Sussex Born & Bred: James Norwood
In our latest interview for Sussex Born & Bred we spoke to Eastbourne-born and current Ipswich Town striker, James Norwood.
It has been a whirlwind career for Norwood which has seen him go from a baby-faced 16-year-old breaking records at Eastbourne Town, to winning the English Schools FA Trophy, endless goals in non-league, to where he is now, playing up-front in League One for Ipswich Town.
For Norwood the journey begins as a determined, young, 6-year-old with a dream to play football joining up with a very recognisable Eastbourne Town face as his coach.
“I joined Old Town Boys at under-7s. Dave Jenkins was the manager at the time, and he later went on to become the Chairman of Eastbourne Town (now Treasurer).
“I spent most of my time there all the way up to the age of 18, once Old Town Boys had become Eastbourne Town.
“We had a frightening team to be fair, we were winning the leagues by scary amounts. We had the likes of Dave Wheeler (now plays for Wycombe Wanderers) and Simon Johnson who’s had a good career.”
‘Nors’ spent time in numerous academies at a young age which meant he was in and out of being able to play for Old Town Boys. This meant his only other main opportunity of playing football was with his school. He was educated at St. Bede’s, Hailsham, and it was a key factor in his development.
“Dave Leggett, my school manager, was a big influence on me as well as Dave Jenkins of course. Leggett for me was great because he was very supportive of the amount of football I used to play.
“When I was in the academies, the headmaster would let me leave early because it was a couple of hours for me to get to Crystal Palace. So, whether it was leaving early on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, he’d let me do that.
“Then when I was a bit older, I’d have a game for the school during the day on a Wednesday, and play for Eastbourne Town in the evening, and he was always very supportive of that.
“Bede’s were always really understanding of how much football I played and how seriously I took it. Back then your body could take anything. I could easily play for the school and do another game two hours later!”
But before we jump ahead, his time in academies was a big learning curve and something that can be a difficult thing to handle at a young age.
“I first got scouted for Brighton when I was 10 which I think came about because I was scoring like 10 goals a game for Old Town Boys! They signed me for a couple of years, but I ended up leaving because the team was mainly made up of one school that had the likes of Steve Cook and Steve Brinkhurst.
“I went and had a trial game for [Crystal] Palace where I scored a hat-trick and they signed me. But I didn’t take much notice of the fact that I was playing for those big clubs and I can’t say I really enjoyed it!
“I was a bit shy at that point, so I didn’t fit in very well and was all of a sudden playing with a load of kids I didn’t really know, and I had to stop playing for Old Town.
“I’d play for the school on a Saturday still which was either football or Rugby then usually play for Palace on a Sunday so I was sometimes turning up for Palace a bit worse for wear!”
At the age of 14, however, Norwood had to experience what so many young footballers have to at a young age, when he was released by Crystal Palace.
“It did hurt that one because there was nothing I could do about it. It was something out of my control. They released me for being too small when I was in the under-15s.
“I didn’t actually turn up for the meeting they invited me to because I wasn’t feeling well, but they basically told me they were willing to keep me for the season to see if I grow but I wouldn’t get much game time, but I didn’t like the sound of that.
“I was happy going back to all my mates at Eastbourne Town and I actually made the senior side whilst still at school aged 16. It was a good experience and you soon find out when playing against men how good you really are. They’re physically much stronger and bigger but I wouldn’t say they’re quicker than me anymore!”
At 16, football took over for Norwood where he had made the senior side for Eastbourne Town, whilst still playing for their under-18 side, and for St. Bede’s he was part of a side that were national school champions.
He was also called up for the English Schools FA under-18s where they won the English Schools FA Trophy and in 2009 beat France at Wembley.
“It was my first taste of proper football, playing at Wembley. We played in a tournament and I came off the bench at half-time and actually scored a left-footed volley from outside the box against France which isn’t a bad thing to do at Wembley. It was actually big Dave Wheeler I came on for as well!”
It didn’t take long before clubs were paying interest again.
“I was playing in the under-18s [at Eastbourne Town] still and I set a couple of records and scored a lot of goals in the County Youth League which is when I realised quite a few clubs were watching me.
“An Arsenal and a Man United scout had come down to a senior game. I remember being told that the Arsenal scout approached Ady [Colwell] (then manager of Eastbourne Town) and said, ‘Where’s James Norwood playing today?’ and Ady said ‘He’s not playing for us, he’s playing for his school!’”
