Together with his fellow wing-back Enda Stevens, George Baldock has been one of Sheffield United’s most consistent and improved performers in the Premier League this term.
But Jack O’Connell was named as the club’s player of the year at The Star’s annual football awards thanks to a series of commanding displays which, before coronavirus forced the competition into lockdown, have seen him earn the respect of team mates, supporters and opponents alike.
Although the sheer volume of potential candidates reflects just how well Chris Wilder’s squad has performed since last season’s promotion from the Championship, it seemed appropriate a defender received the award given the rearguard’s contribution to recent results. Only one side - runaway leaders Liverpool - have conceded fewer goals, while all of the division’s leading 10 names have scored more.
At the beginning of the campaign, with United set to face some of the most explosive and expensively assembled attacks on the planet, the general consensus among the game’s so-called experts was that Wilder’s men not only lacked enough firepower to compete, they would also be too fragile. Nothing could be further from the truth, with the exploits of those at the back ensuring when Lys Mousset, Oli McBurnie and Billy Sharp have found the back of the net, their efforts have been match-winners or match-savers rather than consolations.
Perhaps most impressively, however, is the sight of United climbing to seventh in the table without compromising on style.
O’Connell, one of the overlapping centre-halves whose presence would supposedly undermine their survival hopes, has been instrumental in ensuring Wilder’s side have not only succeeded, but succeeded by staying true to the principles. Indeed, by making 1328 passes, he is one of the most creative central defenders in the whole division.
"We talk about players we want to build a future around," Wilder, when the 26-year-old agreed a new long term contract, said. "Jack is one of those.
"I think he's been a brilliant fit for us and he's shown exactly the right attitude. You can't have too many people like him at a club and, as far as I'm concerned and I know Jack is too, he can keep on getting better. He's done brilliant but he can still definitely improve."
Physically imposing and yet still comfortable on the ball, it can not be long before O’Connell forces himself into the international picture if he continues to develop at the same speed. Gareth Southgate, the England manager, has already watched him on a number of occasions and, despite ostensibly visiting Bramall Lane to check on goalkeeper Dean Henderson’s progress, must have been impressed by the Liverpudlian.
But O’Connell got the nod thanks to his selfless determination, energy and talent: Three key pillars of United’s football philosophy.