The centre-half, who was being touted for England honours before sustaining a knee injury, has spent nearly two years on the sidelines after suffering a series of setbacks since undergoing surgery in September 2020.
Heckingbottom was asked if O’Connell was any closer to a recovery during a media briefing at United’s training complex, designed to coincide with the release of the new Championship fixture schedule.
Although he again refused to predict when - or indeed if - O’Connell will return, Heckingbottom did reveal the former Brentford defender had been close to a comeback during his spell in caretaker charge the season before last.
“With Jack, it’s a tough place to be,” he said. “He’s handled himself the same way all the way through, which is brilliantly.
“In the Premier League, when I was in charge then, there were times when we actually had him training. He was upping his load and was desperate, really itching, to get a place on the bench. Then he had a set-back.
“It’s a tough place to be as I say, because if you are dropped as a player then you feel as if there’s something you can do about it. That isn’t the case, obviously, when you are injured. It’s different.”
Now aged 28, O’Connell’s attacking prowess made him one of the most influential members of the United squad which reached the top-flight, going on to finish ninth in the table, under Heckingbottom’s predecessor Chris Wilder. His absence was cited as a major factor behind United’s relegation a season later, given the effect it had on the dynamics of their pioneering take on the 3-5-2 system.
Cautioning people against making judgements about whether or not O’Connell will eventually be forced to retire, Heckingbottom said: “As a professional athlete, you try as long as you can. And it’s wrong for anyone to be talking about it. It’s a personal thing. Jack will decide what happens. Not me or anyone else.”
"He’s getting the support he needs,” Heckingbottom continued, “From us and his friends and family.”