No player has featured more since Chris Wilder was appointed by Sheffield United than Jack O’Connell.
The centre-half, signed from Brentford before the start of last season, is expected to make his 95th appearance for the club against Millwall this weekend when the 50-year-old reaches a century of games in charge.
It is a statistic which reveals both the trust Wilder places in O’Connell, his ability to execute the manager’s gameplan and, as the defender explains, how United have mastered the art of transforming supposedly run-of-the-mill players into Championship thoroughbreds.
“This manager has made a massive difference to me,” O’Connell says, “On and off the pitch if I’m honest.
“He demands a lot but he also shows belief in you and lets you enjoy yourself as well. We only enjoy ourselves if we’ve done well but he always tells us that if we win, we deserve to enjoy ourselves. It’s the right mix because your standards are always being pushed but, at the same time, it also brings everyone together as a group.”
O’Connell’s progress, together with the strides John Fleck has taken following his move to Bramall Lane, explains how United have been able to compete towards the top end of the table despite their modest budget. Wilder, together with his assistant Alan Knill, first team coach Matt Prestridge and head of recruitment Paul Mitchell, boast a razor sharp eye for footballers whose talent, despite being unfulfilled at rival clubs, will blossom in the right structure, shape and environment. It is a knack which, after helping United amass 100 points en route to the League One title last term, has enabled them to trouble the likes of Aston Villa, Cardiff City and leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers who were beaten at Bramall Lane seven months ago. It also suggests, as Wilder has intimated in recent weeks, a period of prolonged success could beckon.
O’Connell, who has appeared in all but five of United’s competitive fixtures under the former Northampton Town and Oxford chief, said: “When you look at the money some of the clubs around us have spent, I suppose it shows how well we’re doing. But, to be fair, we expect to do well because we believe in ourselves and didn’t have any plans to just come in and make the numbers up. That’s the attitude of the group; we believe we should be competing at the top end of the division because we think we’re good enough.”
“I’ve never really played in a back three before,” O’Connell adds. “Well, not for a prolonged period like this so that’s brought me on as well. It enables me to bomb forward and I’m doing that even more now because I’m learning the position. The attention to detail the staff go into is really good and that helps you prepare properly and improve.”
United moved to within three points of sixth-placed Millwall ahead of their visit to South Yorkshire after beating Middlesbrough, another promotion rival, in midweek.
“This week, we always knew, was going to be definitive,” O’Connell admits. “Hopefully we can take that win into the next game and keep driving the season on. We believe we can.”