Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has earned a reputation as a happy-go-lucky character, even after results and performances which leave little for him to smile about. He was criticised earlier this month for an upbeat reaction to defeat at Arsenal, but Wes Brown knows the Manchester United manager away from the cameras and glare of the unforgiving public scrutiny.
“He won’t be smiling all the time, I can tell you that,” says Brown, who is speaking from Marriott Hotels Seat of Dreams at Old Trafford. Our conversation comes before this week’s consecutive league defeats away to Liverpool and at home to Burnley. If Solskjaer was not smiling then, he is certainly not smiling now.
Brown was Solskjaer’s team-mate for eight years and even he admits results are “mixed”, but he believes if anyone knows the standards required, it is the Norwegian. “Listen, Ole understands the club as much as I do, if not more. He understands what the club needs and where it needs to be again. That will take time but at the same time, he understands what the players need to understand about it.”
Solskjaer has a sterner side, inspired by working under a man of Sir Alex Feguson’s menace. But the onus to improve is on the players, Brown says. “Everyone needs to perform every game. We can’t have mixed games with three or four players slacking off, that’s not how the game works. Everybody has to play at 100 per cent and be committed, and first of all that’s what we need from the lads.”
Brown believes the key to turning United’s situation around is mentality. He should know. He is one of four players who were present at both of the high watermarks in Sir Alex Ferguson’s 27-year tenure – the Nou Camp in 1999 and Moscow in 2008. He helped to set the standards this modern United side is being measured against, and he believes mental fortitude is what separates the very best.
Despite being a novice in ‘99 and a regular nine years later, he ranks the battle-hardened treble-winning side above the more flamboyant league and European double winners. Brown still looks at the ‘08 squad and marvels at its talent but he believes that, if the two teams were to somehow face each other today, a mental edge would see the ‘99 side triumph.
“In ’99, there’s not as many substitutes in the league,” he points out, having spent much of that season on the bench himself. “The way they got around injuries and playing a little bit injured because of that fact, you can’t take anything away from that team. Mentally, the ’99 team was fantastic and more than deserved what they got.”
Brown, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville provided the link between the two Champions League-winning sides – four local, homegrown players who twice conquered Europe. When asked whether United is the best place in the world for young talent to be developed and “looked after” he jokes: “Looked after? Not sure!”
But he also knows how lucky he was to come up through such an environment. “You always think you’re going to get a chance,” he says. “The manager makes it very easy for you. He gives you simple instructions and tells you basically to play how you do on the training pitch. It’s up to you to do it then, but to have managers that believe in you and believe in young lads is something that all the players in youth teams at United can look forward to.”
By United’s last final appearance in 2011, Brown was on his way out. Giggs and Scholes remained but both were nearing the end. Darren Fletcher was the only youth product in the squad for the defeat to a La Masia-bred Barcelona at Wembley. A few years later, the long-running record of having a youth product in every match day squad came under considerable threat.
Yet it passed the 4,000-game mark before Christmas – “an unbelievable achievement,” says Brown – with a raft of young products emerging this past year. Most would agree that the breakthroughs of Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams are the one unalloyed positive of Solskjaer’s management spell and, over the long-term, perhaps greater integration of homegrown talent can help bring success back.
Brown repeatedly emphasises the importance of United players taking the club’s values on board. Where easier to instill those values than an academy? When I was still at the club, you always go and watch the young lads. You ask about players and watch, you ask the coaches,” he says. “If anything these are the guys who understand more than anyone. You could buy people from all over the world but these guys understand what the club is about.”
And having broken into arguably United’s greatest-ever side, he is uniquely placed to advise those looking to establish themselves. “The main thing is consistency,” he says. “You can have a good season, a good year, but you’ve always got to keep training and learning from the older lads. In football you can always learn. Keep your feet on the ground. That’s basically it. It’s your dream to play for Manchester United but also to win trophies and that’s what we’ve got to get back to.”
Marriott Hotels, Official Hotel Partner of Manchester United, is upgrading three fans at each home Premier League match to the Marriott Hotels #SeatOfDreams. Fans will watch the match from the best seats in the house at Old Trafford and be joined on the sofa by a Manchester United legend.