Sheffield United: How Oliver Norwood proved his burning desire to be the very best for club and country
It was the words 'personal' and 'reasons' which first set alarm bells ringing among supporters of Sheffield United and particularly Northern Ireland.
Oliver Norwood, whose exquisite touch and razor-sharp vision make him such an important player for both club and country, had withdrawn from the latter's squad to face Estonia and Belarus because of a supposedly private matter.
Inevitably, all sorts of wild theories about the cause of his absence began to fill the vacuum. The truth, it later transpired, was actually pretty mundane. A hernia injury, aggravated during United's victory over Wigan Athletic on New Year's Day, meant it was becoming increasingly difficult for Norwood to complete two or three games in a week. On reflection, the explanation was probably a little too vague. Although, despite causing an unnecessary amount of anxiety, it certainly suited United who were challenging for promotion at the time.
Four months after informing the Irish Football Association of his predicament, and three since Chris Wilder's side clawed themselves out of the Championship, Norwood can laugh about the situation now. Surgery has completely repaired the damage and he is looking forward to resuming his international career. But not before representing United at Premier League level.
"It feels good," Norwood said earlier this week, when United reported back for pre-season training. "It was around December when I picked it up, then it got a bit worse, so obviously it was just a case of getting painkillers and managing the week's training and rolling me out on a Saturday and Tuesday. It worked."
Norwood went on to appear in all but one of their 21 outings following the visit to Greater Manchester. It speaks volumes, about his importance to the cause and desire to play top-flight football, that United delayed his operation until the end of the campaign. Also that Michael O'Neill, Wilder's counterpart in Belfast, was willing to go along with the subterfuge.
"The plan was to always get it done in the summer, so we were quite relaxed about that," Norwood continued. "It was just a case of there being a big prize at stake and go and get it.
"That was the thinking in March. There was no point for me to go and play two games (for Northern Ireland) when I felt as if I could do with a rest. I don't think I would have been able to perform at the level I'd have wanted to. I don't think it would have been fair turning up half-fit, really."
From United's perspective, it proved to be exactly the right call as they went on to finish second in the table behind Norwich City. O'Neill's team did not struggle either, winning both of their Euro 2020 qualifiers in March before beating Estonia again four weeks ago.
Still, although he remained a fixture in Wilder's starting eleven, the pain Norwood was experiencing began to take its toll. There was a slight drop in his performance levels during the second-half of the season which, despite not being enough to prompt a change of selection policy, was still discernible. The return to form of John Fleck, after a slow'ish start to the season, served as a counterbalance and ensured they retained their status as one of the division's most effective partnerships.
"Obviously I had to curb things a little bit over the summer because I couldn't play." Norwood said. "Just walking about was difficult at times. But it had to be done and I'm fit now. Everything is okay, no problems."
As they prepare to compete at the highest level for the first time since 2007, the sight of Norwood completing a series of gruelling sessions at the Steelphalt Academy will come as a relief to those tasked with overseeing United's survival bid. The 28-year-old's ability to dictate both tempo and the direction of travel on the pitch, combined with the tenacious streak his technique often masks, could prove crucial when Wilder's men return to action at AFC Bournemouth next month and beyond.
Norwood is on a personal mission too, after twice being denied the chance to play Premier League football following promotions with Brighton and Hove Albion and Fulham; the club he joined on loan after being declared surplus to requirements at the Amex Stadium.
"We are old enough and wise enough and we know what to expect and the carrot at the end of it is that you are going to play in the Premier League and that is always in the back of your mind," he said, acknowledging the pre-season programme Wilder has devised threatens to be particularly taxing. "That is all you are thinking about, you are not thinking: 'this is tough.' It is going to be tough, it is pre-season and what it is supposed to be.
"But at the end of it, it is a Premier League season and we are all looking forward to what is to come."