Ronny Johnsen: Viking Steel

man utd norwegian defender ronny johnsen

Player Profile: Ronny Johnsen

Date of Birth: 10/06/1969

Height: 1.90 m

Position: Centre-back

National Team: Norway

International Caps: 62

International Goals: 3

Club Career

Ronny Johnsen was one of the most under-appreciated players of his time. He was an often overlooked part of a star-studded Manchester United line-up, but he was never accused of not pulling his weight. Former United manager Sir Alex Ferguson once famously called him “the best centre-back in the country on his day”.

He began his youth career with locals sides Sem IF and Stokke IL. During his early days, he wasn’t even a defender – his pace allowed him to play as a striker or a winger. This attribute would help him immensely once he made it to the Premier League.

It was not until he signed for second-tier side Eik-Tønsberg in 1991 that he was retrained as a centre-back. Johnsen though, did not welcome this move initially. In fact, he was so disappointed that he did not get to play in his natural position as a striker that he sought out a move to fellow Norwegian club Lyn. The fact that Johnsen played mostly upfront can be seen in his goalscoring records at both clubs. For Eik-Tønsberg, he had 24 goals in 98 appearances and in his two seasons in the top-flight with Lyn he scored seven goals.

But at the beginning of the 1994 season, Johnsen was signed by Lillestrøm and the club began using him as a defender again. This time though, it would stick. Johnsen would stay for two seasons before moving to Beşiktaş in Turkey. 

Another club though had been tracking him all along. Manchester United and their manager Alex Ferguson had been impressed by the Norwegian’s performances and sought to bring him to Old Trafford. The first approach came when Johnsen was midway through his season at Beşiktaş. He would turn it down, preferring to finish the season in Turkey. 

But Ferguson had been sufficiently impressed and returned when the season was done. This time, Johnsen accepted United’s offer. He cost the Red Devils £1.2 million, becoming the costliest Norwegian defender at that point. He wasn’t the only Norwegian to sign for United that season – Ferguson also brought in a little-known striker by the name of Ole Gunnar Solskjær.

Johnsen had a memorable first season at Old Trafford in terms of trophies, picking up the Premier League title. He played a big part in the success as well, appearing in 38 matches in the league. United’s defence though was less than solid, conceding the most goals in the top five. However, their attack had seen them through.

This next season though wouldn’t be as fruitful as United were pipped to the title by Arsenal. Johnsen started missing matches through injuries, appearing in only 22 league matches that campaign. That, and United’s loss to Arsenal, prompted Ferguson to bring in Dutch defender Jaap Stam. But rather than compete with him for the same place, Johnsen would form a formidable partnership with him the following year, as United made history.

The 1998-99 season was the most successful one ever by an English club. Ronny Johnsen played a big part in that as United completed a historic treble, winning the Premier League, the FA Cup and the UEFA Champions League. Despite initially being out with injury, Johnsen returned towards the end of the season and started all the three matches where United secured the three titles. He was only one of five United players to do so. First, Johnsen started in the 2-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur on the final day of the season that saw United to pip Arsenal to the title by a single point. Then, six days later, he started the FA Cup final against Newcastle that United won 2-0.

However, it was in the Champions League that Johnsen did his best work that season. His versatility had come in handy for Ferguson who had found yet another position for the Norwegian to play. In the quarter-final against Inter Milan, Ferguson had deployed Johnsen as a central midfielder, alongside Roy Keane, to nullify the threats posed by Brazilian legend Ronaldo and Roberto Baggio. It was a task that Johnsen carried out so effectively that Ferguson was impressed enough to deploy him in midfield again in the semi-final against Juventus.

In the final though, Johnsen reverted back to his familiar position, partnering Stam in defence. He did not have the best of starts to the final – he conceded the freekick that Bayern Munich would convert to take the lead. But he held fort alongside Stam for the rest of the match as United would score two late goals and win the Champions League.

Johnsen would miss almost all of next season through a knee injury and would return only towards the campaign. In fact, the very next match he played after the Champions League Final in Barcelona was against Southampton in April the following year where United clinched yet another title. In fact, that would give him a unique record – Johnsen had won four titles with United in four matches. Owing to the small number of games he had played, Johnsen was not eligible to receive a medal but nevertheless got one through special dispensation.

Injuries would plague him throughout the next season as well. He would only play 10 matches in the league and 19 overall. Johnsen was released by Manchester United at the end of the season after his contract ran out. 

His next destination was Aston Villa, where he would spend two seasons. A stint with Newcastle United followed, but Johnsen’s fitness levels were questionable, and he was released after just three league appearances for the club. This initially prompted Johnsen to call it a day. But he reversed his decision and returned home to play for Vålerenga where he would lift the Tippeligaen in 2005. He would play for them for four years before hanging up his boots in 2008.

International Career

Ronny Johnsen made his international debut while still playing in Norway’s second tier. The story goes that after a recommendation from a fellow manager, then-national team coach Egil Olsen included Johnsen in the squad without having seen him play.

He made his debut in Norway colours in 1991, in a friendly against Sweden. He played a number of qualifiers leading up to the 1994 World Cup but was left out of Norway’s squad for the tournament.

By the time the 1998 World Cup came around, he was one of the most important players in the squad. Johnsen started all four matches in the tournament, including Norway’s famous victory over Brazil. Their run was halted in the Round of 16 by eventual runners-up Italy, who beat them 1-0.

Johnsen initially retired from national team duties after a match against Wales in 2004. However, three years later, when he was 38, he came out of retirement to play a friendly against Argentina. Johnsen was the oldest player on the pitch that day, the second-oldest ever to play a match for Norway. The youngest player in the game that Norway won 2-1 was a 20-year-old Argentine by the name of Leo Messi.

Where is Ronny Johnsen now?

After retirement as a professional footballer, Ronny Johnsen served as a media pundit for various outlets including Canal+. He often appears on former club Manchester United’s in-house TV channel MUTV.  

Johnsen is an ambassador for Manchester United ambassador, travelling to various countries representing the club at fan meets and sponsor engagements. 

He has also been involved in youth coaching back in Norway and has entertained the idea of one-day coaching in Southeast Asia.

Did you know? Interesting facts about Ronny Johnsen

– While at Manchester United, Ronny Johnsen was roommates with United’s current manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær.

– After Old Trafford, he lists Aston Villa’s Villa Park and Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge as his favourite stadiums in England.

– Johnsen famously played as a striker for Norway in a match against Poland. A 3-0 win in that match ensured Norway’s qualification for the 1994 World Cup.