The footballers who switched from England to Northern Ireland
It was back in the 1990s that the fans on the Kop at Windsor Park famously chanted towards Kingsley Black that he had made the right decision in choosing Northern Ireland over England after a tug-of-war for his allegiance. Today, Stuart McKinley speaks to two of the UK’s brightest young talents, who have also opted to play for Northern Ireland rather than England
As a boy Oliver Norwood dreamed of being a star for Manchester United and England. The plan was to play for the club he supported since his early years and pull on the famous white shirt of his country.
Now, however, it’s the green shirt of Northern Ireland that holds all of the teenager’s international football hopes.
And it’s all down to the attitude of those around him.
Two-and-a-half years ago the Burnley-born 18-year-old had the privilege of turning out at Wembley, when England’s under-16s faced Spain in one of the early events after the stadium re-opened — before any of the really big games took place.
A couple of years later it was the more modest surroundings of Crusaders’ Seaview ground that saw Norwood turn his back on the country of his birth — and once he made his debut for Northern Ireland’s under-19s against Switzerland there was no going back.
A few weeks later he was in the B international squad for a friendly in Scotland. Now he is the star man in Steve Beaglehole’s under-21 team, having scored magnificent free-kicks against Germany and the Czech Republic in the last two games.
And a call-up to the full squad in 2010 beckons for the Manchester United reserve, with an England cap no longer on his wish-list.
“I played for England as a schoolboy,” said Norwood, who qualifies to pull on the green shirt through his paternal grandparents.
“It was unreal getting the England call-up, just thinking that England wanted me to play for them.
“It was very exciting.”
So why then does a teenager who is playing in Manchester United’s second string and has hopes of making it all the way at Old Trafford end up turning his back on England and giving up a better opportunity to play in major tournaments?
“I think a lot of the lads who go away with England have got massive egos,” said Norwood.
“I think that takes over sometimes.
“You see with the Northern Ireland lads that they are all down to earth and only bothered about the football side of things.
“I didn’t play a lot for England and I thought if I can play international football at a higher age level I could do it with Northern Ireland.
“I always knew that I qualified and it was always an option for me.
“I’d spoken to Steve Beaglehole and he made it clear that he wanted me to come and play. I said I’d come and see how it went and I enjoyed it.
“Nigel Worthington was there watching the game and for him to then take me with the B squad was brilliant and a great experience.
“There was no going back after that.
“I would rather play international football properly. When you look at some players in the Manchester United first-team squad some of them still can’t get into the England side.
“If I was still with England I’d only be in the under-19 squad. I wouldn’t get anywhere near the under-21 squad because all those guys are in the first-team squads at their clubs.
“I’ve committed myself and I’m happy with the decision.
“My family are also happy with my decision.
“I’ve passion to play for Northern Ireland just as I would if it was England or Manchester United and if I do well for Northern Ireland I can hopefully get into Nigel Worthington’s thoughts and maybe get into the senior squad for a friendly soon and then try to stay in.”
If Norwood needed to endear himself to Northern Ireland fans then he did it twice within the space of five days earlier this month.
His fantastic set piece strike in the dying seconds earned the Northern Ireland under-21 side a 1-1 draw against the Germans and although his follow-up free-kick against the Czechs didn’t bring anything in the way of points, it did bring Norwood plenty of plaudits.
His impressive ability from deadball situations didn’t just happen by chance though.
“I was buzzing, it was a great feeling,” said Norwood of his late goal against Germany, which was watched by his parents who had flown over for the game.
“It couldn’t have happened at a better time because they couldn’t score another.
“I’ve always practiced free-kicks and luckily I put those couple in the top corner for Northern Ireland.
“It’s down to hours of practice, that’s what it takes. I’ve been working on it since I was seven or eight-years-old.
“Now I take a bag of balls out onto the training ground on my own, set up the mannequins and take a few free-kicks.
“I’ve read David Beckham’s books. I think it’s fantastic what he’s achieved and it makes you realise if you put the work in and practice just what you can achieve.
“You can’t always be coached, sometimes you’ve got to do it yourself.”
There is a growing list of Manchester United players who have been making waves at international level before making the Old Trafford first-team on a regular basis.
Indeed Philip Mulryne, Jonny Evans and Corry Evans made international debuts before a club bow came along.
Norman Whiteside had played more international football before Northern Ireland’s famous win over Spain in the 1982 World Cup than he had at club level and Keith Gillespie was still fighting his way in when he first played for his country.
And it would be no shock if Norwood joined that list very shortly.
“Things are going well for me at United. I’ve played the last few games for the reserves and I’ve played quite well,” he said.
“I’ve trained with the first-team a couple of times, but I haven’t been in any squads or travelled with them.
“It’s difficult to get into the reserve team regularly at 18 because there are a lot of quality players at United.
“When you do get the chance you just make sure that you do your best and give it everything and make sure you can’t be left out.
