Danny Hall's Sheffield United column: Debunking the myth about Ollie Norwood and not beating the first man

It's a game of two halves. (No way!) We’re taking each game as it comes. (No, you’re really not). He’ll be as sick as a parrot with that mistake. (I’ve no idea on that one).

Friday, 3rd September 2021, 6:10 pm
Oliver Norwood of Sheffield United crosses the ball against Huddersfield Town: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Football arguably has more cliches than most sports, and most are utter nonsense. Why can’t ‘big men’ be able to control a football as well? Two-nil isn’t always a dangerous lead. It’s actually pretty comfortable, and a damn sight more comfortable than 1-0. And managers, contrary to popular belief, often know exactly where the dressing room is when people speculate that they have lost it.

To add to the ever-expanding book of football cliches, may I offer one I see and hear over and over again on matchday, in real life and social media? “Ollie Norwood can’t beat the first man from corners.”

It’s become almost ubiquitous on matchday, as familiar a part of the Saturday routine as the queue outside the ticket office at five to three or the piercing shrill of the “Programmes, three fifty!” guy.

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But is it actually true?

The phenomenon is called the “illusory truth effect” – put simply, the more you hear something that is blatantly untrue, the more susceptible people are to believing it.

It fits neatly into the football fans’ psyche that no defeat or bad result is ever because the opposition played well and deserved it, or because of sheer bad luck. We instinctively search for someone to blame. And when there isn’t anyone, invariably some fans find one to pin it on anyway.

It isn’t uniquely a Sheffield United thing, but every successful era has had a boo-boy. Nick Montgomery got more pelters from his own fans for what he couldn’t do, rather than an appreciation of what he could. Oli McBurnie is a more modern-day version, his signing often completely written off as a failure despite its obvious successes.

After spending a glorious half an hour reviewing Norwood’s every set-piece this season on Wyscout, the “He never beats the first man” is easily debunked. In fact, he often does – one corner in 16 this season so far was cleared by that “first man”, a first-man-clearing success rate of 94 per cent.

His set-piece delivery is not perfect, by any stretch, but is simply a myth to deride it at the same time. Wyscout currently rank him as the sixth-best defensive midfielder in the Championship – in a team currently 23rd in the table – and of United’s midfield three, including John Fleck and Sander Berge, Norwood has more shots per game, more passes, at the highest completed percentage, and overall more ‘actions’, both attacking and defensively.

After the late-window signings of Conor Hourihane and Morgan Gibbs-White, United have far better options in the middle of the park and one of Norwood and Fleck – or possibly both – may soon be taken out of the firing line by Slavisa Jokanović, maybe as soon as next weekend’s home clash with Peterborough United.

But it would be foolish, for my money, to write either off just yet. They have served this club well, and have the ability to do so again – even if their belief and confidence has taken a battering. After all – cliché alert – it’s a game of opinions…