Belfast Telegraph

Oliver Norwood may live to rue decision to quit Northern Ireland so early

 

Great days: Oliver Norwood was part of the Northern Ireland team that beat Ukraine 2-0 at Euro 2016
Great days: Oliver Norwood was part of the Northern Ireland team that beat Ukraine 2-0 at Euro 2016
Michael O'Neill

By Steven Beacom

Oliver Norwood was brilliant for Sheffield United in their 1-0 home win over Crystal Palace on Sunday. Playing in the Premier League for only the second time, the 28-year-old was pinging the ball about with precision and whipping in dangerous set-pieces like he had been in the top flight all his career.

There was one pass inside a Palace full-back as smooth as a blade cutting through butter.

Sheffield United supporters are still talking about it. The topic of conversation for Northern Ireland fans relating to Norwood is rather different.

They can't understand why the midfielder with 57 caps yesterday announced he was retiring from international duty at the age of 28. Yes, 28!

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill is in the same boat. He gave Norwood 52 out of those appearances and felt the player could one day reach a century.

"I think he is making a huge mistake," said O'Neill.

"He is only 28 and I've no doubt he could have continued to play club and international football for many years.

"Ollie has been a mainstay of our team for the past seven years. I know this was not an easy decision for Ollie to make, but I think it is premature.

"He had the opportunity to leave an incredible legacy at international level and the potential to reach 100 caps."

O'Neill has had to do without Norwood for the opening four Euro 2020 qualifiers after the ex-Manchester United youth player made himself unavailable for selection.

Pointedly the manager added: "Ollie will be a loss to our squad. However, we have won our four qualifying games to date in his absence and the squad will continue to progress, and I believe the players in my squad are more than capable of reaching another major tournament."

When Northern Ireland last did that, Norwood featured in all 10 Euro 2016 qualifiers and the four games in the finals in France. O'Neill also played him throughout the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. There have been suggestions of a dressing room bust-up between the two following a Nations League game against Bosnia which may have led to Norwood's decision.

Those inside the Northern Ireland camp would dispute such a scenario, with sources saying it was the type of debrief between a player and manager that goes on all the time. Insiders say if that tactical discussion was the reason Norwood opted to quit then they would be surprised.

When Norwood decided not to make himself available for the opening Euro qualifiers in March, O'Neill travelled from Edinburgh to England to meet the star to iron any issues out.

The Northern Ireland boss thought Norwood would return to the international fold and feels let down by what has transpired having shown so much faith in the player at the highest level, helping his club career in the process. Even so, Norwood would still be welcomed back if he changes his mind.

Another theory for his exit is he wants to concentrate on playing in the Premier League.

Understandably the ex-Huddersfield, Reading, Brighton and Fulham star is keen to succeed in the big time after a decade of trying to get there but, if it's about saving energy, he will play a maximum of 38 top flight league games, which is considerably fewer than during his Championship days when he was an international regular.

Norwood has enjoyed a memorable Northern Ireland career, but surely on his way to becoming a better player with Premier League experience his best was still to come.

Norwood's statement, issued through his club, gave no insight into why he made his decision, which may be how he wants it.

"I've enjoyed the highs of a major tournament - being part of the squad in France at Euro 2016 was the proudest point of my international career," he said.

"I would like to thank the manager, Michael O'Neill, for selecting me on so many occasions to represent my country, and also to the players I've played with through the years. We've had some enjoyable times.

"A huge thank you, too, to the GAWA (Green and White Army) for the tremendous support offered through the years. In my opinion the GAWA really are the best fans in the world and hopefully the squad can deliver more success for them to enjoy."

Born in Burnley, Norwood, who qualified for Northern Ireland through his grandfather, is a genuine lad who gave his all to his adopted country. With the ball at his feet he made countless astute decisions in a green shirt.

One can't help feeling though his latest is one he may live to regret, especially if Northern Ireland reach the Euro 2020 finals.

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