“Every club under the sun I was hearing was watching me, but nothing came of it. Then whilst in sixth form at St. Bede’s I took part in a soccer icons type trial full of young lads that have been let go by academies, and I ended up in the last four or five lads beating off about 30 others.”
As a result of the trial, Norwood was given a contract at Exeter City, having already notched 10 goals in 18 games for Eastbourne Town first team. It was a big move for him, and one he wished he could have taken more time over.
“My mentality was just that I knew I played well wherever I was, and scored a lot of goals, but in the end, I don’t think I picked the best place to go!
“It was a weird one, I was going from playing in front of 100 odd people at Eastbourne Town to making my Exeter debut away at Leeds United in front of 30,000!
“I actually came on and played well and I realised then that I could play football but the club at the time just didn’t really favour young players. I’d grown to a much bigger 5’11 by this point though!”
Norwood never doubted his ability and believed he had what it took to be there. It must have been lingering in his mind about being let go again, but he wasn’t going to let it be the end of him.
“The Palace one affected me the most [being released] because there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t just work on something to get better and it was frustrating because the year before they let me go, I was top goal scorer. So I knew if the same was to happen at Exeter at least it was stuff I could work on.
“It was a difficult period for me because I didn’t want to be sent on loan from Exeter and believed I should have played. Especially the second season because I’d finished pre-season with about eight goals and was top scorer then in August, I’m being sent on loan to Forest Green.
“I came back to Exeter, but it seemed pretty obvious I was being let go so I just took a loan to Eastbourne Borough which I didn’t want to do really as an Eastbourne Town guy!
“But it was just good to be back home and after going on trial at Aldershot at the back end of that season, I ended up signing for Forest Green which I thought made sense after being on loan there.
“I had quite a few options at the time, I even had Eastbourne United ring me saying they’d get a private sponsor to pay me!
“At that point I just needed to play football and I backed myself to score goals wherever I went. I remember saying to Steve Perryman [Exeter City Director of Football] that I’d see him on the other side and once I made it back to League Two we [at Tranmere] beat Exeter with an aggregate of 3-0 across the two league games and I scored all the goals, so I definitely enjoyed that!”
Joining Forest Green Rovers at the age of 21, Norwood was craving regular football, which he certainly got. He does feel, however, that they were tougher times as a young player.
“I probably stayed too long at Forest Green and I had a couple of league offers after a couple of seasons, but I had doubts playing on my mind, so it didn’t seem right.
“With the under-23s setups that clubs have now, teams are taking more chances on young kids, but no one was doing that then.
“Because of the Jamie Vardy’s, Andre Gray’s and the Sam Clucas’ that have come through now, teams will see a National League player score four or five goals and think they can unearth something. Back then though you could be a player scoring 30 odd goals but wouldn’t get a sniff.
“If you’re a player of that age now, 20 or 21 years-old, scoring 20-25 goals, you’ll have most of the Championship after you.”
As much as he felt he didn’t let it get the better of him, Norwood was still a player that had been let go a couple of times by professional clubs and he was only human for that to be playing on his mind. A bit of a turning point came for him, however, when he was called up to play for the England C team.
“There was that lingering thought of being let go and going back to square one if I went to another league club, so I just wanted to forget all that and concentrate on trying to be the best player at Forest Green.
“When I was 22, I got called up for England C which was great because the manager, Paul Fairclough, played me as a centre-forward which I wasn’t getting at Forest Green. Paul was actually really good for me, he let people express themselves and play where they wanted to play.
“It was beautiful for me that, because I enjoyed being skilful and despite us all wanting to win and he wanted to win, it wasn’t really a results-based experience it was about building you up as a player.
“In the 21 players that went to Bermuda, 18 of them I think went on to play professionally so it was a great squad we had which included Andre Gray and Sam Clucas.”
Norwood made over 150 appearances for Forest Green, scoring more than 50 goals, but playing as a striker was built in him from a young age and that thought of playing through the middle couldn’t escape him. Next up, Tranmere Rovers.
“The thing for me was, I’d been a centre-forward from the age of 7 to 21 then Forest Green played me as a winger. To be fair, I was quick and could run a lot, had a pretty good delivery and still backed myself to score goals from there. But I still missed four years of being a centre-forward.
“The first thing at Tranmere that the then manager [Gary Brabin] said to me was ‘I want you to play up front every single game for me’. At that point I’m sold straight away.
“I had Burton Albion after me at the time in the Championship and a couple of League One clubs but I liked the faith Tranmere were showing in me, so I had to go there.
