Sheffield United fitter now than before lockdown, insists Oliver Norwood

Sheffield United will return fitter than the team that went into lockdown and determined to make the most of the chance in front of them, according to Oliver Norwood.

Oliver Norwood. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Barring any late hitches, the Blades will resume a 2019-20 season that has confounded expectations on June 17, 102 days after their win over Norwich City.

They will do so with between 11 and 13 matches to qualify for Europe for the first time in the club’s history, either by consolidating or improving their current seventh position, or winning the FA Cup. Professionalism and pride ensure they will give it everything, according to midfielder Norwood.

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To help them in that, the Blades players were put through some punishing training schedules in lockdown.

Oliver Norwood returns to training with Sheffield United. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“It was genuinely really tough,” commented Norwood. “The programme we had to follow was harder than the one we were given in the off-season (last year). It was triple sessions, Wattbikes early in the morning, running in the afternoon and weights after that.

“It was tough but at the end of the day we’re well-paid footballers and if you can’t keep fit when there’s nothing else to do at this moment in time... There’s a professional pride about it and we went about it the right way.

“It sums the group up really that we’ve all come back fitter than when we left.

“I’m sick of the sight of the Wattbike they’ve given us and of the treadmill and running but it’s all with the end goal in sight.

“We knew football was going to resume, I genuinely was confident of that, so I was about being ready for when that came and I’m champing at the bit now because the end’s in sight.”

The players were only allowed to resume contact training on Thursday, but Norwood says it was as full-on as ever.

“There is no such thing as holding back in Sheffield United training,” he said, proudly.

“As soon as it was back on it was crash, bang, wallop and back on with it. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

“There’s a great photo where Jack (O’Connell)’s got Didzy (David McGoldrick) in a headlock! That sums it up.

“It was off you go, see you later, five-v-five and crack on.

“It was nice to just play football again. It was like kids in the playground with everyone chasing the ball around at first but we couldn’t wait to get back at it.

“There are still boundaries, not being able to go into dressing rooms and shower and speak to each other away from the training pitch, so it’s still a little bit strange but it was nice to be out there and for it to be a little bit normal.

“You can’t beat being out there in the fresh air playing football.”

Because they have a game in hand as a result of Aston Villa’s involvement in the League Cup final, the Blades’ trip to Villa Park will take place before most sides return the following weekend.

Winning would put them fifth in the Premier League – probably a Champions League place – and set up a nine-match sprint to the finish with other teams they still have to play. “We plan to hit the ground running,” said Norwood. “For us there’s no excuses.

“We’re not aware of what other clubs have been doing, we’re not really interested, to be honest.

“We’ve got a responsibility to be ready as professionals.

“We’ve had a break and we’re coming back to a 10-game slot ready to go.

“The work we’d done up until the break was unbelievable and it would be silly of us to take our foot off the gas, think, ‘Brilliant!’ and finish 12th.

“There’s a real opportunity now to get to heights no one expected us to because we’re in touching distance (of Europe) and the question now is how much do we want it? The answer is a lot.

“There’s so much for us to play for, fans or no fans, we’ve got to make sure we lift ourselves.

“A lot of us have played in front of empty stadiums in reserve-team games and you’ve got to get on with it, there’s no excuses and it’s up to us to reach the levels we were at before.”

What is needed to qualify for Europe will depend on whether Manchester City successfully appeal their two-year ban from UEFA competitions, or are granted a stay of execution if it has not been heard.

If not, the rest of the top five will go into the Champions League and sixth, seventh and the FA Cup winners or eighth will play in the Europa League.

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