OLIVER NORWOOD, the Sheffield United midfielder chasing a hat-trick of consecutive promotions from the Championship, believes this season’s second tier is “wide open”.
The Blades are handily placed in the race for the Premier League despite taking just a solitary point from meetings with Derby County and Stoke City in the past week.
Results elsewhere last night did knock Chris Wilder’s men out of the top two on goal difference but there is a growing feeling at Bramall Lane that the club is much better equipped to sustain a challenge this time around.
Norwood, fresh from helping Brighton & Hove Albion and Fulham into the top flight over the past two seasons, agrees and points to how concertinaed the table is right now as proof that promotion is up for grabs.
“The Championship this year is wide open,” said the Northern Ireland international to The Yorkshire Post. “More than it has been for a while. No one team is going to run away with it.
“We have seen 14 teams so far and I don’t think any of those were better than us. I can say I look at those teams and think we are better than all of them.
“Obviously, I missed Middlesbrough so can’t comment on that one. But since I have been here, we have been the dominant team in every game. We just have to keep doing what we are doing. Work hard and take our chances when they come along.”
Norwood joined United from Brighton nine days into the new season after Wilder pipped Hull City to the midfielder’s signature.
His return to Yorkshire – the Burnley-born midfielder spent two years at Huddersfield Town – brought some precious Championship experience to a United squad who had fallen away last season after an initially promising return to the Championship following promotion.
This time last year, the Blades led the way with 30 points and Norwood saw first-hand the quality at Wilder’s disposal when part of the Fulham side who edged a nine-goal thriller at the Lane last November.
Signings such as Norwood, Dean Henderson and John Egan have undoubtedly strengthened a squad that the 27-year-old admits reminds him of those who won promotion at both the Amex and Craven Cottage.
“Compared to those two teams, we are very similar,” said Norwood. “The dressing room is very close-knit. We all get on well and all want each other to do well.
“There is no bitterness towards anyone. A big thing at times – and I can speak about this from personal experience at Brighton, where I was in the squad but didn’t play as much football as I wanted – the lads who aren’t playing are just as important as those in the team.
“The gaffer will make changes to the team throughout the season so we are all in this together.
“We all have the same goal. We all want to be promoted.
“There is an end goal and we all benefit from that. It is important the entire 18 – plus the three or four lads not in the 18 – all stick together because we all want the same end goal.”
Norwood made 33 appearances as Brighton finished 2016-17 in runners-up spot and then another 39 for Fulham last term. So far, he has been an ever present since joining the Blades for £2m.
He has one goal to his name from the scintillating 4-1 win over Aston Villa but it is his drive and vision from midfield that is proving most valuable.
United’s goal in Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw with Stoke City came via a Norwood free-kick that saw the ball crash against the post from 25 yards before Leon Clarke tucked in the rebound.
Joe Allen’s late leveller ensured it was a frustrating end to the night but there was no doubt United’s display against a side packed full of Premier League pedigree boded well for their chances this term.
“Names mean nothing,” said the Northern Ireland international about a Potters starting XI that cost around £70m and a bench that included a five-time Premier League title winner in Darren Fletcher. “It is 11 versus 11. Names mean nothing to me.
“I have played against some of the best on the international stage. It is a Championship match, us against them. And that is the mentality we have got.
“The manager thinks like that but, as players, we want to prove ourselves against whoever we come up against. We want to prove we are the better player.
“You saw against Stoke, 11 of our players were better than their 11. It was disappointing not to win the game because it would have been a really good three points. The manager said he couldn’t ask much more from us, apart from being more clinical.
“But it was still disappointing. As a team, maybe we didn’t set up right for the free-kick. Maybe we thought he (Allen) was going to stand one up for Peter Crouch at the back post. Maybe he caught us out by dinking one.
“Either way, we keep our feet on the ground as a squad, keep working hard and look forward to playing Wigan at home on Saturday.”