anyone, yet each individual was also very purposeful in their business,” he said.
Solskjaer never tires of talking about the culture of the club, about the need for his team to behave like “Manchester United players” and it appears he has re-created the levels of respect and commitment that existed under United’s most successful manager Ferguson.
Woodward has to weigh up whether he would risk losing all that by selecting another ‘outsider’ to follow David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Mourinho.
After Wednesday’s stoppage-time drama, it is hard not to recall Ferguson’s reflection on his own team.
“Very often our victories were squeaked out in the last few minutes after we had drained the life from our opponents. Games — like life — are all about waiting for chances and then pouncing on them.”
Solskjaer looks to have taken his chance.
(Reporting by Simon Evans)