Sheffield United: The biggest winner at Bramall Lane this week started The Blades' last game on the bench

As they attempt to rebuild Rhian Brewster’s confidence by removing him from the spotlight, Sheffield United have seen another of their under-fire players rebuild his reputation without even kicking a ball.

Thursday, 21st October 2021, 3:30 pm

Despite being dropped from the starting eleven for Tuesday’s defeat by Millwall, Oliver Norwood was probably the only member of Slavisa Jokanovic’s squad whose standing was enhanced during a match shaped by Morgan Gibbs-White’s red card, an inexplicable refereeing decision and Jake Cooper’s sledgehammer right foot.

Forty-eight hours after helping United beat high-flying Stoke City, and 24 before they succumbed to their fellow mid-table also-rans, Norwood’s name was raised during one of Jokanovic’s regular briefings with regional journalists. He defended the former Northern Ireland international’s performance levels, describing him as a “very important” part of his plan to try and build upon that win.

The same clearly goes for the on-loan Conor Hourihane, who replaced Norwood in the starting eleven for the visit of Gary Rowett’s side. Hooked after 38 minutes, the fall guy for United’s woeful first-half display, Hourihane was replaced by Iliman Ndiaye as Jokanovic effected the change of shape which saw them draw level just before the interval. But as he sat on the bench, eventually being introduced during the closing stages, Norwood’s stature was still soaring.

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His critics, who had accused him of lacking mobility and athleticism, were receiving a blunt reminder about what he brings to the team.

“Oliver Norwood has played well,” said Jokanovic, reflecting upon Norwood’s performances since United’s relegation last season. “He has done good in his position. Of course, we drop out of the Premier League and that makes it a little easier. But he is a good character.”

Norwood and Jokanivic have history

Appointed in May and beginning work in July, Jokanovic already had an insight into Norwood’s capabilities when he arrived at Bramall Lane. The pair worked together at Fulham where, after leading them to safety, Jokanovic took the Londoners up during his first full season in charge.

Oliver Norwood could return to Sheffield United's starting eleven against Barnsley: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

On loan from Brighton and Hove Albion, Norwood featured in the play-off final win over Aston Villa before being sold to United where he also achieved promotion from the Championship. Having helped them finish ninth in the top-flight, his performance levels dropped following the Covid-19 pandemic. But the same, as they eventually plummeted back into the EFL following two years away, could be said for every other player on the club’s books.

Although the best attackers in England were eventually able to fathom and then expose some of the flaws in his armoury, which include a vulnerability to a ‘press’ and less than explosive pace, Norwood remains a metronomic presence in United’s midfield - switching the direction of travel and, unlike Hourihane two days ago, also his position after making a pass.

Hourihane, who featured for Villa during that meeting with Fulham at Wembley, remains a high-quality footballer despite experiencing an off day in midweek. But perhaps better suited to a more advanced role, as his contribution to last month’s triumph over Hull City suggested, it would be a surprise if Norwood did not return to the line-up when United, who after drawing level against Millwall succumbed to Cooper’s Howitzer in added time, travel to Barnsley on Sunday lunchtime.

“We know Oli’s strengths and his weaknesses,” Jokanovic said. “But he’s a good player for us.”

lliman Ndiaye of Sheffield United replaces Conor Hourihane against Millwall: Isaac Parkin / Sportimage
Slavisa Jokanovic is a fan of both Oliver Norwood and Conor Hourihane: Simon Bellis / Sportimage