And Eric was the first person to celebrate with you when you scored on your debut, so that must have been a great moment…
“Of course! I remember speaking to my old coach in Norway, Ole Olsen, and we were talking about making the most of it, seizing the moment and don’t think you’re there for any other reason than you’re good enough, and I knew if I was going to get a chance, I would finish it because I was confident enough. And when I scored and I saw Eric running over, that was a special moment.”
In your first few weeks at the club, you let slip in an interview that one of your hobbies was collecting autographs. You had Stallone, Maradona, lots of top-level footballers – how did you feel to suddenly be fronted with Cantona, Schmeichel, Keane, Giggs, Beckham and all these superstars?
“I’ve still got those autographs back home somewhere, by the way – unless my mum and dad have thrown them away! I was a kid who collected those, I was so into football and I got a few decent ones. But how did I feel? No worries. I think I’m quite adaptable, I’m a bit like a chameleon in that I can blend in. It’s like… this is your life now. One of the things I had known was you can’t just come in there and think you deserve it, because you’ll be eaten up if you don’t have the personality or the confidence or the character to deal with these good footballers. I always felt that I didn’t stand out in the dressing room, apart from my boyish young looks, but I felt that I’d stand out when I score goals. That will be where I make my impression and then I’ll gradually be accepted in the group, and I think that went quite quickly.”
Sir Alex was keeping a diary of the season. After your debut against Blackburn, he wrote of you: “He amazes me. The improvement he makes each week is startling.” Obviously your goalscoring was already highly-developed before you came – but in what other areas did you look to improve in those early weeks?
“I think I had to adapt to the playing style because when I played for Norway and for Molde, my role was more to be a link-up player, flick-ons, be creative, take more risks, but when I got here it was more, when you’re up front you need to be strong, get hold of the ball, pin your centre-back, lay it off and get the ball wide, get into the box. So I had to adapt to the style of play. Apart from that, I just took it in my stride. I remember reading in the papers that Sir Alex said it’s hard to leave players out when they’re scoring goals, I can’t leave Ole out because he keeps on scoring goals, so I just had to focus on being the best goalscorer, the best finisher, and to be ready when the ball arrived in my path. I always felt that the better the players in my team, that would suit my style of football. If I’d gone to, say Rochdale or Tranmere – and no disrespect to those clubs – but I might have had no career because my team-mates would have been different. Y’know, when you’ve got Becks, you’ve got Giggsy, you’ve got Cantona, you know that you’ve just got to be clever and you’ve just got to make your movements and they’ll create chances. I backed me above any other for a finish inside the box.”
Kristiansund is a beautiful place, but it’s a small town with roughly half the population of Stretford – suddenly you were coming on for your Manchester United debut… did you ever have moments where you struggled to believe where you were and what was happening?
“As I said, I think you just take it in your stride. I had good people around me who kept me grounded. There was never any chance of me thinking I had made it, because I looked around at all my team-mates and thought, I’d need to be on my toes to keep my place. We had some fantastic strikers – Andrew was here and Eric, Scholesy was coming up, he’d played a few seasons so if I relaxed, I’d have been out straight away.”
You ended your first season as a Premier League champion, but the club was stunned when Eric suddenly retired – how did you feel when you heard the news?
“Well, that’s just Eric for you. After the West Ham game, when we beat them in the last game of the season, he rented a restaurant called Tarantella in Poynton, just for his family and friends, his dad and his brother, and me and my wife and Jordi [Cruyff] and his girlfriend, and so it was just us three players there. We had a party, danced all night, doing the famous Pulp Fiction dancing, I can still remember Eric being up there! At 4am we said our goodbyes, and a couple of days later me and Jordi and our partners went down to London, and as we arrived in London, we got off the train and it was on the radio that Eric Cantona had decided to retire. That’s just Eric for you – he had never mentioned anything to us when we were partying two days before. It was disappointing but I really enjoyed my year with him. What a character. I learned so much from him. Y’know, when we had corner kicks Becks was always over there to take them and before the game the gaffer says, ‘David on the corners.’ So we come in at half-time and the gaffer’s saying, ‘Eric, what have I told yo?, It’s Becks on the corners!’ because Eric had been taking them all. Eric shrugs, and when we go out again, first corner of the second half, who goes over to take it…? Eric. He had a special way about him.”