'United in a rebuilding phase'
In an interview with Arif Mohammad, Ronny Johnsen – a member of the famous Manchester United treble-winning team – talks about his memories at Old Trafford, grassroot football initiatives in India, the present team under Ole Gunnar Solskjær and much more
You played under Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. What made him such a special and loved manager?
Sir Alex was a manager for many years and had seen four generations of players at Old Trafford. He had time to know everybody in the club. He was kind of a man-manager. His greatest ability was that he always had some way or the other to bring out the best from his players. Whatever he uttered was inspiring. He is indeed very special. I am sure every player would say the same and I feel lucky to have played under him.
United's current coach, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, was your teammate in the National team as well as United. How do you think he's performed so far being at the helm of affairs at the club?
Yeah! We came to United at the same time. Even before coming to United, we were teammates at the Norway National football team. Having played alongside him for so many years in different conditions, I think I understand his philosophy. He is part of this rebuilding phase at United and I am so glad to see him giving chances to these kids like Greenwood, who will be a fantastic centre-forward going ahead, and Williams. You just have to be patient during this phase. The lack of quality in the current team has saddened me and it is a long way back. It is scary just how far they have fallen.
Even Liverpool who is doing so well currently, once went through a similar phase. In fact, every club comes across such a chapter. But I am sure Solskjær will take United to where it belongs – it's a matter of time. I see Ole with United for a long time.
1999 and the treble must have been magical. Can you tell us your best memories of that year?
There are so many such fond memories. The 1999 Champions League semi-final win against Juventus to end a 31-year long wait. The team spirit was extraordinary. Giggs' goal in injury-time of the first-leg pumped all of us up. And then the second leg was one hell of a game too with United trailing in the first few minutes itself, then scripting a memorable comeback with goals from Keane, Yorke and Cole. There was such a belief in the team at that time, we thought we could do everything. Also, the final against Bayern Munich where Teddy and Ole scored. I would cherish that tournament forever. I am cheering for this team to come there again and experience what we did in 1999.
Given the current form of teams, when do you see United winning the Premier League again?
Hopefully next season (haha). As I said, we are in a rebuilding phase. Liverpool is doing great this season. How they are playing under Jürgen Klopp is unbelievable – nothing seems to stop them and they look ever so determined.
What brings you to India?
Manchester United have had a great market in India. So United and Apollo Tyres have come together for this grassroots football initiative at a pan-India level – United We Play – where the Under-13s and 16s can come to experience the culture and philosophy of football practiced at the club. Hopefully, the Manchester United Soccer School coaches in India will be able to find Rashfords or Giggs through this programme, which will be fantastic for Indian Football as well as for United. Even a Rashford or a Giggs used to play on the streets before their talent got recognised and eventually they went on to become stars. We plan to find such talents here in India. Very excited about it given the passion that Indians have for the sport.
India has a huge fan following as far as football is concerned. Your suggestions on how can we improve our level of football?
I think India is slowly looking to develop the football here with the leagues happening. If you can get really good coaching staff for grassroots football down here, it will be a real boost, and that's where this programme, will try to fixate. The right kids need to have the opportunities or a platform to play the game. Kids need to have fun. And when all this happens simultaneously, I am sure a country as big as India will produce world-class players.