Having played for Burnley Cricket Club as a youth, it is perhaps no surprise that Ollie Norwood believes athletes can only get better with age. The club has produced Jimmy Anderson who is still scoring test goals at the age of 40, while Norwood is going strong with Sheffield United and proving to be the Championship’s most influential player this season.
Norwood, 31, lay deep in midfield arranging a game for Paul Heckingbottom’s side as they sought a return to the Premier League. He was fueled by the heartache of last season’s playoff defeats, as well as a training regime designed to prepare him for another grueling campaign.
His highest score for Burnley CC as a batsman was 196 – “I just tried to do it as hard as I could” was how he described his style – but he will soon pass a double century of appearances for his club. Ahead of this weekend’s FA Cup tie at Millwall, he is two points short of his fifth season at Bramall Lane and has no intention of slowing down his pace.
“I’ve never missed a single workout”
“I haven’t missed a single workout since I turned pro,” he said. “It comes down to taking care of yourself properly away from football. When I retire, maybe I’ll have a few more beers than I do now.
“But the training is in me now. On my days off I do extra parts on my bike to make sure I am available for every match. Mentally, we are set up to do something every day. I’ve been playing soccer every day since I was six and I can’t sit still.
“It used to say ‘get to 30’ but now players are well into their 30s. Look at Sharpy at 37, Phil Jagielka at 40. People are taking better care of themselves now and so much has been done in terms of nutrition, recovery and amenities.
While Norwood was at the Manchester United Academy, his eyes were opened to the importance of taking care of his body. His role model was Paul Scholes for his passing range, but he needed a wake-up call from his coaches to get in better shape for his career.
“I didn’t really understand the nutrition side,” he said. “Eat basically what you want and burn it. Warren Joyce was the reserve team coach with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, he pulled me in and said, “Physically you can’t move around the pitch, you’re not thin enough.”
“He went to the kitchen and asked the chef for five 1-kilogram bags of sugar. He asked me to hold it and said it was what I was carrying: “Imagine what it would be like if you lost it.” It hit the house and I realized I needed to sort it out. I was grateful to Joycey for this chat. I ruined every chance I had. He said Scholesy is eight or nine percent body fat, and you’re 14 or 15 percent, so how do you expect to give yourself a shot.
Norwood’s path to the Premier League has been to become a promotions specialist, playing his part at Brighton, Fulham and Blades, making his way to the top flight. His experience has helped this season with younger players like Iliman Ndiaye and James McAtee in their first promotion campaign.
Like Scholes at United, Norwood has taken it upon himself to listen to young players when needed and offer advice if asked.
“Scholes was such a role model at Manchester United”
“He was such a role model and would be happy to talk to young players,” said Norwood. “He always said he had two or three passes before the game. Before receiving the ball, you should know that you have a big change of play, one into a striker or a pass from behind. He said you should always have a picture before you get the ball. Easier said than done. But if you look, he always looks the other way when he receives the ball.
It was Norwood’s job to move the ball around the pitch for his team, starting attacks from the midfield base and also enduring tough challenges as opponents sought to stop their source of control. But nothing hurts more than losing to Nottingham Forest in the play-offs last season on penalties, which gives Norwood extra motivation to go a step better this time around.
“Sometimes football kicks you where it hurts,” he said. “The best thing to do was run away with your family right away, you put on a brave face but you think about it.
“During my first running session, I said to myself, ‘I’m not going through this again.’ On the first day, the boys got along right away and I think there is a different mood, determination to advance. Even if no one says it, they think. Would put last season to bed because it still hurts. It was probably the worst feeling in football ever.
It will be a different summer if the Blades retain their place in the top two of the championship. Prior to the season, Norwood could even be seen at Burnley CC watching cricket at his old clubhouse in the shadow of Turf Moor.
This is where Anderson, the Burnley Express, steamed into the bowl and is still at the top of his game. Norwood wants it too. “That’s my goal, to play as long as I can. I’d like to play until someone says, “Ollie, that’s enough.”