O’Connell has not played since undergoing surgery to cure the long-standing problem in September, with his absence recognised as a major factor behind United’s relegation from the Premier League.
Speaking ahead of Saturday’s game against Brighton and Hove Albion - their first since being mathematically demoted following last weekend’s defeat by Wolverhampton Wanderers, Heckingbottom all but admitted O’Connell is now working towards starting next season rather than featuring again this term.
“He’s passed everything we’ve been doing with him so far,” Heckingbottom said. “He’s been loading up the work that he’s been doing on his knee and that’s gone okay so far.
“But if at any stage he feels discomfort or something goes, then we’ll have to look at doing something a little bit different and start over.
“So far, fingers crossed, he’s doing everything he needs to be. But, like I say, if something happens then we’ll have to look at the situation again. He’s had one set-back and we don’t want there to be another.”
With Chris Basham, Sander Berge, Billy Sharp and Oli McBurnie among those ruled-out of the meeting with Albion, Heckingbottom hexpressed his frustration at being unable to select from a full complement of players since taking charge on an interim basis last month.
Although Basham, Sharp and McBurnie are still a long way short of fitness, Berge and defender Jack Robinson have been making progress, with the latter stepping-up his rehabilitation this week.
“Sander, it’s just really building up his minutes now and yes, I do expect to see him in a United shirt before the end,” Heckingbottom said. “Jack is also coming along well, but he’s a little bit behind where Sander is at.”
“It’s just a shame that we don’t have everyone available,” Heckingbottom added. “Who knows, if that had been the case all the way through then things might well have been different. These are good players we’re talking about here,”