A Red Devil and the euphoria of winning a season treble

Ronny Johnsen had the priviledge of being one of Fergie's favourites in the United backline and was part of the side that pulled off a treble in 1998-99.

"I see him at Manchester United for a long time," Johnsen said of compatriot and United gaffer Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The duo played together in the national team and at United, where they were roommates.   -  Getty Images

One of only five Manchester United players to start all three of the trophy-clinching deciders at the end of the treble season, Norwegian defender Ronny Johnsen was a key figure in Sir Alex Ferguson’s defence in 1998-1999.

The 50-year-old reminisces his glory days with the Red Devils, assesses former teammate and current boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s time at the club so far, discusses the bright future of Norway’s national team, and more in an interview with Sportstar on the sidelines of ‘United We Play’ programme which was hosted by Manchester United and Apollo Tyres in Mumbai.

Excerpts:

You were part of all three of Manchester United’s treble decider matches. How would you describe that season?

First of all, it was an unbelievable team. We had an extraordinary team spirit inside the team -- which is essential. To be part of something like that was unbelievable. I have to admit that to win the Premiership is tough and also to win the FA Cup final -- which I just won once -- was great. And to top it all off with the Champions League trophy was an amazing experience. We had a fantastic manager, all the support in the world, and the team spirit we had was amazing at that time. I am cheering for Manchester United to come there again so they get to experience what we did in 1999.

What stood apart for the 1998-99 team which you don’t see in teams these days?

I think it was the team spirit. Firstly, the team from the inside has to work perfectly. We trained like we were playing (competitive) matches. Also, there was a belief that we could win things. The belief comes with results as well -- we had a lot of good results. Everything was kept together so I think that was a big reason. I believe looking at the current team, they will get there because Ole (Gunnar Solskjaer) is bringing all the young players through -- which is part of how Manchester United works. In the current team, you see youngsters like (Brandon) Williams, (Marcus) Rashford and others coming up which gives them a chance to go through the system. I believe since we have a very young team now, giving them experience now will lead to a really good Manchester United squad in the future.

100foot

Johnsen launched the ‘United We Play’ programme in Mumbai, which aims to scout talented Indian youngsters who will have the chance to play against Manchester United’s under-18 team in May this year. (Special Arrangement)   -  Special arrangement



During the 1998-99 season, you were a vital part of Sir Alex Ferguson's defence and also a valuable alternative in midfield. Was it difficult to adapt to his selection of positions?

To be honest, I felt it like a privilege. Before coming to Manchester United, I played for my country Norway as a striker, on the wings, in the midfield -- basically everywhere. They called me like a potato! So, I think today’s football is good for players because they can play a little bit in different positions. Also if you can adapt to different positions, you have a better understanding of various positions. I think that is a strength. As for me, when I played, I just enjoyed it. I found it sometimes interesting to play a bit further up the field. And well, when the gaffer asks you to play in a certain position, you do as he says!

Read: Data analysis: How centre-backs came forward

You were also Fergie’s favourite partner in central defence for Dutch defender Jaap Stam. The two of you had a great partnership: what was the reason for your rapport?

For a partnership, especially for a centre-back partnership, you have to learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses because you can read each other well. Jaap didn’t have any weaknesses so it was really easy for me! We had really good midfielders in front of us, we had full-backs who were supportive and a goalkeeper who kept shouting instructions from the back -- so all of this makes a good partnership, I believe.

When you signed for United during the summer of 1996, you were then the most expensive Norwegian defender (1.2m euros). Did the price tag come with pressure?

It didn’t affect me honestly. For me, it was all about getting into the group and giving the best I could. Coming into the group that I joined, everyone was very welcoming. That is how United are -- everyone tries to ensure everybody is at their best level.

You had initially declined Fergie’s first-time offer in the mid-1995 season. Why did you do so?

I was playing in Turkey and had been there for only half the season. I knew United were having issues defensively. Sir Alex asked me to come but I wasn’t ready to go mid-season, I wanted to finish the season with my current club (Besiktas) but we got to an agreement that he would come for me the next season, which he did.

100

In six seasons at Manchester United, Ronny Johnsen won four Premier League titles, one FA Cup, one Champions League title and two Charity Shields.   -  Special arrangement

 

You have played with current United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. How was your time with him during your playing career?

We played for the same country, we came to United at the same time. We were even roommates. We know each other really well. He definitely knows United and the club’s tradition of working and playing. He is rebuilding the team at the moment and these are exciting times!

Do you think Solskjaer’s full-time appointment was rather based on sentiment than results?

I think he has proved himself. United are just five points off the fourth spot in the Premier League. He is bringing all the young kids through which is very good for the future. You also have to be patient because rebuilding the team doesn’t happen overnight. It will take some time but I think he is going in the right direction. I see him at the club for a long time.

Talking about Norway: it is going to play the Euro 2020 qualifying playoff semifinal against Serbia, and if it wins it will face Scotland or Israel in the final playoffs. What are its chances to qualify for the Euros main round?

I think the Norway team looks positive now than it has been earlier for a while. This is because of some really talented young Norwegians coming through. Playing Serbia is manageable, they can be up against more difficult opponents than Serbia. Things look really optimistic right now but it still is a task to qualify for the Euros. But I can assure I am more positive now than I have been for a long time.

Norwegian youngster Erling Haaland has been grabbing headlines for his exceptional form. He announced his arrival at Borussia Dortmund with a hat-trick on debut. Are you impressed with him?

I played with his father (Alf-Inge Haaland) in the national team and I know him very well. I was surprised to see him score a hat-trick in his first game for Dortmund. He was in the limelight for United as well for a long time but he chose Dortmund -- looking at it now, maybe it was a good choice for him. He is a really strong centre-forward. His current form has been great and it’s looking promising for the national team as well.

The next World Cup is in two years' time. Youngsters like Haaland and Martin Odegaard will be in their peak at that time: do you think Norway can hope for a better campaign that year?

The last time Norway was in the World Cup was in 1998, which was over 20 years ago when I played. Hopefully, they will come through and I’d be rooting for them.

  Dugout videos