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Don't stop believin'

28 November 2019

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For each Premier League issue, UTB, United's official matchday programme, catches up with a member of the playing staff for an in-depth, exclusive interview.

Phil Jagielka, Luke Freeman and Oli McBurnie, Jack O'Connell, Enda Stevens, Dean Henderson, had all featured prior to Sunday's clash against Manchester United, where former Red Devils trainee Ollie Norwood stepped into the limelight to reflect on his upbringing at Old Trafford amongst other things.

At just £3.50, following a first price rise in 15 years, UTB will now be a 100-page publication for every Premier League fixture this season and it packed full of other intriguing content from the players and management, in addition to former favourites of previous eras.

United are currently selling subscriptions to UTB which will ensure a copy delivered to your door on the morning of every game and all can be ordered through our design partners Ignition Sports Media - click here.

The Big Interview with...

Ollie Norwood

When Ollie Norwood walks out of the tunnel at Bramall Lane as a Premier League player again today, he knows he has a debt of gratitude to the two leading men in each dugout.

United manager Chris Wilder's part in Ollie's ascension into the top flight is well documented, with the Blades boss again affirming his belief in the midfield playmaker by handing him the armband and starting him in every game.

But the role played by Wilder's opposite number today is perhaps less well detailed.

Ollie won't be the only player helped in his formative years by current Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjær, with the now 28-year-old working closely with the Norwegian during Solskjær's stint as reserve team boss at Old Trafford between 2008 and 2010.

Ollie, who had been with the Red Devils since the age of six, had graduated through the levels before working with Solskjær, and the former Northern Ireland international admits the former striker's influence had a major bearing at a crucial stage in his early career.

Ollie told UTB: "I was at Manchester United for 14 years, so the best part of my childhood was spent in the academy there.

"I graduated to reserve level and I worked with Ole every day. It was incredible for me to learn from someone of that stature.

"He's a wonderful person, who just wants people to do well. As long as you work hard and give it everything then he'll stand by you. He was always a very good manager when I played under him for the reserves. I know it is Man Utd's reserves, so you are supposed to be good, but we had a lot of success. That was down to him and Warren Joyce. I think he's perfect for what that football club is about, and what it stands for.

"He had an instant impact on me from day one. We were doing a finishing session and he had a ball fired at him, he just took a touch and rifled it into the bottom corner. Then, he looked at us and kind of said, 'Why can't you just do that?'. He was getting annoyed at the quality of the session. 'Just hit it in the triangle,' he would say to us. Bang, he hit one corner, bang then into the other. The lads were all just stood there, not really believing how good he was. He looked as though he could still play."

Ollie joined the Red Devils after being spotted playing in his hometown of Burnley, and steadily worked his way through the challenging and famed Old Trafford academy.

He received a professional contract in 2009 and was involved in and around the senior squad without quite making the biggest of all steps by breaking into the first team. Ollie admits the early experiences of working under Solskjær, and listening to the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson, had a huge impact of his future career, revealing he still abides by the mantra set down by the people behind the scenes at Old Trafford.

"They gave me the opportunities, not just in football, but in life itself," said the midfielder, who would go on to play 57 times for Northern Ireland.

"I was taught how to behave, how to look after myself, how to treat people with respect. Giving 100% every single day and in every single game, that was driven into us from day one. I have taken that with me for the rest of my career.

"I remember getting my first professional contract. You go in and meet the manager and sign the paperwork there and then. It was Sir Alex at the time. You then go out on the pitch and there's a group of you signing at the same time. It was a wonderful occasion and experience, but the things that really stayed with me is the lessons I learnt on how to be a professional and how to be a person.

"Sir Alex did take a big interest; he was there often. I remember the amount of under 18 games on a Saturday morning that he would be watching. He was always talking to the young players; he was always telling you what you needed to do better. The club is built on hard work and dedication, that's the fundamental principles which Ole is trying to push back to the forefront again now. Having worked with him during my time in the reserves, I know what the club means to him. When he got the job, I was excited for him, I thought it was a great appointment."

The high point during his time with the Red Devils, in professional terms, arrived during the 2009-10 season when he was included in the 18-man squad for a Champions League encounter against German side Wolfsburg. Whilst he didn't feature in the game, Ollie says having the opportunity to take a close look at his contemporaries was a huge learning curve, and he looks back on the overall experience as another focal point in his development.

"That was an incredible experience to see how the first team travel and prepare for a big game," explains Ollie.

"I remember Michael Owen scoring a hat-trick that night, and I was sitting in the dressing room looking around and thinking, 'Wow, I am sat here with Owen, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Patrice Evra, Edwin van der Sar etc.' It was a pinch me moment.

"It was tough love being around the first team. The senior players at that time ran the dressing room. The reserves were put in their place when it was called for. They really looked after us in a way when, at the time, I was thinking 'Why is he getting on me?', but when you look back now as you are older, you realise they were trying to help you."

Eventually Ollie realised it was time to leave Old Trafford. Having been in the system for 14 years he was now faced with life without the protection of the Manchester United environment. It wasn't a difficult decision though, with Ollie confirming he knew it was time to fly the nest as he looked to develop a career which he was now set up for after his impressive schooling at the Premier League giants.

