One player who doesn’t seem to get as much attention as others in the United team but who has proved his importance is Jack O’Connell.
He didn’t start the season well, and suffered more than most in the dreadful home defeat to Southend United. First a cross deflected off his thigh and looped high over George Long and in, then he embarrassingly lost the ball to Nile Ranger for Southend’s third in the first fifteen minutes.
The following Saturday O’Connell gave away a last-minute penalty, which gave Millwall a 2-1 win. O’Connell was the man left out when Jake Wright came in for the home game against Oxford United, the first win of the first unbeaten run. At this stage it didn’t look too promising for the man signed from Brentford.
But when a player has captained a team to promotion as a nineteen-year-old, as he did when on loan at Rochdale, you now he must have something about him. Injuries to first John Fleck and then James Wilson earned O’Connell a recall at Gillingham, but a few weeks out of the team followed as illness coincided with Chris Basham’s return from suspension. An injury to Jake Wright got him his place back and he has been a fixture ever since.
Being left-footed brings a necessary balance to the team in the formation United play, allowing him to support Daniel Lafferty, and O’Connell has shown on the occasions he’s finished a game at left back that getting forward and putting in a good cross is not beyond him.
But it’s in his duels with big centre forwards that O’Connell is in his element. His battle with Wimbledon’s Tom Elliott was great to watch, with both men going full tilt at each other with barely a foul either way. O’Connell also had Bolton’s beanpole Conor Wilkinson in his pocket.
But of course there are still flaws, as O’Connell is part of a defence that has conceded a few more goals than we would have liked, but that can be forgiven considering the team’s overall performances. One thing I particularly like about O’Connell is the way he celebrates – or doesn’t celebrate – his goals. Kieron Freeman has rightly been getting all the press for his scoring prowess, but O’Connell has quietly accumulated six goals. You might not remember them, but he has scored against Grimsby in the EFL Trophy, Bolton in the FA Cup, Scunthorpe, Southend, Walsall and Charlton. Each time he has simply turned away, slapped hands with his nearest teammate and jogged back to his defensive position. No knee slides, no jumping in the crowd, no shirts pulled off and waved around. He also wears black boots. All very 1950s, but all great to see. Let’s hope we see a few more such no-frills celebrations from him before the end of April.