Two seasons ago, three divisions separated Tranmere Rovers from Ipswich Town. Next season, they will appear on the same fixture list for the first time since the turn of the millennium. However, Ipswich will start this campaign with a player who has done so much to close this gap in James Norwood.
Norwood has spoken in the fondest terms for Tranmere, but ultimately a club that has been a mainstay in one of the most lucrative leagues in Europe when it comes to TV revenues offered him terms he could not refuse. Amidst the sadness of Norwood’s departure, it would be churlish to blame him for taking up a 3 year contract (plus one year as an option) to give him a level of financial security that his efforts for Tranmere deserve.
And whilst there will be short odds on Norwood scoring against Tranmere when Ipswich come to Prenton Park, the question is what overall impact he will have at Portman Road. The answer may lie in the circumstances that Ipswich find themselves in compared to Tranmere four seasons ago, with both teams suffering relegation the previous season a common factor.
In spite of being Rovers’ top scorer in his first season, a fair chunk of Norwood’s goals came from the penalty spot. In reality, Norwood had yet to fulfil his full potential, which was in no small part down to Rovers still trying to find a level of consistency under Gary Brabin. Added to this, Rovers were painfully ponderous in their possession and movement, and the addition of old pros made Rovers look even slower, thereby failing to capitalise on Norwood’s pace.
However, when Micky Mellon replaced Brabin in 2016 this heralded a change in Norwood’s fortunes and with that Rovers’ too. Norwood didn’t even feature in Mellon’s first game in charge, a hard fought win against Wrexham at home decided only by a mistake from the ‘keeper and an injury time Andy Cook goal. However, Rovers showed a greater sense of purpose in their passing and movement than in previous games and played the ball down the wings and channels as well as to feet. This would prove an omen for Norwood.
In spite of scoring less goals than the previous season, Norwood played a key part in Rovers amassing 95 points and a +40 goal difference, creating time and space for Cook and Cole Stockton through his tireless movement up front. Norwood also had a habit of scoring goals that turned defeats to draws and draws to wins, showing a level of desire and commitment that Mellon’s tactics crave so much.
Norwood carried on in pretty much the same vein during the 2017/18 campaign, once Rovers recovered from the hangover of losing at Wembley the previous season. However, in spite of getting over the 20 goal mark this again did not tell the full story as Norwood’s finishing came into question, especially when one-on-one with the goalkeeper. If Norwood had Cook’s finishing qualities, he could have easily increased his eventual goal tally by some 50%, taking him closer to the tally he achieved this season.
As it was, when Cook left for Walsall there were initial concerns over who would replace him. Yet as the season progressed, this became less of an issue as Norwood stepped up yet another level. Not only was Norwood more clinical in his finishing, but his aerial prowess, such a key strength for Cook, had also improved. Once Ishmael Miller bowed out with a season ending hamstring injury, Norwood led the line alone and effectively, leading the charge for Rovers’ climb from mid-table to the playoffs, eventually finishing as top scorer in the whole Football League. With his contract up, the interest from other clubs came as no surprise.
Ultimately, whether Norwood will carry on where he left off at Rovers depends on how Paul Lambert sets up. Beginning with any formation that leaves Norwood alone up top and playing early balls into the channels or over the top (in a counter-attack) would be a start. Additionally, if Norwood’s work-rate leads to the rest of the squad working that little bit harder off the ball, this too could make all the difference in what will be a combative league. As Sunderland found out to their cost, having the quality matters little if there is not the fight and desire to compete.
Given that Lambert has some experience at this level at Norwich, I would not be surprised if this was why he went for someone from lower down the pyramid to begin Ipswich’s fightback. One only has to look at the impact Grant Holt made after he signed for Norwich ten seasons ago. Holt’s career was also a series of stops and starts before he found his mojo at Carrow Road, just like Norwood until he came to Prenton Park.
Ultimately, no one at Tranmere will forget Norwood or his contribution for Tranmere, where his winner against the Boreham Wood Bottle Chuckers may well go down in history as saving Rovers from oblivion.
So long Nors. And thank you.