Oliver Norwood reveals why he and Sheffield United are a marriage made in footballing heaven
He never did receive an explanation.
Why, after helping both Brighton and Fulham reach the Premier League, they felt his skills were not suited to top-flight football.
“Nobody ever said anything,” Oliver Norwood remembers. “I suppose you’re quickly forgotten at some football clubs.”
At Sheffield United, however, things have been different. The midfielder, a veteran of their promotion winning squad last season, remains one of the first names Chris Wilder scribbles onto his pre-match team sheets.
Aged 29 and poised to agree a new contract which will commit the best years of his career to Bramall Lane, Norwood had already made a mockery of those who claimed he would never hack it at the highest level when the season was suspended two months ago because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Seventh in the table ahead of next month’s return to action, his team mates also derive great pleasure from proving people wrong after being billed as favourites for relegation at the beginning of the campaign.
Norwood suspects that stubbornness, the ability to be inspired rather than intimidated by criticism, explains why he feels among friends in South Yorkshire.
“Listen, it’s always nice to show folk they were wrong about you,” he says. “But I don’t hold a grudge against anybody. They had their opinions about me and I had my own opinions about what I could do, but that’s life and not everyone always agrees.
“The same probably goes for a lot of the other lads here as well. When we came up, everyone was going on about how we hardly had any experience of this division apart from Jags (Phil Jagielka) who has got hundreds of Premier League appearances under his belt.
“Mostly, we’ve all come up through the lower divisions and we’ve had to work for everything we’ve got. We’ve all had set backs so, to be where we are now, I think it’s a great lesson for every young player and every young person out there to never give up. No matter what.”
Norwood started his career with Manchester United before, following a series of loan spells, being sold to Huddersfield Town. Having subsequently joined Brighton, after two seasons with Reading, he helped Chris Hughton’s side claw their way out of the Championship. But, rather than being granted an opportunity to rub shoulders with the game’s elite, his reward was a temporary transfer to Craven Cottage where, after winning another promotion, he was cut loose again.
Soon after being signed by United in the summer of 2018, Norwood revealed how Sir Alex Ferguson, his manager at Old Trafford, insisted he had the potential to become a Premier League player despite sanctioning Town’s purchase.
Norwood believes Wilder shares many of the Scot’s qualities, including the ability to focus on what players can do rather than can’t and how to best motivate them.
“I’ve always been the type of person who, if you tell me I can’t do something, then I’m going to try my damndest to do it,” Norwood laughs. “That’s my personality, and certain people obviously recognise that and tap into it.
“When I was younger, I knew I wasn’t the biggest, the strongest, the toughest or the fastest and so I tried to work on what I knew I could be good at, which was passing and my technique. I used to study people like Paul Scholes when I was at Manchester United really closely, and see what they did.”
“The gaffer here has given me the chance to show what I can do,” Norwood continues. “And I’ll forever be grateful for that. Sometimes, I think people can get too focused on things you’re not great at. Even though you should work on those areas, it’s also important to recognise what you can do well.”
United began preparing for their remaining 10 league games in earnest last week when, after PL officials granted clubs permission to start contact training, it was announced Wilder’s men will visit Aston Villa on June 17. A win in the West Midlands would see them climb to fifth, only two points outside the Champions League places, ahead of the first full round of fixtures.
“It was great to get back, especially being able to tackle and that,” Norwood says. “To begin with, it was like being out there in the park with the boys - everyone was chasing a ball around - but we know what we have to get on with and we’ll be ready. Everyone has done what they had to do, while we've been away, because we know what's at stake.
“It’s been a long time without football and, if I’m being honest, I was getting sick of the sight of the watt bikes we’d been given when we were having to work at home.
“I was always confident the season would get completed. So I’m delighted it looks like it will be. We didn’t want it to get decided on stuff like points per game. We want to earn whatever we get.”
United are also still in the FA Cup, having been paired with Arsenal at the quarter-final stage. Although he sympathises with supporters with games set to be staged behind closed doors - “I feel for them, I really do” - Norwood adds: “We’re challenging because we deserve to be and we want to give them, wherever they are, something to shout about.”