Why does the Sheffield United centre-half think Jake Wright is such a damn good defender? And what are the qualities which, in his opinion at least, make the 31-year-old one of the Championship’s very best?
“More than anything else it’s his presence,” O’Connell replies. “He’s a leader, he’s a talker and, with the way we play, I like to get forward. Jake makes me feel comfortable doing that.”
O’Connell is standing on the terrace of the Steelphalt Academy as, clutching a steaming hot cup of tea, he waxes lyrical about subjects including terrace chants, television pundits and, given that his partner is England international Alex Greenwood, women’s football. But even though the wind whipping across United’s training complex is not conducive to conversation, the 24-year-old’s admiration for Wright comes across loud and clear. A little bit, it quickly becomes apparent, like the former Oxford United and Halifax Town captain’s instructions during a game.
“The importance of good communication has been lost a little bit,” O’Connell continues. “I don’t think enough people realise how crucial, especially in our position, being a good talker is. Wrighty is a really experienced player and he brings that side of the game much better than I do. He makes you feel really relaxed because, no matter what it going on out there, he lets you knows about it. But, on top of that, he’s a really good footballer too.”
Despite being at opposite ends of their respective careers - Wright, who is expected to start tonight’s game against Burton Albion, is seven years O’Connell’s senior - the two men share plenty in common. Indeed, given the circumstances in which they arrived at Bramall Lane, both are poster boys for Chris Wilder’s United revolution. Like Wright, O’Connell was criminally under-valued by his former club Brentford after spending much of his time in west London elsewhere on loan. Although Wright appeared to have put down roots at the Kassam Stadium, helping guide the club out of the Conference and into League One, the manner of his departure also left a sour taste after Michael Appleton, now Leicester City’s assistant manager, announced he was surplus to requirements less than eight weeks after gaining promotion. His statistics with United, who have won nearly 80 per cent of the games in which Wright has featured and cruised to the title last term, highlight both the absurdity of that decision and Wilder’s ability to identify unfulfilled potential.
“For different reasons, there’s quite a few of us here who have got points to prove,” O’Connell admits. “It didn’t work out for me at Brentford and so I’ve got something to prove. Wrighty is proving that he’s good enough for the Championship and he definitely is. He had the same thing to prove (in League One) last season and I think he did that and some.”
The success Wright and O’Connell have enjoyed in South Yorkshire, both individually and as part of a squad which travels to the Pirelli Stadium second in the table, two points behind leaders Wolves, sheds light on another key principle of Wilder’s regime. Very different players, they pool their resources to ensure the strength of United’s defence is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a tactic which has also been employed to good effect further up the pitch too, where Leon Clarke and Billy Sharp, who Wilder recently conceded “sacrifice something of themselves”, enter the meeting with Burton having scored a total of six goals in United’s last four games.
“I just need to keep playing the way I have,” O’Connell says. “I think I have started well this season. I think I had a good season last season and I just wanted to carry it on in the Championship and I think I have done that.”
Whereas O’Connell brings brute power and, on the overlap with Cameron Carter-Vickers, an attacking threat, Wright’s greatest strength is arguably self-awareness. Preferring to focus on stopping a goal rather than scoring one - something he has not done since 2006 - his refusal to take risks provides a platform for his defensive colleagues to do exactly that.
“Sometimes, the fans just want foreign-type defenders to play forward and sometimes, they play backwards and they get a bit agitated,” O’Connell admits. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with just putting it in the stands every now and again. The Tottenham defenders, they are strong and good on the ball and at stepping out; (Jan) Vertonghen and (Toby) Alderweireld are good because they’ll do both. But, when you listen to some people on the TV, they do have a habit of exaggerating things when a defender makes a mistake and not doing the same when it’s a midfielder or forward.”
As well as studying Spurs’ Belgian duo, O’Connell also draws inspiration from Serie A, La Liga and even USA international Carter-Vickers will be pleased to discover, the MLS. The women’s game, where his girlfriend Chapman is forging an excellent reputation with Liverpool Ladies and England, is another source of interest.
“She will give me constructive criticism, like my brothers do,” O’Connell acknowledges. “She will come down and watch my game after training and if we are off Sunday’s, I can go and watch her. They play at Widnes.
“If there’s any game on, whether it is Italian, Spanish or even American, I will still watch it. I enjoy watching it, you can learn from watching it.”