Football/Soccer

It is what it is for Ollie Norwood and his amazing, astounding Northern Ireland

Oliver Norwood in action for Northern Ireland - tonight in Norway he could earn his 50th cap. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press.

'IT is what it is' could be Ollie Norwood's catchphrase, except he's not the type of fella to have a catchphrase, nor want one.

However, there's a certain irony that midfielder Norwood, who relentlessly brushes aside post-match personal praise in the same way he breaks up opposition attacks, is annoyed about a perceived lack of credit for what Northern Ireland have achieved in recent years.

He's right, it is what it is. And what is it? It's amazing.

Even if tonight's game in Oslo ends in defeat, Michael O'Neill's men will have collected 40 points from 20 games across two qualifying campaigns.

What is that? It's an average of two points per game, slightly more if there's a win or draw tonight. Astounding.

All but the big guns of world football would be delighted with that return – and Northern Ireland are only a little pea-shooter in comparison to them.

As Norwood rightly says, "this campaign has been fantastic, I think we've gone to the next level again off the back of last summer and the Euros, the success we had over there.

"It was unfortunate to be knocked out of the tournament the way we were but we got a taste of a major tournament in France as a group and it was something that we felt we had a little bit left to do, it left a sour taste finishing the way it did.

"You're relying on the draw for your group in the World Cup and how we've addressed and approached every game has been unbelievable; to be where we are at is an amazing achievement for this group of players.

"Qualifying for every tournament final has to be the aim for Northern Ireland now. Everybody wrote us off and said it was a fluke getting into the Euro 2016 finals, but it was no fluke getting 21 points from the group, I don't think that's a fluke."

The fine form that began in the autumn of 2014 has continued, but Norwood doesn't feel that has been widely recognised outside Northern Ireland:

"We've still not had any credit for what we've done in this campaign, so maybe we feel a little bit hard done by.

"I'm not going to sit here and complain and moan but everyone's been giving credit to other nations when we've done just as well and never got the credit.

"It's up to different people what they want to say and write about, I believe credit where credit is due and I think we deserve a bit more credit than we've had but we're not fussed, we've gone under the radar again when we've already secured second place so we've done our job.

"I think we get a lot of credit here in Northern Ireland but on the whole.., we haven't spoken about it but credit where it's due, we really think we've worked hard to get ourselves where we are, going from 125th in the world to 20th, it's not easy. We're not begging people to turn up and blow smoke, it is what it is."

The man himself is set to win his 50th senior cap tonight, unless he's rested to protect him from a potential suspension if a play-off place has been secured thanks to results in other groups.

Often that means the player leading out the team on the night, but it's not Ollie Norwood's style to desire such things, as he insists: "I'm not interested in the captain's armband, Steven Davis is the captain and always will be.

"It's Michael's decision but it's not something I'd be too interested in. I go about my business quietly and do my job for the team."

Burnley-born, and with a broad East Lancs accent, the 26-year-old qualifies through his dad's father Joe, and says:

"I've always felt so welcome here in Northern Ireland, not just with the players but with people outside the camp as well, everyone has been so friendly.

"It's my family's heritage, it's where my family is from so I've never once felt I'm English coming into this squad, I do feel as if I am Northern Irish. As a squad we've achieved great things together and I've always felt part of it from when I joined up to this point right now.

"I still get banter from other players, that I must have had a pint of Guinness, that's just how it is!

"Once you play for a number of years, people do believe you are from Northern Ireland, it might be strange when they hear the way I speak.

"I've been in the squad eight years now, I do genuinely feel like I was born here and that's who I represent. I give everything for the shirt when I play for Northern Ireland and I will continue to do that."

"When I first got into the squad and we would get beaten by Luxembourg, people were laughing and asking 'What are you doing playing for them?' kind of thing.

"It never bothered me one bit, I was always proud for my grandparents, I saw how much it meant for them, and that's what drove me on."

Yet the transformation in the team's fortunes has astonished Norwood:

"It's been amazing. Never did I think when I made my [senior] debut against Montenegro [in August 2010] that we would be where we are now as a squad, what we've achieved so far.

"It's been an amazing journey and one that we want to continue and hopefully tonight I can get that 50th cap and move on to the play-offs and get more caps hopefully in the tournament next summer."

Northern Ireland's progress has made them more appealing to young players, with two more English-born lads called up for this squad – Millwall midfielder George Saville came off the bench against Germany and Kilmarnock attacker Jordan Jones is in the panel too.

"Michael has spoken about it and you see the two new lads in this week. If we weren't doing as well as we are, would Northern Ireland be as appealing? I don't know, I can't answer for other people.

"For me, when the opportunity arose it was a chance to play international football and I think it would be very stupid to turn that opportunity down.

"I didn't know what would happen in the future, we could still be 125th in the world, we could but it hasn't happened like that, I've never regretted any decision I have made about my clubs and I've never had any regrets about choosing to play for Northern Ireland.

"Even when things weren't going so well, I wore my shirt with pride because I saw what it meant to my family and know what it meant to me.

"To have played the amount of games I have is something I'm really proud of, and obviously Michael feels I am doing something right, otherwise I wouldn't be playing.

"It's been an amazing journey, I can remember every single cap, where we were from cap no. 1 to hopefully cap no. 50, it's been amazing and hopefully we can keep it going.

"Because the World Champions [Germany] are in our group, it would be as good an achievement or even better to qualify from this group. We can't get carried away.

"We've put ourselves in a wonderful position where we can enjoy the end of the qualifying campaign but we've got to be prepared.

"Norway have nothing to play for which might make them play more freely, so we've got to get tonight out of the way and then look forward to the play-offs. We want to try and climb the rankings again and try and get seeded."

Norwood attributes much of the recent progress to boss O'Neill and his backroom team: "I know it sounds silly but once Michael took over in the job you could tell he knew what he was doing, he knew tactically how we were going to do things, he made that clear, he made us aware of where he felt we had gone wrong previously.

"It didn't click straight away but as a group we could see what he was trying to do and the ideas he was trying to get across. We've stuck to the same things then and now and it has paid off for us.

"The fans now expect us to qualify because of the success we have had, but that's a good thing. You go to Windsor Park and there are 18,000 fans there now expecting us to win the game.

"I've played at Windsor when it has been empty and it doesn't feel like an international fixture or it doesn't feel as if there's anything to play for but now there's an excitement and a buzz about the games. The fans expect successes and it's a good job we have delivered."

As regards the atmosphere in Belfast nowadays, there's been high praise from Norway captain Stefan Johansen, formerly of Celtic and now Norwood's team-mate at Fulham:

"He said the atmosphere at Windsor is something…he's played in Old Firm derbies for Celtic against Rangers and he said the atmosphere at Windsor when we played them was unbelievable, he couldn't believe how loud it was for a small stadium, as he put it. He speaks very highly of the team and wishes us all the best.

"We've had a laugh, I said maybe he could us a favour if we need something! Just good banter. He's a lovely lad, a good footballer, and he just said they are looking forward to welcoming us."

As for the risk of getting a second yellow card in this campaign, which could rule him or five other colleagues out of a potential play-off first leg, well, you know what Ollie Norwood thinks about that, don't you?

"You just have to get on with it. If there's a tackle to be made, you mis-time it and you're unfortunate enough to pick up a booking, it is what it is.

"You can't play a game thinking 'I'm not going for that ball' then it ends up in the back of the net - better to get a yellow card than lose the game.

"I'm sure Michael will be biting his nails, you can't worry too much about it, that's why you have a squad of 25 players. Missing a game due to picking up two yellow cards over potentially 12 games is a lot, but it is what it is."

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