From grassroots to Cambridge United No 1 – the remarkable rise of Will Norris
Humble beginnings pave way for rapid development
“As important as the goal was, we have to pay a lot of respect to who I feel is a fantastic No 1.”
And after a couple of outstanding saves against Exeter, few could disagree with Cambridge United manager Shaun Derry’s assessment of Will Norris.
It also highlighted the importance to the U’s of a goalkeeper whose remarkable rise from the depths of grassroots and non-League football should be used to illustrate to every budding footballer never to give up on their dreams.
Much is made of academy structures in the modern game, but Norris’ story is a product of talent, hard graft and the willingness of a club to take a bit of a gamble.
Norris may have been in the Watford development centres, but in his own words he was “never good enough to get in any academies” so his formative football years were spent at the likes of Castlebury Rangers, Northwood and Hatfield.
But pragmatism was in place as Norris had no firm thoughts of carving out a career in the professional game and was just happy to be playing for his school and on a Saturday afternoon.
“I never really set my sights that high to be honest because I knew what I was and I knew what I wasn’t,” said the 23-year-old.
“I was a late developer in the sense that I didn’t get my growth spurt until a little bit later than everyone else. I was always a small goalkeeper.
“I was realistic about the situation. I thought I was never going to push into any academies or get anyone out of their positions in the academies – that was how it was.”
He was released by Hatfield when he was 17, but through a coach at Queens’ School was invited to join Royston Town, who were in need of a goalkeeper for their reserves.
And when the first-team goalkeeper got injured, he was given the chance to impress.
“I went in, kept a clean sheet and the manager, Paul Attfield, was excellent for me because he took a chance on me rather than going straight back to the keeper when he was back from his injury.”
The Crows went on to win the league, with Norris keeping a number of clean sheets, and that caught the attention of Cambridge United’s now chief executive Jez George, who invited the young keeper for a trial.
Despite being substituted after 60 minutes, Norris was taken to one side and told that the U’s would like to sign him.
So he has now completed an all too rare, but not completely uncommon, route from the lower tiers of the football pyramid to the Football League, with his appearance in the 2-1 defeat to Portsmouth last Saturday – when Luke Berry was on target – being his 82nd for United.
But having been outside the system, Norris knows all too well what it is like to lead a ‘normal’ life and have to balance work pressures with football.
And it helps him keep everything in perspective.
“I know how harsh and how horrible it is to only play a couple of times a week, train on a Tuesday and a Thursday night and turn up on a Saturday,” said Norris.
“When you get to come every day and play football with your mates, it is in perspective for me because I’ve not had the habit of it every day.
“It’s not that I don’t know any different, I do know different. I have had part-time jobs. I’ve had jobs where I’ve left at 1am on the Friday night and gone and played football the next day for Royston.
“I know the harsh realities of normal life. I love coming in now and playing football with my mates.”
Having signed for United, Norris spent spells back on loan with Royston and then with Braintree Town before he was recalled by Derry in January 2016 and made the club’s No 1.
“I will be the first one to admit that you just need games,” he said. “I needed to go out and make mistakes and make decisions and experience what a matchday was like, no matter the level.
“That prepared me really for coming in and staying in the team here. It was a really well thought out plan that Jez and the manager (Richard Money) had for me.
“They sent me out and they prepared me for life at Cambridge United because that was the end product that all parties involved wanted.
“I think I was just realistic; it was never make or break as long as I was enjoying what I was doing. I set myself short-term goals and long-term goals as well.
“The short-term goals were to come in every day and work hard on my position and get closer and closer to the end product of playing in the first team – and that is the end product.”
Norris credits Martin Davies, the former goalkeeping coach who is now at Swansea City, and head of performance Matt Walker as playing a crucial role in his development in adjusting to the professional game.
And it has been a long journey in a short space of time for Norris.
“Three or four years doesn’t seem very long, but when you’re doing it day in, day out and all of your flaws are highlighted and you’re working at them – it’s testing mentally,” he said. “The end product is Leeds on BT Sport in the FA Cup. It makes it all worth it, and I’d do it all again, definitely.”
So the obvious question is whether the 16-year-old Norris could imagine where he is now.
“No, not at 16,” he said. “Playing for the football academy at my school would have been the aim when I was 16 and that was all I was thinking about.
“Will I get in? Will I not? What will I do if I don’t? None of this.”
And what would his advice be to youngsters who are now in the shoes that Norris was then?
“I’d say work hard, enjoy it, go and get games and take opportunities when they’re given to you.
“I was thankfully given an unbelievable opportunity by Jez four or five years ago. I had no dreams of being a professional footballer, and he gave me the opportunity.
“And when someone gives you that opportunity, it’s unbelievable. It does really impact your life massively.”