DAVID NORRIS is the first to admit he owes a lot to Mansfield Town manager Steve Evans
The Scot was his manager at both Stamford and Boston United as the then teenage midfielder took the first steps in a career that would go on to feature more than 400 Football League appearances.
Evans also went that extra mile for Norris when the opportunity arose to join Bolton Wanderers by, first, driving him to Lancashire and then ensuring the youngster negotiated the best possible deal.
It was assistance Norris, who will today face Evans’s Mansfield Town in the FA Cup first round, has never forgotten – even if the trip from Boston to Bolton did not enjoy the most auspicious of starts.
“I was a young lad and naive,” recalls the 36-year-old with a chuckle to The Yorkshire Post. “So Steve insisted on driving me across and helping me with the negotiations. I appreciated his help.
“The last thing he said to me was to dress smartly. By smart I thought he meant what I would go out in at night so I turned up to meet Steve in my best clothes.
“Steve took one look at me, clearly wasn’t impressed, but said, ‘You’ll have to do’. Looking back, Bolton must have thought I was going straight out to a nightclub.”
Clearly neither Bolton nor manager Sam Allardyce were put off by Norris’s attire as he signed that day in January, 2000, for £50,000, then a record fee for Boston.
Opportunities were hard to come by during his 18 months at the Reebok and he played just five times, in the cups. But the move proved to be a springboard for a career that has included spells with Leeds United, Plymouth, Ipswich and Portsmouth.
He is still revered at Fratton Park for a spectacular late equaliser against bitter rivals Southampton. He was captain at Portman Road and Player of the Year at Home Park, while he has fond memories of Leeds despite being effectively ostracised following Massimo Cellino’s takeover.
“He didn’t want any players over 30 involved,” he recalls. “A few of us got pushed aside, but that is football sometimes. But what I most remember at Leeds is the fans.
“Clubs usually have a hardcore minority, but at Leeds the hardcore are the majority. They absolutely love the club and follow it everywhere.”
Norris had a year at Blackpool after leaving Elland Road, but a niggling heel injury forced him to call time on the professional game.
Today, though, will thrust Norris back into the spotlight as Barnsley minnows Shaw Lane take on League Two Mansfield in front of the live BT Sport cameras. It is a turn of events he did not foresee.
“This tie is what the FA Cup is all about,” adds the midfielder, whose day job involves running the A1 Football Factory in Knottingley, a business he set up with former Leeds team-mate Paul Green, and another gym in Bolton.
“For the lads who won’t have had many appearances on the TV, this gives everyone a taste of what it is like. The interest has been huge ever since the draw was made.
“Even for myself, this has been exciting. I realise this might be the last chance I get to play in a high profile game like this.”
That, of course, could depend on the result this lunchtime at Sheerien Park. Sixty four places separate Evo-Stik Premier side Shaw Lane from Mansfield in the football pyramid. It is only a couple of months ago, too, that the Ducks tasted victory in the FA Cup for the first time after two previous entries into the competition both ended in an exit at the extra preliminary qualifying round stage.
But Norris, who had a spell at Salford City last term, and his team-mates are determined to make their mark.
“I love playing football,” he says. “I finished playing professionally too early.
“I had played 30 games in League One (2015-16) for Blackpool. I thought I might have to drop down, but I couldn’t get rid of this heel problem.
“Understandably, that put clubs off – I was coming up to 36 and hadn’t played for six months. Eventually, it got to the September and the injury still hadn’t healed so I called it a day, knowing it would be a few months before the injury got sorted.”
A short spell at Salford, which ended with a play-off semi-final defeat to FC Halifax Town, was followed by Shaw Lane getting in touch.
“Being at this level is obviously a massive difference to where I was for a lot of my career,” he continues.
“But I actually started pretty much at this level; basically between 16 and 19 I was at Stamford and Boston.
“I knew what to expect so joining Shaw Lane was not a shock to the system or anything like that. There are some good players here and results have been decent.
“The attendances have been really small, but the publicity the Cup has earned the club should help change that. People are starting to learn more about the club and that is great.”
To reach today’s first round, Shaw Lane have negotiated four previous hurdles in the Cup. For Norris, only Plymouth’s run to the quarter-finals in 2007 as a Championship club can compare in terms of length and, after being suspended for the fourth qualifying victory over Barrow, he is determined to enjoy today’s reunion with his former boss.
“Steve set me on my way and did a hell of a lot for my career,” says Norris. “I have a lot to thank him for and we have kept in touch. It will be nice to face him again, 20 years on from when we first met, but the main thing is we want to win.”