Ferguson credited for NI renaissance

Ian Watson
Oliver Norwood Stuart Dallas Northern Ireland Football365

Sir Alex Ferguson may be long retired, but his influence will still be felt at Euro 2016 in the shape of resurgent Northern Ireland.

Six of Michael O’Neill’s France-bound squad came through the ranks at Old Trafford, although only defender Paddy McNair is still with the club.

Jonny and Corry Evans, Oliver Norwood, Craig Cathcart and Luke McCullough all learned their trade under the Ferguson regime before moving on.

Yet Reading midfielder Norwood is convinced the values instilled by the peerless Scot are continuing to do Northern Ireland proud.

“It might sound silly, but the United lads were brought up properly,” he said.

“We worked under the regime of the best manager who’s ever managed in football, Sir Alex Ferguson.

“What he passed through that club – to the youth team, to every academy boy – that’s something we can look back on with pride.

“We were all together there and now we’re all together here at Northern Ireland.

“We were brought up in a proper football club, training every day with world-class players, but seeing they’re just normal people.

“I don’t think you’ll ever see a ‘big time Charlie’ coming out of that Manchester United system because it’s not allowed there.”

The Old Trafford effect has not been lost on manager O’Neill either.

“There’s a number of our players who have that same good grounding,” he said, having watched his side seal top spot in Group F with a 1-1 draw in Finland.

“They may have come away from Manchester United, but they’ve fought back from that disappointment and developed careers for themselves.

“Some of them, like Cathcart, are back in Premier League and some are in the Championship, but now they’re here performing on the international stage and they’re going to get the chance to go to a major finals.”

Norwood, whose club connections helped him get Cristiano Ronaldo’s shirt when Northern Ireland drew in Porto three years ago, is one of only two ever presents in the current campaign, alongside Gareth McAuley.

It might all have been very different for the Burnley-born player had he not been persuaded by the Evans brothers to commit to the country of his grandfather.

He had been capped by England at Under-17 level, but was persuaded he could progress more quickly in a green shirt.

Twenty-nine caps and one triumphant qualification later and it is a call the 24-year-old is more than happy with.

“It was thanks to Corry and Jonny that I came aboard five or six years ago, and I’m grateful to them for tapping me up now!” he said.

“It was actually very easy to be fair, it was a chance to play international football.

“It’s a decision I’m really proud of and glad that I took.”

Norwood can now look forward to testing himself on the big stage next summer, where Northern Ireland will once again be looking to turn expectations on their head.

“There’s great team spirit in this squad. Everybody buys into what Michael wants to do and now we’ve got the chance to play in a major tournament,” he said.

“That’s what you dream of as young boy watching those competitions on the TV.

“That’s something we’re going to be a part of now. It’s something I’m personally very proud of.

“I’ve been available for every game in qualifying and for the manager to pick me each time means I must be doing something right.”