“The manager Sir Alex Ferguson is always watching training and tells us to work hard and if you get the chance take it. He can’t ignore you forever if you keep doing well.”
One visit to Windsor Park was enough to convince Lee Hodson that throwing his lot in with Northern Ireland was the right move.
He’d heard plenty about the international night atmosphere at Linfield’s stadium and although he has played there before — although in the much more low-key setting of an under-19 international — it didn’t take long for him to want to experience that special feeling from on the pitch.
The Northern Ireland under-21 players sat in the corner of Windsor’s South Stand for the friendly against Serbia a couple of weeks ago and while the meeting with the World Cup hopefuls may not have been up there with some of the memorable nights of the last few years, it was still one that Hodson won’t forget quickly.
“I’d played at Windsor Park for the under-19s, but it was the first time I’d been there to watch a game,” said the 18-year-old Watford full-back.
“It was good. I’d been told about the atmosphere by some of the coaches, like when they’d played England and in a couple of other games against big countries.
“Supposedly for qualifiers the atmosphere is amazing. I would love to play in front of that and it’d be great to even go back and watch a big game to see what it’s about.”
The opportunity to do just that is sure to arise in the not too distant future for the youngster. Indeed, manager Nigel Worthington had toyed with the idea of handing him a first call-up to the senior ranks for that friendly against Serbia, only to decided that he’d be better off getting 90 minutes under his belt in two under-21 games against German and the Czech Republic.
That under-19 meeting against England a year ago was unusual for Hodson — as he was playing against the country of his birth, having been born and raised in Watford.
The Hertfordshire town’s main links with Northern Ireland football have been through being the club that gave Pat Jennings his big break in English football and where Gerry Armstrong was plying his trade when he scored the famous winner against Spain in the 1982 World Cup finals.
If this young pretender from Vicarage Road ends up half as recognisable to Northern Ireland fans as those two famous faces by the time he finishes his career then he’ll have been a success.
“I always knew that my nan, Maureen Hodson, was born in Northern Ireland,” said Hodson.
“Even now she still has friends here and comes over to Belfast to see them. She’s so pleased that I am playing for her home country.
“I’d only ever been to Northern Ireland before when I played for Watford in the Milk Cup. At that time my manager asked me if I qualified to play for Northern Ireland and I said I did.
“That helped me get to where I am today because it wasn’t too long after that I got asked to come and play for the under-19s.
“When I got the letter through for the under-19s for two friendlies against Iceland I was chuffed. I was excited to try to do my best to get into the squad for the qualifiers.
“It was good to play against England. It was a good test and I wanted to do as well as I could, prove myself to Northern Ireland and to progress further.
“We went 1-0 up, but they got a penalty and we had a man sent-off before we lost 3-1.
“It was still good to play against them and an experience that I really enjoyed.”
Making the decision to pledge his future to Northern Ireland wasn’t a big one for Hodson as England had never come calling before and the feeling from the 18-year-old was that it probably wouldn’t either.
“You can never tell what might happen in the future, playing in the Championship at a young age may interest England, but I have never been involved before, so I am just concentrating on Northern Ireland and trying to impress as much as possible,” he said.
“The chance may come, but I have to look at the amount of choice that England have and the number of players in front of me. getting in front of them is very tough.
“Northern Ireland is the best option for me.”
Hodson has been a regular in the Watford line-up over the last couple of months and he owes his big break to a Northern Ireland man, former Hornets boss Brendan Rodgers — who left Vicarage Road for Reading in the summer.
“”Brendan Rodgers was a good manager and he gave me my debut in the final game of last season,” explained Hodson.
“”He was good for me, he knew what he wanted to do and straight away he got us playing football the way he wanted, getting the ball down and passing it.
“He was a good coach one-on-one and I could go to him with anything that I wanted to try to do better and he was always there.
“He’s a person you can go up to and talk to about anything. He’s open and anything I asked he would help me with.”
It was the experience of coming up against another Northern Ireland man a few weeks ago that helped it hit home with Hodson how big a jump it is from reserve team football to playing week in, week out in the Championship.
And although West Brom beat Watford 5-0 it was a test he came through with credit.
“I played against Chris Brunt when he came on for West Brom against us a couple of weeks ago,” explained Hodson.
“He’d just came back from injury and he came on on my side. I’d seen him play a couple of times before and I knew he’d a good left foot. I just tried to close him down early.
“It was good to play against him and good to know I’m playing against other Northern Ireland players — other internationals.
“There are a lot of good players in the Championship, but you don’t always come up against internationals.
“I played against Adam Johnson when we played Middlesbrough, he’s played for England’s under-21s and is a good played, but Chris Brunt is definitely one of the best I’ve played against.
“It’s been a good test for me this season and it’s all been good experience.
“Watford have great history with legends like John Barnes, who came through the ranks at the club. If we can get ourselves up the league towards the play-offs we can hopefully emulate the achievements of the past.”