Ex-Portsmouth, Plymouth and Leeds man David Norris: 'I've retired three times and been advised to quit by doctors - but I'm still playing at 42'
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Seeking inspiration against stubborn Guiseley with 10 minutes remaining, Mark Fell’s final substitution involved putting his faith in a midfielder who, 24 hours earlier, had celebrated turning 42.
David Norris was declared the Northern Premier League Premier side’s man of the match in a 2-1 defeat at Stafford Rangers the previous weekend.
Yet the necessity to shield the former Pompey and Leeds man from the rigours of three games in a week prompted his easing out of the team for Tuesday night’s clash.
Norris retired from football 13 months ago following a fourth operation on his right knee, coupled with the surgeon’s recommendation to hang up the boots.
With 29 games and three goals so far this season, he isn’t quite finished.
‘A new lad, Matthew Tweedley, signed on loan from Bolton recently. He’s aged 18 and plays alongside me in midfield – it’s surreal!’ Norris told The News.
‘I’m sure there will be opponents whose dads played against me, there’s every chance, and I’d love to know what other managers say about me in the changing room before a game and whether they refer to my age.
‘We played Warrington earlier this month and a lad said to me “I’m 31 and am wrecked. I don’t know how you’re still doing it!”, which made me laugh.
‘I retire about eight times every season when stuck on a motorway after a Tuesday night game. I’ve got work the next day and there are road diversions taking me everywhere I don’t want to go.
‘You think “I’m done with this”. Then there are those occasions when it has been a really bad game, it goes round and round in your head: “You can't do this anymore, finish it”.
‘The surgeon who carried out the last operation on my knee (January 2022) advised me to call it a day. There’s not much cartilage left, it’s pretty much bone-on-bone now, I’ll need a knee replacement one day.
‘Genuinely, I’ve actually retired three times, but I always come back. I’ll be scared when football’s gone, it’s hard to get that feeling anywhere else.’
It has been six years since Norris returned to the non-league game which constructed the foundations for a successful Football League career.
As an 18-year-old, he represented Boston United in a year out ahead of taking a Sport Studies degree at either Sheffield Hallam University, the University of Liverpool or the University of Leeds.
It was a period which also saw him work part-time at Peterborough Greyhound Stadium, earning £20 a shift as a drinks waiter carrying out table orders.
Norris’ eye-catching Boston performances, though, brought him to the attention of Premier League Bolton Wanderers in January 2000, who offered a trial.
Within a week, Sam Allardyce had secured the youngster on a four-year contract in a £50,000 deal – and university plans were scrapped.
He went on to return to Boston on loan, yet over the next 17 years amassed 455 appearances in the Football League, turning out for Hull, Plymouth, Ipswich, Pompey, Leeds, Peterborough, Yeovil and Blackpool.
Then, in February 2017, he found himself back in non-league surroundings with then-National League North side Salford City.
Norris added: ‘My career started in non-league, so there was no stigma in dropping down. It keeps me in that environment, being in the changing rooms, playing games, scoring goals, it still gives me a buzz.
‘I was never quick, so age hasn’t taken my pace away. As long as I can get about the pitch and the body holds up then I’ll keep going. So far it hasn’t been too bad – and I still love playing.
‘The mad thing is people expect that, as you get older, you adapt your game. Dropping down a level and a box-to-box midfielder becomes a sitting midfielder where I get the ball off the right-back and play it out, taking it easy.
‘That’s not me, though. We wear GPS vests and my stats are no different to when I played in the Football League. I am still running 11-12k in a match and producing 1-000-1,500 metres of sprint distance, so I’ve not really adapted my game. Probably because that is my game.
‘I’m an up-and-down midfielder, I love getting into the opposition box and getting back to make tackles. I am still nicking a few goals here and there too.
‘Fitness was my strongest attribute as a Football League player. I always slightly doubted my ability, call it imposter syndrome. I’m not good on the ball technically, but can run them into the ground.
‘I was always interested in what could make me the fittest and the strongest, all the little things which could improve me. I’d regularly be in the gym to make sure I had a little more on the pitch.
‘As I’ve got older, the recovery takes a little longer. These days, on a Sunday morning after a match, I ache in my back, my knees, my hips. It takes about an hour to fully stand up straight.
‘The missus keeps telling me to stop, so now I pretend to be normal. Then, when she’s not looking, just collapse into a heap!
‘I’ve then gone into a Tuesday night game thinking “How am I going to get through this?”. But once it gets going, I guess it’s not too bad.
‘Mark (Fell) understands I need to be managed a bit. I can’t come training twice a week on 4G and then play on the Saturday. And while I’ve done Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday matches this season during an injury crisis and felt good, that’s difficult too.
