By Derren Howard
A talented 16-year-old with pink boots was catching the eye and proving quite a nuisance to defenders in the reserve section of the Sussex County Football League.
Eastbourne Town’s new striker James Norwood was making his first appearance in adult football. He was fast, skilful and brash - a combination guaranteed not to go down well with quick-tempered non-league defenders.
“I slid in for the ball with their keeper,” recalled Norwood. “It was a 50-50 but he got up first and then stamped on me. His studs came down on to the inside of my groin and he said, ‘welcome to adult football.’”
It was a harsh introduction for a schoolboy and a decade on, it’s a moment that sticks in the striker’s mind as he reflects on a promotion-winning season with Tranmere Rovers.
Last Saturday was the culmination of tough campaign that ended with Norwood, still sporting his favoured pink boots, heading home a winning goal at Wembley in a 2-1 victory against Boreham Wood in the National League play-off final. Tranmere had finished second in the table on 82 points, 10 behind champions Macclesfield Town.
Norwood scored twice in their extra-time semi-final victory against Ebbsfleet and his 80th minute winner in the final was his 23rd of the season and confirmed Rovers’ return to the Football League after three years in the fifth tier.
“It was just ecstasy,” Norwood added. “You could see it etched on everyone’s faces. The players, the fans and the chairman (Mark Palios). The chairman was in tears, it just means so much to the club and the community.
“We came close last year but lost in the final. It was horrible, painful. We looked at pictures of our faces after the final whistle and we were determined not to go through that again, no matter what.”
Norwood gained his move to Tranmere from Forest Green Rovers in 2015 and has scored 46 from 107 matches.
The Birkenhead club exists in the shadow of Liverpool and Everton and have experienced their share of hard times. In 1987 they fell into administration but recovered under manager John King as he took them from the bottom of Division Four to the brink of the Premier League.
King’s successor, John Aldridge, reached the 2000 Football League Cup final, where they lost to Martin O’Neil’s Leicester and other cup runs included FA Cup quarter-finals in 2000, 2001 and 2004 before their painful slide into non-league.
Saturday was Tranmere’s first trophy in 27 years and restored Micky Mellon’s team to a status more befitting a club of their size. Victory, at Wembley however, was not straight forward.
Defender Liam Ridehalgh was sent-off for a reckless challenge in the first minute while midfielder Josh Ginnelly was hit by a bottle, hurled by a Boreham fan, as Tranmere celebrated Andy Cook’s opener.
Bruno Andrade levelled for Wood eight minutes into first half stoppage time before Norwood headed the winning goal. “It was tough but we had to do it for our fans,” he added. “We played the whole match with 10-men but we would have gone another 30 minutes if we had too. We have fought all season. When you are travelleing to Dover on a Tuesday night and getting back in the early hours, you have to be a team.
“We are prepared to fight and die for each for other. Everyone is here to win, no passengers. To experience this promotion with this group of players is special.”
The former England C Team captain has formed a lethal strike partnership with Cook at Prenton Park. Cook netted 28 times and the duo have a combined tally of 61. “We are a handful for defenders,” Norwood added. “Something just clicked in training and I knew we would work. We are both into double figures for assists as well and they have mainly been to each other. It has just worked.”
Norwood, made 18 appearances for Eastbourne Town in the Ryman League division South and signed for Exeter City in 2009. He had loan spells at Forest Green Rovers and Eastbourne Borough and joined Forest Green in 2011. Playing mostly as left midfielder, he netted 48 goals from 149 appearances.
“I kept telling them (Forest Green) I was a striker but they played me left-midfield. I was pleased with my strike rate there but at Tranmere they have played me as a striker and I feel as though my career has kicked on.”
At 27 the former Bede’s and England Schools player has the battle wounds to show from a decade spent of bouncing off non-league defenders. He plays with a hole in his boot due an inflamed bursa on his heel and this summer he is booked in for his second hernia operation in two seasons.
“Lower down the leagues players play through more injuries. A lot of it is financial. Appearances fees and win bonuses make a massive difference. Don’t get me wrong, we are still well paid for what we do but it is different. At the very top level, if you have a dead leg you might sit out because every margin and every gain matters.
“Not many players at this level miss a match with a dead leg. Players won’t risk losing their place if they have a mortgage to pay.”
Norwood has a year remaining on his contract at Tranmere and remains determined to climb up the divisions. On England C duty in 2014 he lined up alongside Watford striker Andre Gray and he also faced Jamie Vardy when the Leicester man was banging in goals for Halifax Town and then Fleetwood.
“As long as you look after yourself and keep improving it can happen. They were scoring regularly in the lower leagues, they got their move and took the chance.
“I’m not going to say the same will happen to me but I am ambitious. I just want to keep scoring goals. I did that with Forest Green and now at Tranmere. You have to look at what they (Gray and Vardy)achieved and it is inspiring.”
Norwood’s career may yet reach greater heights. But it began when Town’s reserve team manager Dale Hendy gave him his first chance in adult football.
“I will always be grateful for that and I plan to finish my career with Eastbourne Town, it’s a great club,” he added.
“The Pier Pressure lads have created a buzz. You used to get crowds of 60 or 70 there but now it’s more than 200. Hopefully the club continues to grow.”