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Why James Norwood is the most important Tranmere player ever

It’s difficult to remember life before James Norwood, and that’s perhaps the finest descriptor of his transformational impact at Prenton Park.

Micky Mellon has delivered a phenomenal change in culture, and the Palioses have spurred a sensational growth in commercial acumen, but if it wasn’t for James Norwood, Tranmere Rovers would still be a non-league football club. It’s just that simple.

Without his goals, in volume and importance, the spectre of successive promotions would remain a pipedream. Without his work rate, prodigious and relentless, the club’s decline would never have been halted. Without his belief, boundless and daring, we would still possess the longest trophy drought in professional English football.

I’ve seen a lot of players in almost two decades as a match-going fan, but Norwood is unsurpassed in his positive impact on club fortunes. Quite simply, he is the most important player ever to represent Tranmere Rovers.

Gary Brabin receives a lot of criticism, much of it justified, but he certainly had an eye for a player. The beleaguered former boss signed Steve McNulty and Ritchie Sutton, Jay Harris and Scott Davies, Connor Jennings and Jeff Hughes, Andy Cook and Andy Mangan – pivotal building blocks in the Tranmere resurgence.

He also signed James Norwood, convincing the 24-year old Forest Green marksman to forego offers from the Football League in favour of headlining the grand project to resuscitate Rovers. Norwood did not disappoint.

There was a culture shock at first, a tense assimilation. As fans, we weren’t accustomed to life in the non-league. With roots in the Isthmian leagues, James wasn’t attuned to the attention of a large fanbase, especially one so prone to vitriolic meltdown through social media. Norwood’s confidence, often bordering arrogance, seemed out of step with our pained desperation. James seemed calm and content in the meandering bid for promotion, while we demanded to be fifteen points clear by Christmas.

Early in his Tranmere journey, Norwood struggled in one-on-one situations, often fluffing his lines when faced only with a goalkeeper. The more difficult chances were taken with aplomb, for James had no time to think, but the easier passages of play posed a confusing conundrum.

His playing style relies on guts and instinct, speed and intuition. He’s a street footballer with a massive heart, but the finer subtleties of forward play often went awry in those early days. We endured a complicated relationship at first before learning to love each other. Once the teething problems were overcome, there was no looking back. And how our opponents squirmed.

In their third game as a non-league entity, Tranmere drew 0-0 away to Braintree. Norwood and a few of his teammates were relatively happy to take a point against wise opponents at a tough ground. We fans, meanwhile, had a breakdown for the ages, composing indignant tweets about the shame of dropping points to something that sounded more like a high-street pharmacy than a football team. Such was the disconnect between expectation and reality under Gary Brabin. Such was life as a huge fish in a tiny pond.

If it wasn’t for Norwood’s goals in 2015-16, Tranmere would have finished in the bottom half of the National League table. As it transpired, they finished sixth, narrowly missing the playoffs thanks to some dismal results. James scored 21 goals in all competitions, with the next-best total coming from Mangan with just seven. Norwood accounted for 33.8% of Rovers’ goals in his maiden campaign, while his penchant for important winners, derby day heroics and crucial equalisers added a thin veneer of respectability to an otherwise disastrous season.

The following campaign was one of exponential growth for James, who matured into a fearless leader. He was prone to distraction in his debut season, becoming embroiled in petulant spats with opposing defenders and underperforming officials. But in his second campaign, Norwood got his head down and worked exceptionally hard to deliver on his enormous potential. A newfound appreciation for the rigorous demands placed on the Tranmere squad inspired him to reach new levels, and he dragged Rovers with him.

James managed 16 goals in 2016-17, a drop from the previous season, but in work ethic, passion and discipline, his improvement was phenomenal. He became a monster, leading the forward line with blinding speed and voracious appetite.

James ran selflessly, ran for miles and miles. He ran more than any other player, chasing every lost cause. He developed a trademark for appearing to be second-favourite to almost every ball knocked into the channel or down the line, only to make up a ten-yard disadvantage and beat his opponent to win a throw-in or start an attack. Those are the little things, often overlooked, that need to be appreciated. Those are the marginal gains that win football matches and promotions.

Mellon replaced Brabin as manager in October 2016 and that was the catalyst for a stunning surge in productivity from Norwood. Mellon’s terrific man-management skills cajoled an extra effort from his main man, who made a habit of creating chances of his own, chances out of nothing. Stoked by Mellon, and backed by a resurgent fanbase, Norwood craved success. He heard all the stories of heartbreak and failure, and he wanted to be the man to shoot Tranmere Rovers back to where they belonged. Nothing else mattered anymore.

Rovers finished second under Mellon, entering the playoffs against Aldershot, who were dispatched 5-2 on aggregate. Norwood scored two of the goals, including a cathartic strike in the 94th minute of the second leg, sparking a mass pitch invasion at Prenton Park. Tranmere went on to lose in the Wembley final against Forest Green, James’ former employer, but the club was back on track.

