“When I was an eight-year-old child living in America, I was just having fun, playing sports. To be honest, soccer never came on our TV at home. I didn’t know that Manchester United even existed,” Joshua Gatt says from his home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
In 1999, the year in which Gatt celebrated his eighth birthday, Manchester United won an unprecedented treble and, on a humid summer night at the Camp Nou in Barcelona, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer ensured that he would be entwined with United indefinitely.
Solskjaer’s goal had completed an unlikely, sensational comeback in the Champions League final and his life would never be the same again. Twelve years later and Gatt would meet Solskjaer and, unknowingly, his life would also never be the same again. Gatt was once unaware of who Solskjaer was and yet now – in 2021 – he describes Solskjaer as the ‘most influential coach’ that he’s ever had.
That eight-year-old from Michigan would grow to know who Solskjaer actually is and this is the story of the man behind the manager.
How did Gatt, born in Plymouth, Michigan in the United States of America begin to find his way to Norway? No one in Gatt’s family played football – soccer as he calls it – but he would start to love the sport as it was beginning to grow in the states.
After playing throughout his youth and developing quickly, aged 17, Gatt received a scholarship offer from Indiana University, but he was also invited to join the Orange County Blue Stars, an American team made up of exciting youngsters set to tour in Europe.
“I went on tour and I got scouted by a bunch of teams,” Gatt recalls to the Manchester Evening News. “There were two of them that wanted me to stay. One of those was FC Mainz in Germany and the other was FC Altach in Austria, but I went with Altach.
“I always wanted to play soccer in Europe because in my mind that’s where the best players were. It was shell shocking when I arrived. I grew up with one culture, one place, one certain mindset and you realise how different people can be.”
Almost 4,300 miles from home, Gatt began to settle at Altach, Austria despite the vast difference in culture to America. His natural, blistering pace made him an immediate asset on the pitch, but he needed to polish other aspects of his game.
“I settled really well. I started slow because development-wise I was really dynamic one-on-one, I had a lot of pace but the difficulty was that I wasn’t very good at settling the ball at my feet quick enough,” Gatt recalls.
“I started to play more, started playing in positions I was more comfortable with and I just let my game speak for itself.”
While Gatt’s time in the Austrian second division began with appearances from off the bench, a string of starts would follow and the American’s performance in Altach’s 4-0 win over Admira on November 19 would have actually have great significance.
Solskjaer had just been installed as Molde’s manager one week earlier and he was at the game looking for potential new signings.
“It was a great game for me, I had a really good match and I was happy with my performance,” Gatt reflects.
“I was kind of buzzing, we overtook the first placed team and I was a big factor in that. My agent came up to me after the game and he told me that he was [Solskjaer] was in the stands and I kind of just looked at him with all starry eyes like, who? I had no idea.
“He kind of just shook his head and told me to go home and Google him. I did and I obviously called him back after that and was like ‘oh, well’. Wow! I was like, what do you want me to do man? I’m an American who grew up on American football!
“If you told me that Charles Woodson was watching me play, I would be like, ‘oh s***!’
“I didn’t know quite how big of a person in the footballing world was there to watch me. I think it just added some charm to our relationship. Ole to me, was never really a person that had that kind of aura or ego as such emanating off him.
“He never really struck me as someone that you would like at and think ‘ah he’s like this legend’, he didn’t carry himself like that.”
Solskjaer was impressed with what he saw in Gatt and Molde subsequently registered their interest in signing him. After just six months with Altach, Gatt was on the move as Solskjaer made plans to take Molde from relegation battles to silverware.
“I was the first signing that he made at Molde, which was a huge compliment. It was a great next step for my career,” Gatt says.
“Ole was actually there to pick me from the airport when I flew in. He drove me around and he showed me the town and he lived in Kristiansand, which was almost an hour away from Molde.
“He took the time to be in Molde to make sure I was received, even in the pitch black. It was January, the sun was gone and it was night at just 4pm. He was there to show me everything, he took me to the hotel and he showed me the stadium.
