Sheffield United’s Ollie Norwood: ‘Fergie Told Me I’d Get Here … I Don’t Know If He Meant It’
It would have been a hat-trick from hell. After winning promotion in the previous two seasons only to be jilted before playing in the Premier League, Ollie Norwood helped Sheffield United out of the Championship in April and began looking forward to making his top‑flight debut at last. But would the Blades be as a cut-throat as Brighton and Fulham had been and discard the midfielder before giving him a chance to show what he could do?
“That would have been a bit cruel, wouldn’t it?” says Chris Wilder, the United manager, with a mock cackle. “To say: ‘Thanks, Ollie, cheers, now there are a couple of Championship clubs that might want you.’ I think he was dreading that phone call from me throughout the summer.”
Then Wilder gets serious. “But that was never going to happen. He fully deserved to play in the Premier League.”
The manager had reassured his player by telling him as much straight after promotion, although Norwood jests about harbouring doubts nonetheless. “I didn’t know if he meant it because we were all drunk at the time,” says the 28-year‑old, joking. But not only did Wilder mean it, he awarded Norwood the captain’s armband for the opening Premier League fixture, a 1-1 draw at Bournemouth. On Sunday Norwood is likely to be in the thick of the action again as they host Crystal Palace in the first Premier League match at Bramall Lane since 2007. For player and club, it has been quite a wait.
There were some long hard days. After the second time I thought: ‘Maybe it’s not meant to be'
“It’s taken a bit longer than I would have liked but it was a dream come true to finally make the level that everybody across the world wants to play at,” says Norwood, who never felt he was owed a place in the big time despite spending his entire footballing youth at Manchester United. He was with them from ages six to 21, playing in the same youth teams as Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard.
When Sir Alex Ferguson felt it was time to let him go, he bid Norwood farewell with a prophecy that has now been fulfilled. “When I was leaving he told me: ‘You’re not going to make it for Manchester United but I do believe one day you’ll play in the Premier League,’” says Norwood. “Whether he meant it or not I don’t know, but they were very kind words from a man of that stature.”
There were times when Norwood struggled to keep the faith, not least when Fulham, where he was on loan in 2017-18, packed him off back to Brighton despite his important contribution to their promotion. “There were some long, hard days,” he says. “After the second time [he was let go following promotion, this time by Brighton] I thought: ‘Maybe it’s not meant to be,’ but I never accepted it. I was determined to get there. It’s ticked off now and I could put it to bed and enjoy the rest of the season.”
He was sustained partly by the evidence shown in international football of his ability to mix it with the elite. While winning 57 caps for Northern Ireland he has held his own against some of the world’s finest midfielders. At Euro 2016 he and his country got out of a group including Germany, Poland and Ukraine before falling 1-0 to Wales in the last 16.
“To play against that level of opposition in a major tournament is something special,” he says. “I’ve got that experience for Northern Ireland of playing big games against big players and I’m going to use all that experience this year to try to impose myself.”
The player Norwood most admired as a youngster at Old Trafford was Paul Scholes and there is just a hint of that old maestro in the way he seeks to influence games. He is the metronome in Sheffield United’s midfield, setting the tempo and occasionally unlocking opponents with a pass they do not see coming.
After joining the club initially on loan, his transfer was made permanent in January and he played in all 43 Championship matches for which he was available last season. Now, he says, he is stronger than he has ever been. “Last season was a big season for me. It was the most I’ve played. I’m definitely a better player now. At everything really. My understanding of the game. Tactically, technically, what needs to be done.”
Norwood is not alone. Wilder talks about the “evolutionary nature” of his team, which has risen from League One to the Premier League in two seasons without a massive injection of money. Their success has a lot to do with savvy coaching and a powerful team alchemy.
Although Wilder signed 10 new players over the summer, mostly from the lower leagues, all but one of those he sent out at Bournemouth were part of the promotion-winning squad. Eight of them were, like Norwood, appearing in the Premier League for the first time. “We were a little nervy at first but we grew into the game and a draw was a fair result,” he says.
His team are odds-on favourites to be relegated but Palace and the rest of the division would be fools to underestimate them. “The perception is we’re not supposed to be here,” says Norwood. “People are entitled to their opinions. But we’ll just keep chipping away and proving people wrong.”
The Guardian Sport