Ten of the best: Jack O'Connell - A rare 10/10 star who turned around his Sheffield United career

It will soon be five years since Chris Wilder took charge of Sheffield United before presiding over a remarkable rise up the divisions to the Premier League.

Monday, 1st March 2021, 10:58 am

Over the course of that half a decade many players failed to make a mark with the Blades but there are others who wrote themselves into Bramall Lane folklore.

As part of a special series from The Star, we take a look at 10 of them - here’s Danny Hall on Mr Reliable himself, Jack O’Connell.

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Sheffield United's fans had just seen their side's miserable start to the 2016/2017 season extended by an 89th-minute defeat away at Millwall and if you'd have told those fans filing out of The Den that Jack O'Connell would later become one of the Blades' most important players, many would have probably laughed in your face.

The defender, a bargain buy from Brentford, enjoyed a thoroughly miserable start to his Bramall Lane career. In only his fourth game in red and white United lost 3-0 at home to Southend and O'Connell scored an own goal for their first, was left horribly exposed for their second and was then caught in possession for their third.

Four days later United went to Millwall and were drawing 1-1 when O'Connell inexplicably handled a cross from the left, a minute from the end. Steve Morison slotted home the resulting penalty and United were bottom of League One.

A victory over Oxford United stopped the rot and then Chris Wilder changed United's shape when they travelled to Gillingham. United went to a back three and United's season went from strength to strength. So too did O'Connell.

Tasked with getting forward and creating attacks as often as he stopped them, O'Connell was a revelation down the left and with Chris Basham causing similar havoc down the right, teams simply couldn't live with United as they romped to the League One title and smashed the 100-point barrier.

They'll never do it in the Championship, they said. A team built on passion in the pub league.

After a season of acclimatising to the second tier, O'Connell and Co. won promotion to the Premier League.

Jack O'Connell pictured soon after signing for Sheffield United: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

They'll never do it in the Premier League, they said. A team turning up with centre-halves overlapping in the opposition's penalty area will get annihilated.

After half a season of challenging for Europe, only lockdown derailed United's first-season progress and they eventually finished ninth.

Only this season, with O'Connell missing all but two games so far after undergoing knee surgery, has the United juggernaut begun to falter, and many point to the loss of their talismanic centre-back as a contributing factor.

Phil Jagielka and Jack O’Connell of Sheffield United combine to stop Marcus Rashford of Manchester United: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

It is tempting to wonder if, had he not been forced to go under the knife earlier this season, O'Connell would have earned a full England cap by now.

It seems remarkable, at least in the eyes of many in this corner of South Yorkshire at least, that he never received even a call-up to Gareth Southgate's squad last season, despite the England manager appearing to have a season ticket at Bramall Lane.

When Southgate switched to a back three, mirroring United's shape, Aston Villa's Tyrone Mings was his pick for the slot on the left. At the time, their stats were incomparable. O'Connell was miles ahead, and it's not beyond the realms of possibility that he could have had an eye on this summer's European Championships had injury not struck at the worst possible time, for both player and club.

Built like a boxer, not many Premier League forwards got much change out of O'Connell in the air and he looked at home in the top flight from minute one.

With United staring relegation in the face, speculation has inevitably begun about his future and although his injury may have complicated matters, United have an asset worth many multiples of the £500,000 they paid Brentford for his services whatever happens.

Jack O'Connell heads home against Ipswich, to all but confirm United's promotion to the Premier League: James Wilson/Sportimage

In a world where Adam Webster cost £20m, and Chelsea were linked with a £40m move for Lewis Dunk, O'Connell certainly deserves to be in that bracket, in my view at least.

He became a legend in League One, a colossus in the Championship and peerless in the Premier League. In five years or so of providing player ratings for The Star, O'Connell is one of only three to have ever received a 10/10 for his performance against his former club Brentford in the promotion season, and there was always the danger that he would be underrated by some because he was always such a consistent performer.

Only now, with United struggling in his absence, are many realising what they had now it's gone.

The Highlight

It was the Easter weekend of 2019 that Sheffield United took the seismic steps that would seal their place in the Premier League.

Victories over Nottingham Forest and Hull City, coupled with Leeds' defeats to Wigan Athletic and Brentford, left them second in the table and three points ahead of Leeds, with a superior goal difference - meaning that three points in their penultimate game of the season, at home to already-relegated Ipswich, would all-but guarantee United's promotion.

The players were understandably confident, but some didn't want to tempt fate. While some were happy to do interviews for a book that would commemorate the impending promotion, others - including O'Connell - preferred to wait until it was secure.

And, as it happened, it was the defender who took United a step closer to the promised land, settling any remaining nerves that may have lingered around the Lane with a powerful header in front of the Kop to put United 2-0 up against Ipswich.

Once again Daniel Mann's commentary on Sky Sports proved immortal.

"O'Connell coming innnnn," he roared on the microphone. "That's the one!"

"Forget the maths ... the Premier League beckons for Sheffield United."

A long way for O'Connell and United since those dark early days in League One.

O’Connell heads a foam brick during the celebrations away at MK Dons in the League One promotion season: Simon Bellis/Sportimage