Sheffield United: Rhys Norrington-Davies on Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Gareth Bale and Wales - but not in that order

In order to properly understand Rhys Norrington-Davies, discover how this globetrotting youngster transformed himself into a footballer on the brink of appearing at the World Cup Cup finals, you need to go right back to the start of a two decade long journey which began in Riyadh; the sun-scorched capital of Saudi Arabia.
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“I was born there, my dad was working with the army,” the Sheffield United and Wales defender explains. “I don’t really remember it to be honest, because we didn’t stay for long. We moved about quite a bit back then, going to some really interesting places. I do still have really good memories of Kenya though, after we lived in that country. I’m still in touch with the friends, the really great mates, I made out there.”

Norrington-Davies’ accent, shorn of the melodic vowels you would expect of someone who has spent the past fortnight on duty with Robert Page’s squad to possess, betrays the fact he spent long periods of his childhood traversing the globe before settling in Aberystwyth and then Swansea. Typically, a spell in south London was sandwiched in between when, after the family relocated to Croydon, he attended the Royal Russell School which also counts the actor Martin Clunes, singer Elly Jackson and Conservative politician Mims Davies among its former pupils.

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“I’ve been fortunate to experience lots of different things and I suppose, looking back, moving to all of those different places made me grow up and mature pretty fast,” Norrington-Davies admits. “I wouldn’t change any of it. I’m lucky to have done it. It’s made me who I am, I suppose. Everyone’s background is different and there’s not one way of becoming a footballer, is there. But I do think mine helped me, looking back. I’m always ready for a challenge.”

Tomorrow afternoon, when United return to action with a visit to Stoke City, Norrington-Davies’ focus will be on attempting to ensure Paul Heckingbottom’s side take another step towards qualifying for the Championship play-offs. Norrington-Davies, who turns 23 later this month, knows the bet365 Stadium well having spent the second-half of last season there on loan. “It was a huge learning experience, it taught me so much. I played in lots of different positions and it’s a really big club.”

But only nine days ago, he was part of the manic celebrations inside the Cardiff City Stadium where, after two goals fromReal Madrid’s Gareth Bale put Austria to the sword, Wales moved within 90 minutes of reaching this winter’s World Cup in Qatar. Ukraine or Scotland, who count United’s John Fleck, Oli McBurnie and Oliver Burke among their options, now stand between Page’s men and a first appearance at the tournament since 1958.

“It was crazy in there and it’s crazy to think about being so close,” smiles Norrington-Davies. “But there’s one game to go. We’re not there yet. That’s why none of the lads here have mentioned it yet, because Scotland have got to come through their one first. Even Oli, who's usually pretty vocal on things like that, he’s not really brought the subject up. If they do get to the last stage of qualifying though, and I hope they do, I’m sure it will lead to some pretty interesting conversations.”

Rhys Norrington Davies of Sheffield United and Wales: Andrew Yates / SportimageRhys Norrington Davies of Sheffield United and Wales: Andrew Yates / Sportimage
Rhys Norrington Davies of Sheffield United and Wales: Andrew Yates / Sportimage
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“Just being around those lads, it’s a huge honour,” he continues. “And it teaches me so much. Gareth, well, he’s a legend isn’t he. Everyone knows how good he is, how skilled he is. But what people don’t always see is his leadership qualities. He doesn’t really speak to people or give them individual advice. He just brings the whole group together and makes sure we know what is required. I’ve learned a lot from just watching that.”

Norrington-Davies’ career path has taught him plenty too. Having enrolled on United’s academy programme in 2017, following his departure from Swansea, he completed spells with Barrow AFC and then Rochdale before arriving in Staffordshire via Luton Town.

Those stints in the lower leagues were, Norrington-Davies reflects now, particularly valuable.

“Looking back, doing that was absolutely vital. In fact, I think I needed it. Why? Because it made me appreciate just how well we get looked after here at United. That’s not to say we didn’t get looked after well at Barrow and Rochdale, because we did. The people there, they do everything they can for you. But the facilities, they’re different obviously.It gave me a real sense of perspective and drive.”

Rhys Norrington Davies of Sheffield Utd and with Oli McBurnie: Simon Bellis / SportimageRhys Norrington Davies of Sheffield Utd and with Oli McBurnie: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
Rhys Norrington Davies of Sheffield Utd and with Oli McBurnie: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
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Despite emerging as a key member of a United side which is fifth in the table with eight matches remaining and winning his seventh cap for Wales on Tuesday night - Adam Davies, his colleague at Bramall Lane, also featured during the game against the Czech Republic - Norrington-Davies wasn’t always destined to become a professional sportsman.

“I was getting ready to go to the university, I was going to study architecture and civil engineering, when the change of a contract here came up,” he says. “I’d got my A-levels in maths, physics and geology and education was really important to me. It still is, I’m just learning different things. I spend quite a lot of time, sitting down and watching my games either on my own or with one of the staff here.

“And when I was at school, I played rugby union. So there was a choice to be made there. I’ve got a long way to go and lots of things to improve on. But I’m glad I’m doing what I’m doing now. Sometimes, I still pinch myself.”