“People don’t realise the personal touch and aspects that are needed through the extreme conditions and pressure that we’re working under. I think Ole always will be someone that is exceptionally good at cultivating relationships with his players and bringing the best out of them.”
Although the general consensus was that Solskjaer had made great progress at United last season, he’s come under intense pressure this term amid very poor results and it has been popularly suggested that a different manager could get more out of his squad.
The Reds’ 5-0 defeat against Liverpool was the turning point for many and calls for Solskjaer to leave are now deafening.
Solskjaer’s methods have been forensically scrutinised in the wake of United’s failures this season and his tactics and training sessions are no exception. Gatt can offer invaluable and precious insight into Solskjaer that is otherwise hard to come by, though.
“The structure around them [training at Molde], the number of touches you got on the ball and the ideas around them were always very engaging,” Gatt says.
“It was so well structured that we knew what we were doing first, we knew what we were doing second and we knew what we were doing third and fourth. They all had a cohesive play style to get us into the mindset of what we wanted to be doing.
“There was always a message that the training session was trying to instil and all of the exercises had that same sort of message.”
Despite now residing back in America, where he plays for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Gatt is an avid follower of the Premier League.
He’s a self-confessed Liverpool fan – something that he used to regularly joke with Solskjaer about at Molde – and he watched his side score five goals against David de Gea with Solskjaer on the touchline, so he’s well aware of the pressure his former boss is under.
“I think the hot seat for Ole can be valid for the point where the critics say there’s no direction in how they play,” Gatt adds.
“When people say there’s no identity and things like that, but in my opinion, I think the direction and style that he’s trying to play in a similar style at Liverpool and City. The forwards or front three, he’s trying to allow them to attack freely while creating a block behind.
“I think the issue is, there are not the exact players in every position to fill those holes. If you’re looking at what he’s doing now at Manchester United, I think a big focal point for fans is that they think a world-class number six to be a hurt locker.
“Everyone is looking for that player, but I think what Ole is looking at is that he sees that he already has it with Scott McTominay. I think most people don’t want to have the patience to see him do it, but I think that’s just the type of manager he is.”
Despite the current accusations thrown at the United boss, Gatt views Solskjaer as ‘the most influential coach’ that he’s ever had.
Gatt’s pace and ability to create openings down the channels meant that his future at Molde was at right-wing, but upon his arrival, he was asked to initially play at right-back instead for a spell as Solskjaer’s side were ravaged by injuries in that position.
“I came in as an attacking player and Ole had an injury to our right-back and it was a season-ender,” Gatt explains.
“So I needed to fill the hole. Once we knew that we were in that position, Ole and Mark Dempsey, the assistant coach, would stay with me after training and work on the tactical aspect of the position that I needed to know. He took the time to work with me.”
While Solskjaer would directly instruct Gatt when playing at right-back, he used a different approach when he played on the wing.
“When it came to the attacking aspect of my game, he would tell me just to go. Even from right-back, he would say, if you’ve got the field in front of you then go. We would use a 4-3-3 and we’d have a very condensed three in the midfield.
“Our wingers had the freedom to stay wide or come inside. Now, at the beginning of my career, I had a tendency to drift everywhere because I wanted the ball and Ole had to remind me to keep my feet on the touchline to create the width.
“He knew that I could create a chance from an isolated position out wide. That was his goal. That’s what he wanted to do and I think that’s what most every modern team want to do. You want Marcus Rashford or Cristiano Ronaldo isolated to create a chance.
“I think in Ole’s mind, athletic and natural athletic talent is not coachable. But a lot of the technical, physical and mental aspects of players are. To be able to hone in that natural talent, a real natural athlete makes an incredible player.”
Gatt wasn’t the only player at Molde in 2011 that Solskjaer was getting the best out of, with his side going from strength to strength under his management. The season before Solskjaer had arrived, Molde has just narrowly avoided relegation and yet Solskjaer had completely transformed the club’s fortunes for the better. They were playing attractive football and duly rising up the table.
