Oliver Norwood: The long road to the top

On Boxing Day, Oliver Norwood scored his first Premier League goal. A needless Will Hughes trip on George Baldock handed the Northern Irish midfielder the opportunity to convert from the spot against Watford – he kept his nerve and slotted it into the corner like a man who has done so many times before.

However, Norwood, despite gaining three consecutive promotions to the Premier League, is playing in his first ever top flight campaign. At Brighton and then Fulham, he was considered surplus to requirements once a place at the top table was earned. The former Manchester United academy prospect was forced to take an extremely circuitous route back to the top – now he sits above Brighton and within touching distance of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side, and has become an integral part of Sheffield United’s unlikely push for European football.

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His story starts at Moss Lane, then-home of Manchester United’s development sides. He was a regular in 2009, featuring in a number of important clashes: the 20-year-old tasted defeat on penalties at the hands of Liverpool in the Lancashire Senior Cup, with Ritchie De Laet missing the decisive spot kick that day. However, he went on to triumph in the 2009/10 Premier Reserve League North.

Then just 19, he was handed his first full cap for Northern Ireland against Montenegro. The national side moved to poach him after he had featured for England at earlier youth levels – he has since credited Jonny Evans and his brother Corry with ‘tapping him up’. Oddly enough, he did not taste senior club football for another month, at which point he went on an emergency loan to Carlisle in September of the 2010/11 season.

He made his debut against Brighton, a fellow League One side at the time. He played well in a goalless draw against his future club, and from that point on was a mainstay in the team for the duration of his time with Carlisle. Indeed, the club liked him so much that they extended the loan for another month beyond the original agreement – but the day after this was announced Norwood suffered a thigh injury that forced him to return to his parent side.

He stayed in the Manchester United setup until the start of the next season, when he ventured out on loan again: this time to Scunthorpe United. It was here that he netted his first competitive goal – in a strange twist of fate, it came against another club that he would go on to play for. He struck against Huddersfield Town in a meeting between the two sides in the third tier. He impressed again; assistant manager Chris Brass confirmed a desire to extend the loan beyond January, but ultimately it was decided that Norwood had outgrown League One.

He was thrust into a Championship relegation battle on January deadline day. Coventry City had been in the second tier for 11 consecutive seasons, but they were rock bottom when the midfielder arrived. He gave a good personal account, scoring a dramatic 95th minute equaliser away at Cardiff before securing victory against fellow strugglers Portsmouth, but he ultimately could not prevent Coventry from going down in 23rd place, level on points with 22nd but still eight points adrift of safety.

This was enough to give Norwood a taste for Championship football. He had enjoyed being a regular starter, and took the brave step of rejecting a new contract at Manchester United and making a permanent move elsewhere. He told Talksport at the time: “I want to play every week like I was this season in the Championship. It’s been the hardest decision in my life for me to make but there comes a time when you have to be realistic.”

There was interest in securing his services from a number of clubs, with Barnsley getting as far as agreeing compensation with Ferguson’s United, but in the end it was newly-promoted Huddersfield who signed him.

The Terriers had gained promotion in the most dramatic of fashions. Norwood’s goal against them in the 2-2 draw while at Scunthorpe had not prevented them reaching the playoffs, where they eventually triumphed 8-7 on penalties against Sheffield United after every single player had taken a spot kick. The midfielder may therefore have been bracing himself for another relegation battle, but despite a late scare Huddersfield finished 19th, having only twice dropped into the bottom three.

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Norwood chipped in with three goals, but more importantly cemented himself as a mainstay in the side. He started 37 league matches, coming on as a substitute in a further two: his decision to leave for more regular action had paid off. This carried through into the next campaign. Huddersfield, now an established Championship side, produced another solid but unspectacular season, culminating in a 17th-place finish. Norwood played the vast majority of games once more, and doubled his goal tally.

By all accounts, it was a well-rounded and effective spell for Norwood, yet still there were some doubts among Huddersfield fans. There was a lingering sense that he was not particularly exciting, not the sort of player around whom an ambitious club builds: this harsh assessment, essentially baseless though it was, is one Norwood would have to get used to over the coming seasons.

The Terriers shipped him off to Reading for a rumoured fee of just over £1 million at the start of the 2014/15 season. He picked up where he left off, albeit with a new penchant for long-range scorchers in his locker. His first two goals came against Cardiff and Rotherham respectively, the first being a free-kick which sparked a 2-1 comeback FA Cup victory and the second flying in from 25 yards out. This contributed to Championship safety as well as a remarkable run to the semi-final of the cup.

