When Oliver Norburn stepped off the bench at Fratton Park in September, for the final minutes of the first game of the season, hardly anyone knew another battle was at play, anguish running through his veins. Three days earlier he rushed to the Royal Bolton hospital after his pregnant fiancee, Lucy, called in tears when a routine 20-week scan indicated difficulties. “On the way back [from Portsmouth] things were playing on my mind and I just wanted to get home,” he says. “We went to see a specialist on the Monday and it was just awful news. Me and my missus had a little bit of time together and on the Thursday she had to give birth, which was tough.”
That day Norburn cradled baby Louie for the first and last time. For almost an hour he speaks with enormous strength, detailing an exhausting episode from an executive box overlooking the New Meadow pitch. There are tears and moments of silence, when only the groundsman’s mowing can be heard, but Norburn’s first answer, an attempt to unpack the past few weeks, is four minutes’ long; he stresses the brilliance of the midwives on the ward, the ceaseless strength of his partner and wanting to fight on for Shrewsbury Town, as captain of the League One club. When his sentence ends, his lips quiver and his voice cracks. “Better out than in … [you’re] one of the first people I’ve cried to,” he says, with the smallest of smiles.
Norburn takes a swig of water, a few deep breaths and returns to why he was so desperate to throw himself back into football, having missed only one league match amid the unbearable sadness. “I was planning to be involved on the Saturday … but it was too much, I don’t think I could have done it,” says the 28-year-old, who spent that weekend with Lucy, her mum, and Lilly, their three-year-old daughter, at a log cabin near Lytham, feeding the ducks and playing hide and seek. “Normal daddy stuff,” he says. “Seeing the smile on her face makes everything feel that little bit easier.
“On the Sunday I said: ‘I want to go back to work, I want to crack on.’ I played on the Tuesday night in an EFL [Trophy] game and since then I’ve been back in and been involved. That night was really tough because I’d say I was fighting through it more than ever but I knew if I got past that first hurdle in terms of playing, I knew how I would be. It’s my release, it’s my way out but there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think about him …”
Norburn grabs a tissue and composes himself. Billy Sharp, whose newborn son, Luey, died in 2011, and Joe Riley, a former Shrewsbury teammate whose son, Leo Joseph, was stillborn two years ago, are among hundreds to have reached out in support. “It really is a pain you cannot imagine until you go through it. I’ve seen these guys in the spotlight go through it but until you walk in those shoes, you can’t begin to imagine it.
“I’d say if anyone is going through a similar situation and finds it really difficult, it is best to speak and have memories. I spent the night with baby Louie, I’ve got pictures and we’ve got his ashes at home. I feel very grateful that the hospital and the ward let us spend the night with the little man. I think it is definitely best to speak about it. I’ve never been the type of person to speak about problems before, I’d bottle things up, so this is the toughest thing I’ve been through in my life. I’m going to try and use it in the future as a positive tool, thinking that my son is shining down on me and I can do him proud.”
Norburn inevitably has his moments, as he puts it, but he and Lucy have tried to shelter Lilly from some of the pain. “You don’t want her to see you getting too emotional. It’s something we speak about to Lilly, because she was expecting a brother or sister. She is aware of what has happened, not to what extent, but she knows baby Louie has gone to heaven and he’s left her a teddy bear. He will be with us for ever.”
That trip to Portsmouth was, understandably, a bit of a blur. At the hotel he confided in Shaun Whalley, his roommate and a close friend. The day before they travelled, 24 hours after being told his son was suffering with severe brain and kidney problems, he went into the manager’s office to inform Sam Ricketts the delicacy of the situation. “I told him I didn’t want anyone to know. He said: ‘Listen, if you don’t feel up to it, take your time,’ and basically put everything in my court. He was top class. One of the lads asked me: ‘How’s your missus doing?’ And I had to clench my teeth because I didn’t want anyone to know.”
Norburn has started Shrewsbury’s past six matches and, should the midfielder score against Burton on Tuesday, he has a celebration in mind. On his right wrist, he has added Louie’s name, a cherub and angel wings to a tattoo sleeve also decorated with a poem in tribute to his grandfather. “That’s my way of having him with me,” Norburn says. “I’m hoping if I start scoring that’s what I can kiss when I’ve scored because he’s always going to be there with me. I think about him all the time and the aim is just to do him proud.”