Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was at Manchester United when they broke their transfer record twice in two months in the summer of 1998 with Jaap Stam for £10.7 million and then Dwight Yorke for £12.6 million. He was there when Sir Alex Ferguson did the same again in 2001, signing Ruud van Nistelrooy for £19 million, and Juan Sebastian Veron for £28 million, and then the following year when Rio Ferdinand broke the club’s record transfer fee again at £30 million.
As a £1.5 million footballer from Molde whom neither Everton nor Manchester City had considered worth the risk, the burden of a transfer fee was never one United’s current caretaker manager had to contend with, although he knew what came with it. Ferdinand tells the story of how, in his first training session rondo at United in the summer of 2002, he miscontrolled the ball and Solskjaer wondered aloud to the group, “How much did we pay for him again?”
The United manager laughed when he was reminded of that moment in a small room out the back of Arsenal’s tunnel, an hour after he had eliminated them from the FA Cup, his eighth straight win since taking the reins. He laughed but he has still not changed his mind. “Yeah but £30 million. We paid £30 million! And that touch was not worthy of a £30 million player in that box. It’s true though!”
The conversation had turned to how some players thrive and some disappear at United – not that many, because it is hard to make mistakes when one is buying at the elite world level. There have been those who just could not make an impact like Veron, Angel Di Maria and, at £52 million, the jury is also still out on Fred. “Seba was brilliant,” Solskjaer interjects when Veron’s name is mentioned, which is what every United player of that era says on the subject of the Argentine, recalling the touch and the vision of training session and some games. But no one, not even Ferguson, would argue he was the player he might have been.
We are discussing Alexis Sanchez, the brooding, occasionally magnificent Chilean whose transfer to United last summer felt like the power-plays of old. The days when United were capable of breaking a rival’s heart with a signing like Ferdinand, or Robin van Persie. Ferguson would have signed Patrick Vieira if he could have done in the early part of the last decade and once as good as said so in an interview but in the end he took Van Persie for his great finale.