Sheffield United's Oliver Norwood talks football, the importance of fighting for what you believe in and putting on a front
Oliver Norwood pretended he wasn’t listening, kept his own counsel and maintained a front of mock indifference.
But all the while, particularly when the criticism being aimed at Sheffield United turned from a trickle into a flood, the midfielder was actually making a series of personal mental notes. They contained the names and the possible motives of those peddling one particular narrative: That United weren’t only heading for relegation from the Premier League, they were also destined to go down with its lowest points total ever
“We didn’t want to get laughed at, and I heard pretty much everything that was being said about us,” Norwood said, after a narrow victory over Aston Villa earlier this month saw United avoid that particular fate. “We’ve seen all the stuff about us being the worst team ever at this level. Well, everyone who was banging on about that can forget it now can’t they. Because we aren’t.”
With David McGoldrick’s first-half goal ensuring Derby County should continue to hold one of the few records in English football nobody actually wants, Norwood had a few other things to get off his chest. But listening to him speak, as he described how United’s squad have dealt with the barbs and the brickbats aimed in their direction since the beginning of what he admitted has been an underwhelming season, the 29-year-old inadvertently revealed one of the most important qualities a professional footballer must possess. They aren’t just skilled athletes. In order to reach the highest level, or pretty much any decent level for that matter, players must be accomplished actors too.
Norwood has spent most of the past six months putting on a show, pretending he doesn’t hear or is even aware of the criticism surrounding United’s performances since finishing ninth last term.
They enter Saturday’s derby against Leeds under scrutiny again, after being beaten by Southampton and losing manager Chris Wilder before being thumped 5-0 by Leicester City 24 hours later. Paul Heckingbottom, placed in caretaker charge following Wilder’s departure, steadied the ship during last weekend’s FA Cup quarter-final against Chelsea but is still searching for his first win at the helm.
“As a footballer, you need to be thick skinned,” Norwood admitted. “One minute you’re the best thing since sliced bread. Then, only a couple of days later, you’re apparently incapable of even doing the most basic things well. That’s just the way it is, and you have to deal with it.”
“People think they know us,” he continued, confessing some of the more personal accusations can hit home. “But they only really see us on the pitch, they don’t know us as people. I’m not talking about Sheffield United, I’m just talking in general, and very often people judge us wrongly. They have these preconceived ideas about what footballers are like. Very often those are a long way from the truth.
“So you’ve just got to put up that attitude of ‘I’ll show you’ when you come into the game, that ends up being ingrained.”
Born in Burnley, a couple of short passes away from Turf Moor, Norwood is a born fighter. Life was tough in Lancashire’s mill towns around the turn of the millennium, with football offering working class kids an escape route from the decay, decline and social issues blighting many of northern England’s old industrial regions. Having spent his formative years on the books of Manchester United, Norwood was forced to rebuild his career after eventually leaving Old Trafford; first at Huddersfield Town before spells with Reading and Brighton and Hove Albion. It was there, after helping the south coast club reach the top-flight before being loaned straight back to the Championship, where his combative streak first became apparent. Let go again, this time by Fulham following their play-off final success, he completed a hat-trick of promotions after joining United in the summer of 2018.
With their result at the KP Stadium meaning United arrived home from the east Midlands 14 points adrift of safety, Norwood is set to begin next term chasing a fourth barring a minor sporting miracle.
Heckingbottom, who has proven a sure-footed appointment since stepping into the breach, refused to accept United’s fate is already sealed after overseeing a combative performance at Stamford Bridge - where Thomas Tuchel admitted his team had been made to “suffer” before reaching the semi-finals. But Heckingbottom’s priority, despite the bluster, remains stage-managing an orderly exit from the top-flight.
“We’ve just got to keep on going and seeing what happens,” Norwood said. “Where do we get that inspiration from? It’s either in you or it’s not. I’m from Burnley, I’m no quitter. I’ve never been given anything in my life.”
Speaking after their thumping by City, Heckingbottom acknowledged the emotions created by Wilder’s departure had weighed heavy on the players’ shoulders. Norwood, speaking before that seismic event shook United to its core, provided an insight into the relationship between United’s squad and their former manager.
“You know the manager as well as anyone,” he said. “He simply wouldn’t allow anyone not to have that attitude. If they did, honestly, they’d be out of the door quicker than you could actually open it.
“So what we’re looking to do is try and catch the team directly above us and then go from there.”
Despite winning only four of their 28 outings since September, the trip to West Yorkshire provides United with an opportunity to restore some order and pride to what has been a chaotic campaign.
“It’s tough, but I also realise we are in a privileged position to be doing what we’re doing,” Norwood acknowledged. “When you win, you wish you could bottle it because it’s the best feeling. If my little boy decides he wants to try and give football a go, I’ll warn him of the pitfalls. But I’ll also tell him, even when things are difficult, it’s the best job in the world.”