Chris Wilder believes awarding Jack O’Connell a new long term contract, despite the fact his previous deal still had over a year and a half left to run, marks the latest phase of a strategy designed to ensure Sheffield United achieve their potential as a club.
O’Connell became the eighth member of Wilder’s first team squad to accept fresh terms since last season’s League One title triumph when he put pen to paper on the agreement, which runs until 2022, before training yesterday.
With Wales international David Brooks and former Rangers midfielder John Fleck among those handed improved deals in recent months, the United manager said: “Jack is the same as Brooksy and John, we looked at their contracts and their ages, we want them to be part of our progression going forward.
“I’m not going to get into an end of season free for all unless players want to run down their deals. Then we’ll take a view with six months left. But I’ve not come across that here yet. They all want to stop and tie their futures down.”
O’Connell, aged 23, is expected to make his 68th appearance for United when they return to Championship action at Burton Albion tomorrow night. Ranked second in the table, only two points behind leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers, Wilder has transformed Bramall Lane’s fortunes since being appointed 18 months ago. However, while recruiting players such as Fleck, Mark Duffy and Leon Clarke has undoubtedly been a factor, Wilder believes United’s improved performance off the pitch has contributed to their success on it too. Having privately expressed concerns about a seemingly haphazard approach to contracts after taking charge in May last year, Wilder, in tandem with co-owners Kevin McCabe and HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, has overhauled the process used to decide when new deals are awarded, and to whom.
Describing a conversation with a player at one of his previous clubs to reveal how uncertainty can erode morale, Wilder said: “I’ve told the story before, on the last day of the season, with boys who didn’t know what their futures were, walking down from the back of the bus and asking the gaffer. Then they had to walk all the way back and tell the rest of the lads. I don’t want that scenario. I want the players to know what we are thinking and I want to know what they are thinking as well. It’s not always simple because people develop at different stages and there are academy pathways. But we want to take these things, as much as is possible, into account.”
Wilder, who signed O’Connell from Brentford last summer, added: “He epitomises what we’re all about. He cements people when he has to, he sticks his head in when he has to and he’s good technically. He can get better with us, definitely.”