Jack O'Connell takes big step in Sheffield United injury recovery as warning issued
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O'Connell has not played for over two years, twice going under the knife in a bid to correct the knee issue that has derailed a career that was surely heading towards international honours after an impressive first season at Premier League level with the Blades.
The 28-year-old has been working hard in his bid to regain fitness, training privately at a gym before taking another step by running at United's Shirecliffe base - and, importantly, reporting no adverse effects.
"He's been running, he's been on the grass," Heckingbottom confirmed. "Light running. Everything with Jack will be led by how he reacts to things but for him, for his own mind and everyone else, it's great to see him out there running again.
"It shows he's making those steps. But like I've said before, there's got to be zero pressure on where he is, because he's been further than this before and had setbacks.
"But it's nice to see, because he works harder than anyone in here every day and it's great that he's outside and doing something different."
During his long spell out O'Connell has worked closely with Nathan Winder, United's strength and conditioning coach, on both his own rehabilitation and on helping put his injured teammates through their paces.
Oli McBurnie, the United striker, has previously spoken of being put through his paces by O'Connell in the gym during pre-season, hailing the left-sided defender's "incredible" mentality and dedication to his rehab work.
"People just like having Jack around the place," Heckingbottom continued.
"He comes in and works harder than anyone, so from my point of view I love it when he's in. I love it when he's in the gym and working with whoever's injured in there, working with Nathan in the S&C unit.
"He probably pushes Nathan harder than Nathan pushes him. I love having Jack about. So I think it's more people pleased for him, when they see him doing something that looks progressive and like it's going in the right direction.
"People understand where he is and what he's been going through, so it's nice to see him out there."
O'Connell's injury nightmare also offers a sense of perspective around Bramall Lane, after back-to-back defeats saw their lead over third-placed Middlesbrough cut to only four points in the race for the Premier League.
"That's happening all the time when they see him, there'll always be someone chatting to him," Heckingbottom said. "When Rhys [Norrington-Davies] played left centre-back earlier this season, Jack was speaking to him about it and that's someone who hasn't played for 18 months.
"So perspective, yeah. We've spoken about that a lot. We're about results but there's another example, it's so important.
"Having him about for me is great, I just wish we could do more for him. Because we feel as helpless as he does, in terms of time.
"But it's one of those things. Time is the only thing we can do."