Seven months on from his darkest days in a red and white shirt, Jack O’Connell exorcised some personal demons at Bramall Lane last night as Sheffield United took another giant step towards the Championship.
The defender’s last outing against Millwall saw him concede a last-minute penalty at The Den in August, as United slipped to a 2-1 defeat and went bottom of League One.
Days earlier, he’d scored an own goal and given another away in a 3-0 home defeat to Southend. But his own turnaround has been almost as impressive as United’s and, largely because of his standout performance here last night, his side are now 13 points ahead of third-placed Fleetwood with just six games remaining.
“If there’s a better left-sided centre-half in this division this season, I’m yet to see it,” admitted manager Chris Wilder on the eve of this game, and O’Connell’s display here will have done little to change his mind. He dealt excellently with the different threats posed by Lee Gregory and Steve Morison and then popped up at the other end with United’s opener, before helping to create their second.
All before his 23rd birthday, which he celebrates today. The boy signed from Brentford is fast becoming a man.
United were in control of the first half without totally cruising, and showed a small glimpse of how far they’ve come since the last meeting between these two sides when Millwall’s Ben Thompson unleashed a volley from an almost identical distance to Shaun Williams’ opener at The Den.
This time a United player was quick to the danger, with O’Connell throwing himself in the way.
Then, as the heavens opened at Bramall Lane, so did the floodgates as United enjoyed three great opportunities to break the deadlock within 30 seconds; Billy Sharp O’Connell and John Fleck all denied by an equal combination of good defending and good fortune.
But O’Connell seemed determined to make amends and it seemed almost inevitable that he would, powering home a header in the 16th minute from Fleck’s corner.
The goal was his sixth goal of the season - and, judging by his celebration, one of the more memorable ones.
Paul Coutts, the architect of almost everything United did well in an enthralling first half and one of three players recalled after Saturday’s draw at Oldham, almost netted a superb second when he cut inside his marker and let fly from long-range on his left foot. The stunning speed and trajectory of the effort was matched only by the save, as Jordan Archer flew to his right and turned the ball over.
Archer departed moments later with an unspecified injury, replaced by Tom King, but only a desperate, late foul from Jake Wright protected King’s opposite number Simon Moore from a rare scare as Jed Wallace threatened to burst away down the left.
Ex-Blade Kevin Gage described United’s first half display as ‘champagne football with Pomagne finishing’ and their bubble was almost burst minutes into the second half, when the hosts failed to clear the ball on at least three occasions before the returning Danny Lafferty eventually hacked to safety.
Morison, who converted the winning penalty in the corresponding fixture in the capital, replaced Fred Onyedinma six minutes after the break as Millwall boss Neil Harris searched for a way back into the game.
But those hopes took a blow moments later when Freeman curled home his tenth goal of a remarkable campaign - with O’Connell again heavily involved. He stretched every sinew to keep the ball in play down the left, and then almost wiped out Mark Duffy as he took charge and marauded down the wing.
His ball inside found Duffy, who fed Freeman and a delightful curling finish into the far corner put United well and truly in command.
From then on, United were rampant and only Moore’s powers of concentration, rather than his reflexes, were tested when Thompson unleashed another tame effort from long distance.
Wright, still to taste defeat in a United shirt, showed his experience and a nice turn of pace to deny Wallace as he raced towards United’s goal and when the United defender was eventually caught out by Wallace’s well-weighted through-ball, Sheffield-born Lee Gregory inexplicably shot wide as Moore raced out - and caught a knock for his trouble.
If results elsewhere also go their way, United can be promoted next Wednesday if they beat Coventry City at home.
Wilder dipped his hand in his pocket for a few beers on the way back from Millwall in August and, as his side took another giant step towards Championship football next season with victory over them here, he was the toast of Bramall Lane.