Sheffield Derby: Jack O’Connell's commitment proves Sheffield United are heading in the right direction as they approach Monday’s clash at Hillsborough
Chris Wilder was relaxing on the terrace of a hotel in Portugal when he received confirmation Jack O'Connell was a player in demand.
Sipping a cup of water after overseeing a pre-season training session, Sheffield United's manager opened a text message on his mobile explaining Brighton and Hove Albion had expressed an interest in signing the former Brentford centre-half.
His response, given that West Bromwich Albion were already courting Simon Moore, was not for publication. With only a couple of weeks to go before the start of a new Championship campaign, the last thing United needed was to lose two important players. The fact both are still in situ, with O'Connell signing a long-term contract ahead of Monday's visit to Sheffield Wednesday, is a testament to both the progress the club has made and the squad's togetherness behind the scenes.
"It's great news about Jack," Wilder said. "The club has given him an opportunity but he's taken the opportunity too."
O'Connell, who is now tied to United until 2023, is a key figure in United's plans for next week's derby at Hillsborough and beyond. The defender, available for selection after recovering from the hamstring injury which has forced him to miss their last three games, is expected to be pitched into action after Wilder and his staff erred on the side of caution ahead of the victory over West Bromwich Albion six days ago.
Having prepared for the fixture in second-place, although the landscape could change over the course of this weekend, United will travel across the city with more than pride at stake. After predicting Steve Bruce's appointment means Wednesday are likely to ditch the conservative tactics which saw them grind-out a goalless draw at Bramall Lane earlier this term, being able to call upon someone of O'Connell's stature is a major boost to Wilder’s plans.
Previously under-valued and relatively unheralded, the 24-year-old is, in a sense, the ideal poster boy for a team whose talent exceeds their individual reputations. While Wednesday were spending lavishly in the transfer market, before the EFL's financial regulations intervened, Wilder adopted a different approach; recruiting players of untapped potential for, until John Egan also arrived from Griffin Park, pretty modest fees.
With captain Billy Sharp turning 33 last month, O'Connell has been touted as a future United skipper by some supporters although, despite refusing to rule that out, Wilder insisted: "All players here have to be captains. Yes, Billy is a brilliant one, with how he goes about it on the pitch and away from it as well. But you see some fantastic examples of that here. Olly (Norwood), John, Paul Coutts and Jack have all worn the armband at some stage. Mind you, I don't see Bill wanting to or being happy to give it up for some time yet."
By committing his future to United, O'Connell has seen his value soar. Having commanded a £500,000 fee when he left London three years ago, he is now thought to be worth over 30 times that amount. Sharp and Enda Stevens, acquired on a free transfer and now a Republic of Ireland international, have also recently put pen to paper on fresh agreements.
"When I first came in, I didn't see too many assets at the football club," Wilder, who took charge in 2016, said. "I think that's changed now. I think we have assets now." "Whether you want to see that as protecting an investment or rewarding people for performances, I don't think it really matters and I'm not too concerned to be honest. The fact is, these lads are all under contract."