“It meant everything to me, it was all I wanted. Even if he said I might not play every game I’d have made sure I did play every game and essentially prove to Forest Green they were wrong not to play me up-front!”
There wasn’t much Norwood didn’t experience at Tranmere. Wembley heartbreak, failed promotions, but went on to achieve the ultimate football ecstasy.
“There were of course a lot of ups and downs with Tranmere and it was absolutely awful losing in the playoff final at Wembley. I think it got to too many of the lads.
“I think I came off in the second-half having made about 18 touches in the game and I was so angry with myself. Obviously though you just have to learn from it, and we started slow the next season.
“We were fortunate though to have a brilliant bunch of lads. Win, lose or draw, the lads together there was something I hadn’t been a part of before and something I probably won’t be part of again in terms of that closeness and how well we all got on.
“In the second season we added Connor Jennings and Andy Cook which changed the dynamic of the team. I started playing up-front with Cooky and then the whole thing changed for us.”
That season they went on to achieve 82 points and a second-successive second place finish meaning the drama of the playoffs. But, this time around Norwood and his teammates were determined not to miss out on promotion.
“My two performances back-to-back at Wembley were chalk and cheese. After being hurt so much when we lost there, to this time willing to die on the pitch.
“We had a man sent-off after 48 seconds so then we realised we really were going to have to die on that pitch. We fought like mad for the result going 1-0 up, then conceding eight minutes into injury time of the first-half.
“Then in the second-half I got the winner with a header that looked like it crossed the line at half a mile an hour!”
After a patient and long-awaited return, Norwood was back in League football. League Two awaited for ‘Nors’ and the rest of a very good Tranmere squad and its fair to say, they weren’t there to make up the numbers.
“When it came to the season we went up, we didn’t really add anyone because we didn’t need to. We thought we could compete well and the bond we had as a group we were confident we would compete.
“We rode the wave well and the first game of the season, being 2-0 down at half-time and bringing it back to 2-2 it really kicked us on.
“The January of that season I don’t think we won a game, fell down to tenth, then we won 11 out of 13 and finished in the playoffs, which we won and got promoted.”
Over 30 goals and another promotion later, Norwood was once again a man in demand. The Tranmere chairman joked that the 32-goal man wouldn’t cut it in League Two but his next destination, was arguably to be the most challenging yet.
“I was out of contract at Tranmere and it wasn’t an easy decision to leave. Ipswich are a huge club and it was just the prospect of being successful with them and taste another promotion.
“I arrived at Ipswich as quite a marquee signing for the club and I was putting myself a bit out my comfort zone, but I was carrying over the same pressure that I had at Tranmere originally.”
Norwood has spent some time on the side-lines this season, after hitting double figures in his debut campaign for Ipswich in 2019/20, and it has given him some time to reflect.
“I’ve thought about coaching a lot more recently and I think I would go into it. I’ve started looking at things more analytically now and helping the younger lads. I got a lot of my advice from people like Marcus Stewart and Lee Hughes which is all knowledge I try and pass on.
“They’re the lads that go on to do well, the ones that ask those questions of what they can do to get better. If you’re willing to listen to what senior pro’s say it’s always going to be beneficial.
“It has its upsides and its downsides; the downside it means you’re getting older! But the upside of seeing players take advice from you and put it in to action I really take pride in that.
In his spare-time you can occasionally find James supporting Eastbourne Town at The Saffrons, and he harbours hopes to return in a playing capacity someday.
“I will absolutely be back at Eastbourne Town one day - once the legs give in! I’ve got this season’s home shirt in my room and I sponsor one of their lads, Dan Rogers, although there’s not much point as he’s spending a bit too much time on the bench I think.”
Lastly, Norwood offered advice to young aspiring footballers in Sussex: “Always expand your horizons and be open to new opportunities and different places. If you’re good enough, you’ll find a way, but never give up. I remember Dave Wheeler not making it until he was about 23 or 24, but he got out there and continued doing what he was doing until someone took notice.”
Norwood’s career is one that has been up and down to say the least. His drive and determination to be the best wherever he goes makes it no surprise that he has been able to work his way back to the level of football he is at now.
Making it back to the professional ranks hasn’t happened overnight, but a destination that seemed certain and another non-league success story that can provide inspiration to many. Eastbourne Town may need to keep their phone switched on, because ‘Nors’ will be ringing one day!
To find out more about playing opportunities in Sussex please contact:
T: 01903 766855