Stale Solbakken, the Norway manager, has enough on his plate trying to explain why a squad boasting the likes of Martin Odegaard, Mohammed Elyounoussi and of course Erling Haaland - probably the most self-confident and talked about footballer on the planet right now - failed to qualify for this winter’s World Cup finals without commenting on Sheffield United’s internal affairs. And commenting in what was probably the most disrespectful way possible without labelling the Championship club as s**t and calling all of their supporters t******s. Neither of which, it goes without saying, are true.
Nearly two weeks, a holiday in Italy and first ever crack at the Great North Swim have passed since Solbakken told journalists ahead of a Nations League game that Sander Berge was too good to be playing in the Championship. But hearing him tell the 24-year-old that it’s in his best interests to move, following United’s failure to win promotion, still absolutely boils my urine. Because it was unnecessary, out of order and downright rude. Solbakken is entitled to his opinion and perfectly within his rights to express it in private. But a press conference, beamed across Scandinavia and staged while the wounds of last month’s defeat in the Championship play-off semi-finals are still raw, could hardly be described as a small and intimate gathering.
“I think it would be good for him (Berge) to be aware that he does not belong in the Championship anymore,” Solbakken told journalists. In other words, get yourself out of Bramall Lane and get yourself out sharp’ish.
I might be minded to suggest that, after utterly woeful spells with FC Koln and Wolverhampton Wanderers, the former Wimbledon midfielder can count himself lucky to be in charge of anything other than a mid-ranking Eliteserien side. But I won’t. Because I’m too polite and this column will end up on the internet where it can be by anyone, anytime, anyplace, anywhere. Providing they subscribe to The Star’s premium service of course. Or possess the technical nous to circumnavigate paywalls.
Berge, who was sitting next to Solbakken at the time, should probably have asked him to remember his manners. But then criticising the boss is seldom a smart career move. And, despite an impressive end to the campaign, the lad doesn’t carry quite the same clout as his compatriots at Arsenal, Southampton and Manchester City.
Which provides more evidence that Solbakken was speaking rot too. Because Mikel Arteta, Ralph Hasenhuttl and Pep Guardiola aren’t beating a path to Berge’s door. A couple of months of Premier League quality displays don’t make a Premier League performer. Consistent high-calibre shifts over a 12 or 24 months do. And that is something, for all his obvious gifts, Berge has yet to do - bring his ‘A’ game to the table over the course of an entire campaign. If he’s as good as Solbakken says he is - at least right now - then he would have grabbed United’s double-header against Nottingham Forest by the scruff of the neck and carried them to Wembley.
The fact Solbakken hasn’t told Watford’s Josh King, Dennis Johnsen of Venezia, Norwich City’s Mathias Normann or Matts Moeller Daehli of Nuremberg to push for transfers is intriguing. All four either have or are preparing to compete in the second tier of the respective employers’ domestic competitions.
It has the whiff of being part of something much bigger. A clumsy attempt, organised by a person or persons unnamed or unknown, to arrange Berge’s departure from United. If my hunch is correct, whoever is behind this isn’t quite as smart as they think. Either that or they simply don’t care how Solbakken’s comment resonates in South Yorkshire. Which would actually be worse, because it means they have nothing but contempt for United and their followers.
Berge is clearly talented and has a huge amount of potential. But the fact he has yet to fulfil it, despite turning 24 in February, confirms he is far from the finished article.
Clearly, given his failure to provide any guarantees about his future with United during a couple of interviews whilst on international duty, Berge quite fancies the idea of arranging another transfer two-and-a-half seasons after joining United in a £22m deal from Genk.
I can understand why. Particularly given the fact he has no personal ties to this part of the world and didn’t, as far as I’m aware, grow up worshipping Tony Currie and dreaming of wearing the famous red and white stripes.
But it’s also possible to make a case that he'd be better off remaining where he is until at least the January window. He’s almost guaranteed a place in Paul Heckingbottom’s starting eleven and by making a strong start to the new programme, helping to ease United into contention by the halfway point, would help erase suspicions that he only really turns up whenever the market is about to reopen.
I’m not saying this is deliberate. It might be purely coincidental. But Berge’s body of work in England so far can hardly be described as consistent. And the most renowned coaches in the business will want to see more before taking a punt.
If the lad wants to go then fair enough. He’s not a slave. That’s his right. He can work anywhere he chooses.
But no matter how, or indeed where, the next phase of his career unfolds, hopefully those responsible for helping shape it treat United and their fans with a little more class and gratitude than Solbakken did not so long ago.