Match Analysis: Why Jack O’Connell was dreading his journey home despite helping Sheffield United score a hugely significant win over Rotherham United
When Mark Duffy finally put the game beyond Rotherham's reach, Jack O'Connell knew the long drive home had just got even longer.
"It does my head in," he admitted, before heading back across the Pennines to his native North-West. "Every time I score, he scores, which means I've never had a man of the match award yet. But the worst of it is, he's waiting for me in the car outside. And you know, being what he's like, that we won't be talking about anything else until we get out at the other end.”
In truth O'Connell, whose earlier effort had laid the foundations for Sheffield United's victory, was probably quite looking forward to reliving this game with his fellow Liverpudlian. For long periods, despite being reduced to 10 men following Will Vaulks' sending-off, the visitors proved tougher to break down than the defender's thick Scouse brogue as they fought, hustled and frustrated. Eventually, however, United's persistence was rewarded and they made sure of a result both managers described as deserved.
Although on paper, with Paul Warne's side battling against relegation, this was not the most eye-catching win of United's season so far, it was certainly one of the most revealing and significant. After passing the footballing tests devised by recent opponents such as Middlesbrough and West Bromwich Albion, Rotherham arrived intent on discovering if Chris Wilder's players were equipped to survive a physical fight ahead of a pivotal week in their campaign. The fact they confirmed they are, briefly climbing to second before returning to third when Leeds beat Bristol City later that afternoon, was a source of encouragement to Wilder and his player ahead of Tuesday's meeting with Brentford and Saturday's showdown at Elland Road. It is now six league games since United last conceded a goal on home soil.
"We can mix it up, we have got a bit everything," Connell, who opened the scoring from an Oliver Norwood corner, continued. "I think you need to have that if you want to be a successful team. It was good that we scored from a set-piece against Rotherham because that is their strength.
"The attention to detail, we worked on their long throws, their set-pieces, that’s what they are good at. We got the clean sheet, which was important."
United's triumph, as the 24-year-old outlined, could be attributed to an irresistible combination of brain and brawn; something which bodes well for the final 10 stages of their Championship grand tour. The South Yorkshire derby, potentially the final one at Bramall Lane for the next 12 months, also provided an opportunity to trace the development of the two squads after Rotherham had exposed some flaws in United's armoury en route to a 2-2 draw at New York Stadium 15 weeks ago.
"We knew it was going to be a physical game, like I said," O'Connell explained. "We let ourselves down in the first game at their place. We got bullied a bit, and weren’t going to let that happen at our place in front of our own fans.
"We made sure we were physical with them and then when we could play, we played."
The most pleasing aspect of the afternoon from Wilder's perspective, other than the result of course, was the manner in which it was achieved. United confronted Rotherham head-on but crucially kept their heads and their concentration. The same, unfortunately for Warne, could not be said of Vaulks whose first-half challenge on George Baldock left referee Geoff Eltringham with little option other than to produce a red card. Now ruled-out of matches against Queens Park Rangers, leaders Norwich City and top six hopefuls Derby County, the Rotherham captain's carelessness could damage his team's hopes of survival. Still, despite remaining a point from safety, they showed enough to suggest all is not lost. Particularly after being placed at a numerical disadvantage.
"I thought character-wise we performed today how everyone would have expected us," Joe Newell, the Rotherham midfielder, said. "It was never going to be questioned. The sending off changed the game and we had to concede possession and conceded the play and try and stay in the game as best we could. We obviously gave it our all but it wasn’t enough because their quality shined through."
Warne uses footage of Billy Sharp to tutor his centre-forwards and must have been delighted when Wilder, tasking David McGoldrick and Scott Hogan with spearheading his attack, omitted the captain from United's starting eleven. But the contest was barely five minutes old when O'Connell, after Norwood had dragged the ball low across the box, swept it past Marek Rodak.
McGoldrick and Hogan both had chances to extend United's lead either side of Vaulks' dismissal, with the latter doing well to convert at the near post only for his effort to be ruled-out for an earlier infringement, while Rodak denied both Baldock and John Fleck.
Rotherham were close to achieving their objective of taking the match into the closing stages, Warne later explaining they planned to "open up" during the final 10 minutes, when Duffy produced another moment of brilliance; converting from long-range with a powerful finish beyond the Slovak.
"Mine was the first set-piece we worked on in training the day before," O'Connell admitted. "So it was nice to see that come off. Duff's was a great strike but I'll have to pretend he didn't mean it."
Sheffield United: Henderson, O'Connell, Egan, Basham (Madine 65), Stevens, Baldock, Norwood, Fleck, Duffy, McGoldrick (Cranie 85), Hogan. Not used: Moore, Coutts, Stearman, Dowell, Sharp.
Rotherham United: Rodak, Mattock, Vaulks, Ajayi, Taylor (Forde 69), Robertson, Ihiekwe, Newell (Williams 69), Smith, Wiles, Jones (Crooks 82). Not used: Wood, Price, Towell, Yates.
Referee: Geoff Eltringham (County Durham).Attendance: 27,402