Molde were in outstanding form, team morale was high and Gatt begins to laugh as he recalls that period of his career:
“I had a pretty good relationship with all the staff. There was actually one time and we were walking to a game in Tromso.
“I was kind of walking near Ole and I looked down and there’s so much snow. I picked up a snowball and I just gave Ole the look. He kind of just looked back at me and goes ‘yeah, do it’ and I used my old baseball technique to throw just a strike at Mark Dempsey!
“Ole was laughing hysterically, Dempsey was like screaming British profanities. ‘Yeah. you f*****, get over here’. We always just poke fun like that. But we had some, really, really amazing times doing that sort of stuff.”
It’s no wonder that Gatt refers to his first few years at Molde as ‘amazing times’ as Solskjaer had built a winning mentality. Molde won the Eliteserien title for the first time in the club’s history within Gatt’s and Solskjaer’s first season and more trophies would follow.
“The moments that just stood out was just obviously the winning, you know, it was just a winning culture,” Gatt fondly recalls.
“It was nice to celebrate it. I think something that is also kind of overlooked as well is when people look back at Ole as a coach, if you look at Molde before he took the reins, they were a very fluctuating club up, always going up and down, up and down.
“What he did for the club, they’re a team that literally is expected to win every year now – second or third is a bad season.”
Gatt was thriving at Molde and he made his debut for the United States’ men’s national team in September 2012 under Jurgen Klinsmann, something that he thinks regularly playing in Solskjaer’s 4-3-3 system certainly helped contribute towards.
Nine months later in June 2013, Gatt would be brought back down to earth when sustaining a serious knee injury. The American has since battled through multiple issues in his career, but he admitted that his first incident was a really ‘difficult’ time.
“I know Ole’s history and injuries and what he went through and he’s obviously been there. The most important thing he did was just let me do what I needed to do on my own terms. He let me go home to have people around me during this really difficult time.
“He understood the difficulty I was going through. It was my first major injury and it was a pretty big and emotional deal for me.”
Shortly after Gatt’s knee injury, Solskjaer would leave Molde. With Cardiff looking for a manager to steer them to Premier League safety, Solskjaer was deemed a suitable candidate and he returned to Britain, albeit it was a volatile situation with Cardiff’s board.
Solskjaer’s departure was ultimately bittersweet for Gatt, but he recalls that he was ‘excited’ for his mentor’s next step.
In the years following Solskjaer’s departure from Molde, Gatt continued to endure torrid luck with injury, but that paled in significance when his wife, Melanie, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2018 and Gatt’s world stopped. Nothing else mattered.
Although the couple’s medical insurance saved them from drowning in crippling debt, the cost of cancer treatment in American was astronomical and more help was needed. Gatt was without a football club and he created a GoFundMe page.
Hundreds of people helped raise $78,000 and among the donators was Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic and Solskjaer.
“What do you even say back to that,” Gatt reflects. “He was of one of the hundreds of people who came to our aid when we desperately needed it. It was obviously very emotional for both of us to go through. It was incredible that he took the time to do that.
“I’m not going to pretend like Ole and I are texting still and keeping contact. We haven’t talked in a long time, but my parents still love him and they still tell me all the time that I should I try back in touch with him.”
Gatt will always remember his time with Solskjaer with incredible fondness and he’s able to paint a picture of the man behind the manager in a time when personal vitriol can sometimes be seen on social media in reaction to United’s poor results.
“Looking back on it, Solskjaer was the most influential soccer entity that I’ve ever had in my entire life. So, I hope one day if I get into coaching that I’m half the coach that he has been for me because I think if I am, I can be incredibly successful at the job.
“Ole was a huge part of my life. He’s someone I still think about all the time and, you know, when I think of coaching children or coaching people around me, I think of the sessions he ran, and how would he run it? And, you know, what would he do?
“He was the last coach I ever had, that when I played for them, they actually saw the ability I had and that let me just play. He just carried himself like someone that you want to get to know, someone that you want to be around, just a good person.”
When asked if he could describe Solskjaer in just three words, Gatt paused for five seconds and produced his answer:
“Compassionate, demanding and a friend.”