Sheffield United: Jack O’Connell, the appliance of science and Norwich City
Earlier this week Jack O'Connell packed away his boots, forgot all about the rigors of trying to gain promotion from the Championship and opened up a textbook instead.
With Sheffield United fourth in the table and about to play a match with their power to shape their destiny, it might seem like a strange thing for the defender to do. But O'Connell, who is pursuing a sports science degree at university in the North-West, believes his life in academia has benefited his footballing career.
"I know a lot more about my body now," O'Connell admitted. "The physiology of the degree has taught me what my limits are. I know and understand much better how far I can push myself."
This weekend, when Chris Wilder's side face fellow Premier League hopefuls Norwich City at Carrow Road, O'Connell is expected to make the 104th consecutive start of his United career. It is an achievement which has required him to defy aches, pains and injury on numerous occasions and made even more remarkable by the fact, given the manager's preference for over-lapping centre-halves, that he covers over 7 miles per game.
United travel to Norfolk tomorrow evening three points and two places behind Daniel Farke's team in the race for the top-flight next term. Given their superior goal difference, victory tomorrow would see Wilder's squad overtake their opponents and potentially move within touching distance of Leeds, who face Norwich next weekend.
A critical figure in United's plans for this crucial contest, O'Connell explained how the visitors' 'all guns blazing approach' masks a cerebral streak.
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"Knilly (assistant manager Alan Knill) is always pulling me aside and showing me little bits and pieces of footage on DVD," O'Connell said. "He tries to get me watching football rather than the sports science stuff. The two, though, seem to go together really well.
"Seriously, the staff here have been brilliant because they're making me better and they're always showing me clips of games, highlighting things that I can do better and encouraging the rest of the lads including myself."
With only West Bromwich Albion scoring more goals on home soil than City so far this term, nullifying one of the division's most prolific attacks is bound to have featured prominently on the agenda at United's training complex over the past four days.
Given the opposition's propensity for scoring late - nearly two thirds of their efforts have come during the second-half of games - O'Connell acknowledged focus and concentration, combined with positional sense, are likely to help decide the outcome of this potentially explosive fixture. United centre-forwards Billy Sharp and David McGoldrick, signed from City's arch-rivals Ipswich Town, have netted a combined total of 11 times since the beginning of December.
"I've not had many yellow cards which is good," O'Connell said. "But sometimes you have to take on for the team. I just try and stay on my feet and defend properly. All I can do is try to perform and work hard in training."