The big dilemma Sheffield United are facing over Jack O'Connell
Jack O’Connell, the Sheffield United centre-half, appears in danger of missing the rest of the season after Paul Heckingbottom omitted him from a list of players close to completing their recoveries from injury.
O’Connell, whose absence is recognised as being a major factor behind United’s poor results this term, underwent surgery in September to cure a persistent knee complaint which the club later revealed had been troubling him for much of his professional career.
Although the defender has been attending matches - and is expected to watch Sunday’s against Arsenal from the stand at Bramall Lane - Heckingbottom made no reference to him during a recent discussion on United’s casualty list. With United’s caretaker manager confirming he has asked United’s medical department to provide likely return dates rather than progress reports on those currently ruled out of action, that can be taken as a sign that O’Connell is not poised to be declared fit.
Speaking before his five year reign came to an abrupt end last month, former manager Chris Wilder admitted O’Connell had suffered a minor set-back in his rehabilitation following the Christmas period, and described his programme as “complicated”.
A pivotal figure in the 3-5-2 formation United’s squad has been constructed to employ, losing the 27-year-old and his understudy Jack Robinson dealt a major blow to their hopes of recovering from the slow start they made to the present campaign. With United’s problems snowballing as the fixture schedule continued, they enter Sunday’s game against Arsenal on the verge of being relegated after avoiding defeat in only six of their 30 Premier League outings so far this term.
With their fate poised to be mathematically sealed, Heckingbottom could take a view there is nothing to be gained by risking O’Connell’s fitness by asking him to feature again before the summer even if he receives the all-clear from medical staff.
An unintended consequence of taking that view would also be to dissuade rival Premier League clubs from bidding for O’Connell when the transfer window reopens in June. Despite his specialist role within United’s system, the Liverpudlian is bound to be in high demand among top-flight managers eager to cherry pick their best talents. However, given the nature of his condition, they are almost certain to want to witness O’Connell in action before directing their employers to submit a bid.
Although it would only be parking the problem temporarily, with O’Connell expected to attract interest again in January, removing him from the first team picture for the time being would give Wilder’s predecessor a better chance of establishing a foothold in the Championship promotion race before being forced to deal with any more potentially distracting speculation.
Despite suggesting they plan to keep the majority of their squad intact, United are certain to lose a number of key players after surrendering their PL status. John Lundstram, Kean Bryan and Phil Jagielka are among those whose deals are set to expire, while Sander Berge, John Egan, Oli McBurnie and George Baldock could all receive offers from elsewhere.