Sheffield United: Jack O'Connell's big contribution behind the scenes is revealed
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Despite not taking part in a first team game for over two years and with his contract set to expire at the end of the season, Paul Heckingbottom has told The Star that O’Connell remains a key figure behind the scenes at Bramall Lane. Particularly in the gym, where both colleagues and coaching staff alike are benefitting from his expertise as they prepare for matches.
“I want him to be a part of it,” Heckingbottom said. “It was great when we went away in pre-season and Jack was running the gym, getting Oli (McBurnie) to do little bits extra and stuff like that. People really get a lot out of it and it shouldn’t be under-estimated, the work that he’s doing. The only trouble is, we are the ones who see it. Nobody else does, because of where it’s happening. But trust me, it’s important.”
“I’ve done a few circuits with Jac but I’m not fit enough at the moment,” Heckingbottom added. “I might try and get back to them later this month.”
Second in the Championship table and nine points clear of third placed Blackburn Rovers, United enjoy a break from the pressure of trying to win promotion when they visit Millwall in the FA Cup this weekend. Gary Rowett’s men are sixth, meaning the expected absences of Max Lowe, Ciaran Clark and McBurnie threaten to complicate United’s plans for a fixture Heckingbottom insisted he is “determined” to try and win. With Rhys Norrington-Davies and Rhian Brewster facing more prolonged periods on the sidelines, O’Connell, aged 28, is also making his presence felt away from the weights and aerobic exercise machines too.
“Jack sets the right example to lads in his situation too,” Heckingbottom continued. “One of the things that everyone always knew about Jack, when he was performing so well at the highest level, was that he was totally committed and disciplined regarding everything he did.”
O’Connell was one of the most talked about centre-halves in the country when, after helping United reach the Premier League in 2019, his swashbuckling approach proved a driving force behind their ninth-placed finish a year later. Chris Wilder, who oversaw United’s rise from League One to the brink of Europe, later described the news that he required surgery on a long-standing knee complaint as one of the factors behind the club’s relegation a season later.
Heckingbottom, who took charge on a permanent basis 14 months ago, revealed O’Connell had been close to returning on “several” occasions after he replaced Wilder in a caretaker capacity.
“We all want Jack to play again, us and the fans,” Heckingbottom replied, when explicitly asked if O’Connell might recover before his deal expires. “But we are also well aware about how complicated the injury is.
“There’s no pressure from us. The last thing we want to do is put pressure on him. Hopefully he keeps progressing day by day. We know he’s a tough lad and has got the mental strength to come through it.”