Norwood was fully committed to the project, extending his contract until June 2019. Efforts were redoubled, dreams were intensified, and results were eventually delivered. When all was said and done, Norwood stood alone in an exclusive pantheon of modern Tranmere greats.

A terrible start to the 2017-18 season saw Rovers slump to their lowest ever league position, but the formidable partnership of Cook and Norwood fired them back to respectability. Andy scored 28 goals with James notching 24. Jennings added 9 from midfield as Tranmere finished second once again, securing a date with Ebbsfleet in a one-legged playoff semi-final.

In a heart-stopping tie, Rovers conceded first, only for Norwood to pull them level with a darting left-footed strike. Ebbsfleet went ahead again in the second half before Josh Ginnelly salvaged extra-time with a splendid Tranmere equaliser.

In the first period of extra-time, when we needed him most, Norwood stepped up to thump a long-range free-kick into the top corner, opening the path to Wembley once again. Larnell Cole added a fourth as Rovers prepared for another date with destiny.

The ballad of Boreham Wood is now well worn. Tranmere went down to ten men after less than a minute, only to fight and brawl their way to promotion for the first time in twenty-seven years. Cook scored the opener, Boreham Wood equalised, then Jennings found Norwood in the penalty area with ten minutes left. The rest will live forever.

That goal, that sweet and beautiful goal, was the single most important strike ever authored by a Tranmere Rovers player. Gary Williams scored an immortal goal against Exeter to keep Rovers in the Football League in 1987, but even that heroic intervention pales in comparison to Norwood’s masterpiece. His header, trickling oh so slowly over the line, defined a generation. It ended decades of frustration and years of humiliation. It won a trophy for the sainted sons of Borough Road, an impossibility turned possible.

At the age of 27, James Norwood, a player of remarkable talent, returned to the Football League for the first time in seven years. His only previous experience of the League came with Exeter and comprised just four appearances over two seasons. With Tranmere, he eclipsed those outputs with legendary ease, scoring 32 goals in 53 appearances throughout 2018-19. Only Sergio Agüero matched his tally, while nobody in England surpassed Norwood’s total. He gained a huge reputation across the country, and Rovers were the grateful beneficiaries of his skill.

After partying longer and harder than anybody else in the squad, Norwood came back fitter, sharper and hungrier than anybody else, too. He pushed an ordinary team to extraordinary heights, dragging Tranmere into the League Two playoffs with performances of incremental brilliance.

With the scores level in the semi-final second leg, James popped up with a thunderous volleyed goal, propelling Rovers into a lead they would not relinquish en route to Wembley for the third consecutive year. The opposition in that semi-final? The recipients of that volley? Why, Forest Green, of course. Revenge was sweet.

James was comparatively quiet at Wembley against Newport, but he played a leading role in the fabulous team effort that climaxed with a Jennings winner in the dying seconds of extra-time. Tranmere were duly promoted once again, back into the third division, where they spent thirteen unbroken seasons in the new millennium. Norwood was also back in League One, where his career began almost a decade earlier. The circle was complete. The project was finished. There was little left to prove.

Norwood joined Ipswich Town in the aftermath of our second straight promotion. As with Andy Cook, the Rovers board failed to extend the contract of a pivotal player as Ipswich likely doubled or tripled James’ wage. Nevertheless, Norwood left with the blessing and well-wishes of Tranmere fans everywhere. From non-league obscurity, he worked extremely hard to earn this opportunity, and the three-year contract at Portman Road will secure James and his family for life. It’s hard to begrudge hard work being rewarded.

“It has been a new home for me,” the striker said in a farewell interview with the Tranmere website. “The memories will stay with me forever. 

“This is a massive club and the way we have won back-to-back promotions is a really special story. Tranmere Rovers will always have a special place in my heart.

“The club and the fans have stuck with me through some tough times. I have built up an amazing relationship with the Super White Army.

“There is a togetherness at Tranmere Rovers which I don’t think too many football clubs have. I will always be a Tranmere Rovers supporter and I hope we go and get three in a row!

“A key factor for me now is that both my mum and dad are retired. I wanted to be closer to them, my family and my friends. 

“I phoned the chairman and told him everything, and I said I would like to come back in some capacity one day, whether as a player, coach or fan. This is a place that will always hold a place in my heart, and I want to see the club continue to do well.

“I would love to one day pull on the famous white shirt again!”

James Norwood was more than a striker, more than a top goalscorer, and more than a leader. He scored 93 goals across four seasons, and only seven men have ever scored more for Tranmere Rovers. James was something special, something approaching mythology, the kind of player that comes along but once in a generation. 

Off the field, he was a gentleman, engaging with fans and contributing to a stream of charitable endeavours. On the field, he was our very own Hercules with a receding hairline, achieving things we never thought possible.

We loved James Norwood like few before and nobody since. He will always drink for free in the plucky streets of Birkenhead. I doubt we will ever see his like again.

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