Ollie reveals that it was his parting conversation with Ferguson which gave him the motivation to one day return to the Premier League, stating the legendary boss gave him the confidence to forge his path back to the top the hard way.

"It was tough because it is a dream to play for the first team," Ollie continues.

"I understood though, I knew I wasn't going to play, I wasn't quite going to make the grade. I had to go out and get myself a career. I had a great conversation with the manager when I left. He said to me, 'You aren't going to make it for Man Utd, but I do believe if you work hard then you can be a Premier League player.' Those words always stuck with me. There were times when I started doubting, and thought I was never going to get there. I drove myself on though and luckily, I found a manager here at Sheffield United who also had belief in me."

Ollie's first permanent destination after departing Old Trafford was Huddersfield Town. In two full seasons with the Terriers he proved he had the mettle to play at Championship level. He impressed enough to earn a move to fellow Championship side Reading for what was described as a 'significant undisclosed fee'. Again, he excelled, becoming a major fulcrum in the heart of the Royals engine room for another two seasons.

His next move would finally earn him honours as he helped Brighton to the Premier League, but before he would get the opportunity to play, he was sent back to The Championship, signing for Fulham. History quickly repeatedly itself, as Ollie was again a major player as Fulham defeated Aston Villa in the play-off final to give him a second promotion in as many years.

Whilst his departure from Brighton was disappointing, he admitted it wasn't unexpected. But not having the opportunity to fulfil a Premier League dream by Fulham did hurt, with Ollie revealing he was stunned a deal wasn't on the table for him to stay at Craven Cottage.

Ollie admits: "The Brighton one, well I knew it was kind of coming if I am honest. Towards the end of the season I wasn't playing as much, and off the field I had a lot going off with my first child being born, and then my wife was ill. I was concentrating on other things because the health of your family is more important, that's the reality. Sometimes there is more to life than football. Sometimes when other things take preference, you can take your eye off the ball.

"The Fulham one was harder to take. I thought I did well there, but they just went in a different direction. They spent £100m on new players, which to me was baffling a little because they didn't need to do it. I think if a nucleus of players were kept together, then they'd have been fine. It was disappointing, but to be honest it enabled me to come to Sheffield United, so it has worked well for me in the end."

The Blades secured an initial loan deal for Ollie, which was always set to become a permanent one. This time it was third time lucky for the Lancastrian as he was again instrumental in a promotion winning team, but crucially this time he was given the Premier League opportunity he craved.

Like many in recent seasons under Wilder, Ollie would find a home a Bramall Lane, describing his move to the Blades as the perfect fit. He puts the success down to a collective effort, but reserves special praise for Wilder, who he says is right up there with the very best he's worked with - and Ollie has worked with 'the' very best.

"Playing here is a match made in heaven," he adds.

"The manager is as close to Sir Alex Ferguson than any other for me, in his beliefs and how he goes about things. I think he will be successful for many years to come.

"The club had an instant positive impression on me. When I first arrived what really stood out was the intensity of the stadium. When I first played, I was blown away. I remember a game against Hull in the cup, even with just one stand open, and I just felt 'Wow, there's some support and noise here.' I remember a game against Norwich, and it went up another level again, I knew then it was a proper football club. The people of Sheffield, football is like a religion to them. We're in a privileged position to play for Sheffield United, and as a group of players we have to take the mantle to make sure we keep this team in this division for as long as we can."

Ollie was one of a host of Premier League debutants to line-up on the south coast at Bournemouth back in August, finally securing his ambition of playing amongst English football's elite.

He continues: "It was a little surreal because it was a long time coming. I just wanted to get it done if I am honest. There was six or seven weeks of pre-season which was all building towards that one moment. I was glad when it was over and done with so I could sit back and say, 'I've done it'. That was the chat from the manager at half-time, it was always going to be because nine of us made our Premier League debut that day. We've found our feet now and I think we now have to kick on again and prove that we belong at this level."

Ollie also had success on the international scene after making his Northern Ireland debut in 2010, culminating in representing his country at Euro 2016.

His assist for the first goal in the historic win over Ukraine is a memory which most who represent his country can only dream of, and after calling time on his international career this year, he concedes he has been blessed to feature at such a prominent time in Northern Ireland's football history.

"Through my grandparents I knew I was eligible for Northern Ireland," Ollie clarifies.

"It was something that came up, and it ended up being a great decision. I enjoyed my international career and being part of arguably one of the best teams in Northern Ireland's history was special.

"The match against Ukraine was arguably one of my best moments on a football pitch. Getting the assist for the first goal, and then when the second one went in, it was bedlam. It was incredible. I remember looking at the stand, and there were 30,000 Northern Ireland fans celebrating. It was unreal."

His recent career has been laden with success for club and country, but Ollie admits he's not the type to dwell or live in the past. At 28, and now being in the Premier League, there is opportunity for a big future, and it is a challenge he is relishing.

For Ollie, the time to look back on his achievements is when he calls it a day, and he remains fully focused at adding more accolades to what is starting to become a glowing CV.

He concludes: "I don't know if it's just me, but there's always something new on the horizon, so I quickly move on. I'm looking at the next challenge. When I retire, I think I'll sit down and have a proper reflective look back on these moments again. It's the same with the promotions, the medals are in the drawer, I'll bring them out again when it is time to retire. I am always looking forward; I don't tend to look back much. I am chasing the next dream."

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