‘Mind you, I recently played in a match which he was supposed to be resting me for. He subbed me in the 89th minute and I was in a right mood with him: “Why did you take me off?”. He knows I’m going to have a sulk, even though I’ve told him to manage my minutes!’
Since returning to the non-league game, Norris has turned out for Salford, Shaw Lane, Boston, and, since December 2018, Lancaster.
His playing days had been threatened after suffering a plantar fasciitis (heel) injury at Blackpool, then, in January 2022, a fourth cartilage operation on his right knee prompted the evergreen midfielder to contemplate the unthinkable.
He said: ‘In my career, that was the closest I have properly come to retirement.
‘There was no point rushing it. I probably wasn’t going to make it back that season, so best leave it there and call it a day.
‘The surgeon was also pushing me that way. I was told my recovery depended on how the knee reacted to the rehab, on how strong my legs were. He said that for my quality of life, perhaps it was time to quit – and I was half in agreement with him.
‘I know I’m going to need a knee replacement in the future, it’s not an uncommon thing with footballers, especially having played more than 700 career games. It’s quite the norm.
‘But I want to put that off as long as possible. I have successfully managed the knee pretty much from the end of my Pompey days. If it swells up, I do a bike on a Monday, it settles down and I'm good to go again.
‘Faced with retirement, I played a few charity games last summer which were pretty competitive, including at AFC Portchester in the Lee Rigby Memorial Cup in June, and I felt good.
‘Then Lancaster’s manager persuaded me to train with them for a couple of weeks before the season started. I played in a friendly, was supposed to do 45 minutes, ended up doing an hour, and scored twice. No retirement for me then!’
There is one particular Norris footballing contribution etched indelibly into Pompey history.
In April 2012, Pompey were in administration, reeling from a 10-point deduction and tumbling towards League One when they headed to St Mary’s to face the Championship leaders.
The visitors trailed 2-1 as the south-coast derby entered the second minute of time added-on – cue the Blues’ number 19 conjuring up a sumptuous left-footed volley from outside the box for a spectacular equaliser.
Norris’ intervention didn’t thwart Southampton’s return to the Premier League and neither did it prevent Michael Appleton’s side suffering relegation.
Yet it assured him of permanent residence in Fratton folklore.
He added: ‘Nothing in my career compares to that Pompey goal. It’s the single best feeling I’ve ever had in football.
‘It’s the circumstances, the opposition, and knowing how much it meant to our supporters.
‘To this day, people still message me on social media about it. Even if I post about my training, somebody will respond with “Pompey legend, thank you for that goal”.
‘Whenever I meet a Pompey fan, that goal is all they want to talk about. There was relegation that season, a points deduction, nearly going out of business – but their only question is about me scoring at St Mary’s.
‘That’s not a problem for me, I never miss a chance to retweet it! Some ex-players don’t like talking about their careers – but I've milked that goal for 11 years!
‘There’s a one in a thousand chance that shot goes. It’s the way the ball falls, how it is spinning, but, as much as I like the manner and the technique, my favourite bit is the supporter reaction.
‘When the camera pans to the fans, they’re falling down four or five flights of stairs during the celebrations. I caused that!
‘Really, Southampton should have battered us that day. They had two future England internationals and were top of the Championship, while we were in all sorts of trouble and heading towards relegation.
‘Yet they never beat us that year – in either game. That was huge, the biggest thing for Pompey fans to cheer about that season.’
Norris’ entrance from the bench against Guiseley on Tuesday night failed to reap the breakthrough Lancaster City desired.
The match remained goalless in front of a Nethermoor Park crowd of 409, leaving Fell’s men 15th in the league and firmly on course for a mid-table finish.
Still, following his enforced break from the starting XI, the veteran is likely to be granted a recall against Whitby Town this weekend.
The Dolly Blues have 12 matches until the curtain comes down on their season – and potentially also Norris’ career.
‘As long as I still enjoy it, I want to keep going, although I don’t know whether I’ll play on beyond this year,’ he laughed.
‘But if I finish this campaign having played a lot of games, feeling fit, and injury free, then I may just continue!
‘My heart is saying I could easily do another season – but my head is telling me enough is enough.
‘I’ve been playing for 26 seasons, it has gone so fast. Around the age of 31-32, I remember consciously trying to take it all in a little more. If we had won a big game or I’d scored, I would stop and savour the moment.
‘Life as a footballer has gone crazy quick, yet I have fantastic memories, trophies and video footage, so I can’t really complain.
‘That’s the problem, though. I don’t want it to end.’