Olly Norwood looking forward to more success with Northern Ireland
OUT of the darkest night came a shining light – and Northern Ireland are following it hopefully into a brighter future.
The opening performance in the Uefa Nations League, even in home defeat to Bosnia & Herzegovina, caught the eye, but Olly Norwood suggests that the change in approach came long before that, 11 months ago to be precise, after another loss at Windsor Park.
Michael O’Neill’s men had performed poorly, despite the unfair nature of the penalty that handed Switzerland victory in Belfast in the World Cup play-off, and the midfielder points to that result as signalling a change in approach:
“I think it was after the first leg against Switzerland. In the second leg we knew in the back of our minds, we knew we had nothing to lose.
“We started the game really on the front foot, and to go and do that against the level of opposition of Switzerland, in the second leg of a World Cup qualifier away from home, for us as players it was enjoyable, we felt we gave it a real go.
“We spoke before that match about ‘We don't want to have any regrets’. Ultimately on the night it was one of those nights where it wasn't going to happen, but there were a lot of positives in the performance.
“Michael spoke about how can we drive that forward, be positive and not sit back in games and hope we can nick something. Let's try and take the initiative and drive it forward.
“We've got a good group of players playing at a good level, we've got good legs in the team, good physicality about us, players who can run and that's a big thing in the way he wants to play and we've seen in last two games it's something we can do.”
Bosnia nicked a 2-1 win but Israel were then blown away 3-0 in the following friendly by more positive football by the hosts in Belfast.
Norwood wants more of the same on Friday night in Vienna against Austria in the second Nations League game for both teams – this time with the right result for the men in green:
“Obviously it was a strong performance at home [to Bosnia] but ultimately we lost the game, which is obviously a negative.
“But in the game I think the fans and the players, we saw how we would like to play going forward. Michael spoke about moving the team forward, the way we want to approach games now, we always wanted to play on the front foot, press them really high up the pitch, get after them.
“The one thing we did learn from the game, although we were quite dominant, they don't need many chances, you look at the quality Bosnia possessed - okay, forget the second goal - but the one moment of quality they had in the first half they scored.
“Looking back, it was a performance that put a marker down now and we're going to have to reach those levels again against Austria on Friday night.”
Norwood is just one of several quality central midfielders at O’Neill’s disposal now: “Davo [Steven Davis] has obviously played at the highest level and George [Saville] is playing at a high level with Middlesbrough and Paddy [McNair] can play in there as well, so there's good competition for places.
“The way we want to play, there is a responsibility for me. If you're playing the holding midfield position, you need to get on the ball and pass the ball forward, we want to play on the front foot.
“There'll be times we get it wrong, that's life, that's football, but we're trying new things and we're trying to take it to the next level and really start something.
“We've got a lot of experience in international football, quite a lot of us have racked up the caps so we know what international football is about now, for me playing with Sav and Davo, we're all good players, we can all handle the ball…
“It's similar to how we play at Sheffield United, on the front foot, starting games fast, trying to take the initiative, trying to force the other team on the back foot.
“Obviously it's going be to quite difficult to do that at international level against some teams, we're not saying we're going to go and do that against Germany and teams like that, the top teams, but in the Nations League, playing against teams of a similar level, you want to test yourselves and we want to replicate that performance.”
Norwood has helped both Brighton and Fulham reach the Premier League over the past two seasons without making that step up himself, so smiled wryly when mention is made of his current club Sheffield United being top of the Championship at present:
“I'm kind of a veteran of the Championship now, I know it's a very long season. We are only 12 games in, there are 34 games left to play, so there's a hell of a lot of football yet.
“Some teams haven't got going yet, we know that there's some big teams in the division. For us it's a good start but it's only that, it's a start…
“For me personally, I'm enjoying my football, I'm enjoying having moved back home with my wife and little baby boy, it's great to get home.”
The Burnley native is away at present, but points from both games in Austria and Bosnia would represent further progress for him and NI.