Serial promotion winner says Sheffield United have got what it takes to reach the Premier League

“Sacrifice,” replies Oliver Norwood, after being challenged to identify the key ingredient in any promotion winning team.

Friday, 29th April 2022, 7:32 am

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Talent and ability are obviously prerequisites. But so, according to someone with a PhD in earning Premier League status, is a willingness to forgo the usual trappings of success. Often to the frustration of friends and family.

“Holidays and honeymoons cut short because of training - mine, we were supposed to be going away for a couple of weeks to Barbados but it ended up being two days in Barcelona because I had to be back for training,” he tells The Star. “Still, it was brilliant. What a city.

Paul Heckingbottom takes his Sheffield United side to QPR next: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“You miss birthdays, celebrations and going out with your mates when you were younger. The number of times I’ve had to cancel a break because of an international game, you wouldn’t believe it.

“I know it doesn’t sound like much because we’re in a massively privileged position. And to some extent it isn’t. But there’s things you have to give up if you want to do well.”

Norwood knows as well as anyone what it takes to drag a squad out of the Championship and into the top-flight. After all, it is something he has done in each of the past three seasons he has spent in England’s second tier. With Sheffield United on course to reach the play-offs despite a miserable start to the season, Norwood is hoping to complete what would be a remarkable quartet. Particularly, reflecting on his previous achievements at Brighton, Fulham and Bramall Lane, when the midfielder reveals he lost count of the number of times he was told he’d never make it as a professional. Let alone one, after helping United go up during his first year in South Yorkshire, who has developed a taste for football at the highest level.

“I was told plenty of times by plenty of different people that I’d never make it, that I was too small, wasn’t physical enough and stuff like that,” Norwood says, breaking into a broad, beaming smile as he smiles at the memories. “So I suppose now, after listening to all of that crappy stuff, I can just stick the middle finger up to them and get on with it. But the thing is, I want more. We want more. And I think that’s another quality you’ve got to have if you want to do well in this business. I’ve dedicated my entire life to the game. I was always carrying a ball around as a kid and I was just so determined to make it, no matter what I kept hearing. You can never really be satisfied or happy to rest on your laurels.”

Oliver Norwood has won three promotions from the Championship: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Norwood, who started his career with Manchester United before leaving without ever playing a game, made 70 PL appearances for United after Chris Wilder’s squad won promotion in 2019. Now under the guidance of Paul Heckingbottom, their former under-23’s coach, the club is well-placed to return at the first time of asking. Sixteenth in the table only five months ago, as the hangover of last term’s relegation proved difficult to shift, United enter tomorrow’s match at Queens Park Rangers - the penultimate assignment of their regular campaign - ranked sixth. Middlesbrough, now managed by Wilder, are two points behind in seventh.

“I genuinely never thought I’d be in the Premier League,” admits Norwood, who scored the winning goal when United last met Rangers earlier this month. “But I wasn’t going to give up on it and there’s something inside of you - I think a lot of footballers have this - that you just keep on trying even harder if people write you off.

“Listen, it comes with the territory I suppose. What we’re doing, it’s every young kid’s dream to be out there playing football in front of huge crowds.”

So will Norwood’s young son follow in his father’s footsteps? “I’d love him to but he’s not got much interest in it at the minute. To be honest, I’m probably a bit of a nightmare because I was always getting told I had to concentrate more at school. I wasn’t a bad lad but football was all I was really interested in. But now, as a dad, I want him to do well at school. So I can understand now why I was frustrating people back then.”

Now the Sheffield United midfielder is chasing a fourth: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Norwood has come a long way since the days he could be found “kicking a ball around every park pitch” in his native Burnley. Capped 57 times by Northern Ireland before announcing his international retirement, the 31-year-old, whose passing repertoire has led him to be described as the ‘quarterback’ of United’s midfield, is likely to be one of the first names Heckingbottom scribbles onto United’s team sheet when they arrive in west London.

“Another thing you need,” he says, steering the conversation back to the subject of promotion, “Is the right managers and support staff. All of them, the strength and conditioning people who are at our beck and call, they never get the credit they deserve when things go well. They’re the ones who help give you consistency, which is another key quality.”

Six members of the starting eleven which beat Cardiff City last weekend are, like Norwood, veterans of United’s last promotion winning campaign.

“A lot comes from the senior players too, because they drive the standards,” he says. “This season, even the lads who are out injured, they’ve been so positive and created the right atmosphere. The younger lads who’ve come in for them, they’ve shown how good they are too.

Oliver Norwood celebrates his goal for Sheffield United against QPR at Bramall Lane: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

“We’re going to need everyone, and I mean everyone, to make the most of the opportunity that’s in front of us. That’s another key ingredient - every single person at a club pulling in the same direction.”