The Royals came close to repeating the trick in the next campaign, this time falling at the quarter-final stage in the FA Cup. They also secured safety once more, slightly improving on their last finish to end the season in 17th – just as at Huddersfield, Norwood’s contributions tended to be underestimated as he kept things ticking over in the middle. His long-shot party trick did at least gain him some of the recognition he deserved: Reading fans still remember his remarkable goal against Ipswich Town in a 5-1 victory, a strike that saw one supporter, Charlie Pridmore, dub him ‘Norwoodinho’.

Perhaps with a more exotic-sounding name he might not have been so routinely underestimated. He was on the move once again for the start of 2016/17, thus kickstarting his run of three consecutive Championship promotions. The first came with Brighton. Just as at all his previous clubs, he quickly became an integral cog: this time there were no goals, but the fact he amassed 33 appearances speaks volumes. He was quietly contributing, providing a heartbeat to a side that went on to earn promotion to the Premier League as runners-up – second only to an impressive Newcastle team managed by Rafa Benitez.

It was perhaps surprising, then, when manager Chris Hughton opted to let him go out on loan. He signed for Fulham in the summer, this time featuring in 36 league games including the playoff final triumph over Aston Villa. Norwood was introduced directly after Fulham were reduced to ten men, helping to shore up the midfield and secure the vital win that brought the prize of a place in the Premier League. He is still remembered there for his crucial last-ditch challenge on Conor Hourihane.

This was typical of his season, where he got through a lot of defensive work while also offering a threat going the other way. Operating in a slightly freer role than at Brighton, he contributed five goals for the Cottagers, including a last-minute winner from the spot against Middlesbrough. A player who could be trusted defensively while also getting forward well, Norwood had built up a good reputation, consistent across all of his clubs, and was understandably eager to extend his stay with Fulham into the Premier League.

Manager Slaviša Jokanović had attempted to secure his services permanently in January, but Brighton were reluctant to let him go without first knowing which division they would be playing in during 2018/19. With their status secured, they were happy to sell – but Fulham were embarking on a spending spree with their new-found cash, one which hindsight has shown to be disastrous. Norwood was overlooked, and so he once again found himself leaving on loan: this time to Sheffield United.

Fan blog ‘Roy’s View From’ compiled an enlightening set of quotes from fans of Brighton and Fulham upon Norwood’s arrival. One Seagulls supporter said: “Excellent squad player in the Championship, the step up maybe one too far.” A Fulham fan echoed this, calling him a ‘very decent Championship midfielder’. The sentiment was clear: for whatever reason, the received wisdom was that Norwood had found his level in the second tier. At the Blades, he finally proved everyone wrong.

His move was fixed as a loan until January, at which point it would become permanent. Nobody at Bramall Lane was regretting this as the new year came around: he had helped his new club to third in the league, in hot pursuit of Leeds and Norwich. He played all but three games over the course of a season that eventually culminated in automatic promotion – the model of consistency, he followed his usual modest attacking pattern by contributing three goals. However, unlike in previous campaigns, this time he got the recognition he deserved. He was named in the Championship Team of the Season for his efforts: on this occasion, at last, there was absolutely no chance his club would be letting him go before the start of the Premier League campaign.

Chris Wilder stuck by Norwood, not only keeping him as part of the squad but making him a lynchpin of the team currently taking the top flight by storm. Although Billy Sharp is still the official club captain, Norwood has been entrusted with the armband in the majority of games this season.

While he had to wait until the 26th December for his first goal, a moment he will undoubtedly have dreamed about from his first day in Manchester United’s academy as a 7-year-old, he has been pivotal for Sheffield United throughout the season so far. He has played all 21 matches, driving them to within two points of 5th-placed Manchester United just beyond the halfway stage.

His numbers of 47 tackles, 29 interceptions and 169 recoveries, alongside over 1100 passes, paint a picture of an all-round midfielder that keeps the team ticking while providing vital cover. This is particularly important in Wilder’s setup: fellow midfielders John Fleck and John Lundstram have a great deal of freedom to push forward, and while there is a bank of five behind Norwood on paper, these defenders often push beyond him.

The much-discussed ‘overlapping centre-backs’ are less prominent than in the Championship, an inevitable by-product of competing with sides against whom United cannot easily dominate possession, but it is still far from uncommon to see Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham advancing ahead of Norwood to provide numbers in midfield. This would not be possible without the Northern Irishman providing such a solid base: he is the rock on which the system is built, and for the first time in his career his importance is fully recognised by his manager and the fans.

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Safety was the target this season, but Sheffield United are redefining what is possible. It is notable that they are doing so without lavish spending: the riches of the Premier League can be alluring, but the Blades have learned from the mistakes of Fulham before them. There is a lot to be said for tried and tested – flashy new names may turn out well, but Fulham could only wave to Norwood on their way back down after ditching him for Jean Michel Seri.

It took a very long time for him to reach this point, but now Ollie Norwood has returned to the top of English football he looks very much at home.

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