Sheffield United: Jack O’Connell talks blood, sweat, science and Brentford

Jack O'Connell is set to face his former club Brentford tomorrow night: Simon Bellis/Sportimage)
Jack O'Connell is set to face his former club Brentford tomorrow night: Simon Bellis/Sportimage)

Brentford are so obsessed by data, so completely enthralled by analytics, one imagines Griffin Park's bootroom houses banks of computers rather than pages of indecipherable scribble about formations, transfer targets and lukewarm mugs of tea.

Sheffield United have also embraced the appliance of science but, as he prepares for tomorrow's meeting with his former club, Jack O'Connell insists there is still a place for sweat and hard work too.

"Training has got even tougher, even more full on than last year. But that's part and parcel of how we do things here and, because of the way we want to go about things, it demands you put a shift in every single day."

Plenty has been written about United's latest opponents and their 'Moneyball' methods although, as owner Matthew Benham once told journalists, he actually "hates" the "misleading" term. But the gambler turned businessman continues to fascinate because of the data-driven approach, after acquiring the team in 2012, he introduced behind the scenes.

O'Connell still appreciates the importance of statistics. Indeed it recently emerged he has enrolled on a sports science degree course at university. But three years after Benham's boffins identified his potential, and two since moving to Bramall Lane, O'Connell believes football is still essentially about humans. Aches, pains and all. It is that understanding which, after 17 frustrating months in West London, has helped him blossom into one of the Championship's most effective centre-halves.

"We've got older as players and physically better as well," O'Connell says, tracing United's journey from League One title-winners to Premier League contenders under manager Chris Wilder. "The staff here are working hard behind the scenes on body fat at the moment so hopefully, when it comes to the latter stages of the season, we don't get that tired.

Jack O'Connell (centre) has blossomed on and off the pitch with Sheffield United

Jack O'Connell (centre) has blossomed on and off the pitch with Sheffield United

"I've been looking at my stats and they're really high but I'm getting used to it. They're really high here. I'm coming in at something like 11.5km per game which is pretty unheard of for someone in my position. But I love it, that physical side of things, because we get licence to go forward."

"Funnily enough, I'm doing a sports science degree at the moment," he adds. "I'm four years deep so there's no turning back. The research and the essays are the hardest part because, after training when you're tired, you've got to travel to Manchester for a couple of hours then go home and work again."

Despite supposedly being positioned at opposite ends of the spectrum, Wilder clearly has a thing for Brentford players. He has signed two since being appointed while another, goalkeeper Simon Moore, spent four seasons there earlier in his career.

Speaking to O'Connell, it quickly becomes apparent United's 'old school' image is as clichéd as attempts to paint Benham as 'The British Billy Bean.' After all, their scouting system identified his true potential and their tactics which unlocked it.

Chris Wilder demands a lot of Sheffield United's players: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Chris Wilder demands a lot of Sheffield United's players: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

The same could potentially be said of John Egan who, after leaving Brentford this summer, has forged an excellent partnership with O'Connell at the heart of Wilder's rearguard. Barring injury or illness, the two are expected to be tasked with helping fifth-placed United nullify the threat posed by Neal Maupay and Sergi Canós as Thomas Frank searches for only his second win in charge. The Dane, previously of Brøndby IF, has overseen six games so far.

"It's just hard work and repetition in training every day," O'Connell says. "We do a lot of training as a back three and as a back five against the strikers. That, the repetition, really is the key."

"It's been a good understanding," O'Connell continues. "John came in but he'd never really played our formation so he struggled at first. But we've worked well on the training ground and now everyone can see what a player he is."

United travel south five points behind leaders Norwich City following Saturday's draw with Rotherham. Wilder is expected to make changes after criticising his side's performance at New York Stadium but, like O'Connell, thinks his squad is now better equipped than the one held 1-1 the corresponding fixture last term.

Jack O'Connell says he has benefited from the manager's methods: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Jack O'Connell says he has benefited from the manager's methods: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

"Yes, the players the gaffer has brought in have got Championship experience, so I think we are better than last season," O'Connell says." And the players that are here from last season are better as well. Because of the hard work we do.

"It’s up for grabs. There’s not like a Fulham or a Wolves that’s running away with it, it’s about being consistent and that's something we're aiming to be. We're always striving to get better."

Identifying keeping "clean sheets" as another area where United have collective room for improvement - they have kept five since August - O'Connell believes Wilder's exacting regime can bring individual benefits too.

"The human body is funny, it has no limits, but hopefully I can just keep getting fitter and fitter. I believe I can. 

"There’s a lot more in my locker, I’m still quite young and fresh, so hopefully I can get more out of myself."

Sheffield United defender Chris Basham

Sheffield United defender Chris Basham