Sheffield United midfielder Oliver Norwood reveals the most testing challenge of 'Project Restart' ahead of his return to Man Utd

Sheffield United always knew plotting a course through the ‘Project Restart’ fixture schedule would prove extraordinarily difficult.

Wednesday, 24th June 2020, 6:28 am

What they didn’t expect, however, was that navigating their way to the dressing rooms before last week’s game against Aston Villa was going to be an equally challenging experience.

“It’s a little bit different now,” midfielder Oliver Norwood said, describing how the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the face of English football. “When we went there, for our first game back, we travelled on the day which we wouldn’t normally do and we were spread across three buses, so we weren’t sat together as a team.

“Then, we arrived, Villa had found the farthest point of the stadium to incorporate social distancing and make sure we had a preparation area. It was about a 10 minute walk and up three flights of stairs.

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“Credit to them, they’ve got to make it as awkward as possible. It’s different and it’s not what we’re used to or the usual routine.”

Tomorrow, when Chris Wilder’s side visit Manchester United for their latest Premier League game, Norwood is unlikely to become disorientated as he works out where to get changed. The midfielder, who is set to make his third appearance in the space of seven days after also starting last weekend’s meeting with Newcastle, spent 15 years at Old Trafford before embarking on a journey which, following spells with the likes of Huddersfield Town, Reading and Brighton and Hove Albion, saw him arrive in South Yorkshire two summers ago.

United have exceeded all expectations since being promoted from the Championship last season, climbing to seventh in the table and taking 43 points from their first 28 outings before the health crisis forced competition to be suspended in March. But they have found both results and performances harder to come by after returning to action following a three month break - controversially being forced to settle for a goalless draw in the West Midlands, where Hawkeye technology failed to spot Norwood’s free-kick had been carried across the line by Villa’s Orjan Nyland, and then losing 3-0 at St James’ Park.

Speaking after that match, Wilder conceded his players are struggling to rediscover their usual spark while the challenge of performing behind closed doors also appears to be handicapping a club which prides itself on the strength of its relationship with its supporters.

Manchester United defender Harry Maguire, previously of Sheffield United, following this season's 3-3 draw at Bramall Lane: Darren Staples/Sportimage

“It is strange,” Norwood said. “But it can not be allowed to affect our displays. We’re not going to blame that. Let’s be honest, we’ve been a little bit flat and we need to find a way to shake ourselves as individuals and as a group. We need to find a way around it and pick our levels up. This, different kick-off times, playing every 48 or 72 hours and being told where to be and where to go, is the new ‘normal’ for us.”

Wilder was equally forthright when he addressed the media ahead of Wednesday evening’s game against the three-time European champions. Despite factoring the long break into his calculations, the United manager insisted the subdued atmosphere inside the top-flight’s empty stadia is no excuse for a shortage of intensity and focus - although he emphasised he was not accusing those under his command of lacking either.

“The rhythm, the numbers from a physical point of view, are good,” Wilder said. “We’ve just lost a bit of rhythm and players need to get a bit of a shake to get their rhythm back.

“Listen, there’s not many (teams) at the top of their game. Looking at the majority of the games, there aren’t many teams who are hitting their rhythm. And I’ve seen them all bar one or two.

Newcastle United's Andy Carroll and Sheffield United's Oliver Norwood (right) battle for the ball during the Premier League match at St James' Park, Newcastle: Michael Regan/PA Wire/NMC Pool.

“Some have found little bits of magic and that gives you confidence. Players have just got to have the confidence to do that, to raise their games.”

“Players are without crowds and we’re not special to think that only affects us,” he conceded. “Everyone is having to deal with that. So we’ve got to find it from within. Whether that be a selection issue or players just finding that bit of spark. Everyone recognises that our players, to do what they’ve done, have had to play at their maximum. They’ve had to, to even out themselves in a position to get a result because of the standard that we are playing at.”

With a depleted squad at their disposal, United must produce one of their most courageous and creative displays of the campaign so far in order to prevail against opponents without any major selection concerns. On-loan goalkeeper Dean Henderson is ineligible to face his parent club while John Egan is suspended after being dismissed at Newcastle. With Jack O’Connell also set to miss-out through injury and David McGoldrick receiving treatment for a knock, Wilder could be forced to contemplate a change of shape if Phil Jagielka, Egan’s natural replacement, struggles to pass a fitness test of his own.

Norwood, though, warned it would be a mistake to write off a team which without both Henderson and Egan drew 3-3 with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men earlier this season.

Sheffield United's Oliver Norwood looks dejected after the Premier League match at St James' Park, Newcastle: Michael Regan/PA Wire/NMC Pool.

"There's no inspirational talks or anything like that,” Norwood said. “We know each other as people and what turns people on and off and we speak a lot. We’ve got each other’s backs and support each other, it’s great and easy when everything is going well. What the stuff hits the fan, that's when you find out about your team mates and who cares and every single player at Sheffield United cares.”

Norwood’s sullen demeanour when he was interviewed by journalists less than 24 hours after United’s first defeat since losing to Manchester City in January was testament to that.

"It was evident early on that we have a lot of good people in the dressing room,” Norwood, who recently extended his contract, said. “Sharpy (Billy Sharp, the United captain) obviously, Phil Jagielka, Chris Basham, Enda Stevens, George Baldock, John Egan - you can go through the team. John Lundstram, John Fleck - everybody in a different way is a leader in there. It genuinely does hurt us when we do lose and we play like we did (at Newcastle).”

"It is not as if we are going ‘Ah well it’ll be okay.' It genuinely hurts, as that was not us. We hold our hands up and say that to each other and we’ll speak about it. The one thing we have got is a group that wants to do well and who will come back. You don’t have the success we have had without having failures.”

Although he failed to make a senior appearance at Manchester United, Wilder cited the length of time Norwood spent there - working under the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson - as indicative of his character.

“With Olly, you have to go away and the model of Manchester United is not just producing players for themselves, they underpin their model by producing players for others too,” he said. “Being a pro first and then playing at the Championship above. Olly has found a home here. Hopefully there’s more to come from him.

“You’ve got to be a tough character. You’ve got to be somebody special to play for Manchester United and then to stay there for any period of time.”

Despite falling below their usual high standards during the second-half of the trip to Newcastle, who scored all of their three goals following Egan’s 50th minute dismissal, United cross the Pennines only two points behind Solskjaer’s fifth placed side.

“Without being blasé about it, we lost a game of football and deservedly because we weren’t good enough,” Norwood said, introducing a sense of perspective into the debate surrounding United’s latest showing. “But we won't mope about and we’ll get round each other and pick each other up and look to go again on Wednesday.”

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