CHARLIE O’CONNOR-CLARKE, DIGITAL CONTENT EDITOR (@CHARLIEJCLARKE)
When David Norman left the Canadian Premier League a year ago, he might not have been imagining that he would soon be playing in a cup final in front of almost 45,000 people.
As he returns to Canada now, though — signing with his hometown Vancouver FC this week — he does so with a wealth of new experience.
Norman chose to leave Cavalry FC last winter to sign for then-English League Two club Northampton Town. He arrived at the club in mid-March, in the midst of a close-fought promotion bid. It didn’t take him long to break into the squad, making six appearances (four starts) in the Cobblers’ last nine games as they finished third, securing automatic promotion to League One.
With that success under his belt, he set out in the summer for another challenge, this time crossing the Irish sea to sign with St. Patrick’s Athletic. Again, Norman Jr. found himself thrust into new experiences in the middle of a club’s season — beginning with a UEFA Europa Conference League qualifying tie against Luxembourgish side F91 Dudelange.
After dipping his toes in European football, he continued cementing himself in the Saints’ lineup, helping backstop them to a third-place finish in the League of Ireland. More exciting, though, was St. Pat’s run in the FAI Cup, as they would win a tricky semifinal away clash at Cork City to set up a spectacular grand finale at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium against derby rivals Bohemians.
Norman played all 90 minutes of what was a monumental afternoon for Irish football, with a national-record 43,881 fans in attendance to see St. Patrick’s win 3-1 and lift their fifth domestic cup.
So, the 25-year-old Norman now returns home with a promotion and some silverware on his résumé after just a year abroad, and he’s looking forward to putting those experiences to good now with Vancouver. The native of New Westminster, B.C. explained that seeing the impact clubs like Northampton Town and St. Patrick’s have on their communities inspired him to help build that back at home.
“When you look at those clubs that have been around for 70, 80, 90 years, it might not happen in my career which I’m okay with, but if I can play a part in being someone that helps grow the sport, so that maybe when I’m older I can watch Vancouver FC playing a final in front of 45,000 people, that really excited me,” Norman Jr. told CanPL.ca.
“It’s things you dream of as a kid, but also being able to play at home and be part of a club that really is growing, only in its second year, those opportunities are something now that I dream of as well.”
It’s easy to draw similarities between that Irish Cup final and showpiece matches in Canada, like the last two CPL Finals or even VFC’s home opener. In both countries, soccer fights for attention with more popular, often better-attended sports, but the League of Ireland, much like the Canadian Premier League, continues to grow and has made an impact on local communities.
Now, Norman is eager to see that growth in his hometown.
On the playing side of things, Norman Jr. said he’s coming back a much improved player as well.
By this point in his career, it’s no debate: his primary position is centre-back. Although he came through the Vancouver Whitecaps academy as a midfielder, and played there for his first few pro clubs including Pacific FC, it was at the start of 2021 that he began making the transition into the backline.
Cavalry boss Tommy Wheeldon first hinted during that off-season that Norman Jr. might be converted into a defender, and his first taste of the position came when he played there for the Canadian U-23 team at the Concacaf Olympic Qualifying tournament. Ever since, he’s been regularly deployed as a centre-back.
Becoming as comfortable as he is now in the position was certainly a learning curve, though. Norman Jr. has always been blessed with an ability to pick out a pass, as well as to use his body effectively, but he’s had to refine some details in order to play in defence, where the margins for error are slimmer.
The physical side of the game is one area in particular where Norman time overseas did him well. For one thing, he improved his understanding of how to toe the line — in the CPL, he averaged a yellow card roughly every four games and in his last ever match for Cavalry he was sent off — but he also learned how better to use his 6-2 frame.
“I played alongside some great, very well-respected senior centre-backs in both Northampton and St. Patrick’s that I think have helped my game immensely,” he said. “Tactically, I’ve grown in the position; I think I’ve grown physically as well, in what a top-level centre-back needs. Put that along with the technical aspect, my left foot; I like to think that the past year has really helped me in my development as a player in that position.”
Norman will therefore provide some much-needed experience from abroad to a young Vancouver defensive group. Though only 25, he’s coming back to the CPL with rapidly-acquired veteran savvy.
Understanding what it takes to win in high-pressure situations, like must-win league matches or do-or-die cup games, could propel VFC toward the playoffs in an ultra-competitive CPL.
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