Demons have been exorcised as Sheffield United's Jack O'Connell repays debt

JACK O'CONNELL'S start to life at Sheffield United was an inauspicious one.

Jack O'Connell.

Not only did the Blades collect just one point from the first four league outings of the season but he was personally culpable in two defeats.

An own goal and a blunder that led to Southend United doubling their advantage in only his third league appearance since joining from Brentford was bad enough.

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Then, just four days later, O’Connell was guilty of an inexplicable handball against Millwall that allowed Steve Morison to clinch a 2-1 victory with a stoppage-time penalty.

After that, things could only get better and, credit to the 23-year-old, that is exactly what has happened with the defender having since gone on to become a mainstay of United’s push for promotion.

Along the way, he has exorcised those demons from the early season losses by scoring in victories over both Southend and Millwall.

“I owed the boys one after what happened down at Millwall,” admitted the Liverpudlian after helping Chris Wilder’s side move seven points clear at the top of the League One table on Tuesday night with a 2-0 win over the Lions.

“So, it was great to get a clean sheet and the goal. It meant a lot to me. What happened down there (at The Den) with the handball was tough. I had never done that before in my career. And I will, hopefully, never do it again.

“For me, it was one of those things that happen – probably the hardest thing of my career because it meant we went to the bottom of the league.

“I didn’t feel any pressure after the game down there. I knew if I kept working hard then I would turn the corner. I knew what I was capable of doing here and I am just glad to repay the fans with a night like this.”

United were full value for a victory that means nine more points from the final half-dozen games will be enough to clinch automatic promotion.

O’Connell broke the deadlock on 16 minutes with a bullet header from a corner from John Fleck. The defender then played a leading role in the move that led to Kieron Freeman doubling the hosts’ advantage with a barnstorming run down the left flank.

“We knew Millwall was going to be a massive game but I thought we passed the ball very well in the first half,” added the Blades defender, who celebrated his birthday yesterday.

“We maybe could have done better after half-time and not defended like we did. But we ground out the result and that was the main thing.

“It was nice to play my part. I do like to attack, I have always had that inside me. But, playing two at the back means you can’t do that.

“With us playing three at the back, it gives you a bit more licence because you know there are two others to cover. I enjoy that. This result turns the draw at Oldham into a good point. Last Saturday was always going to be a tough game because of the pitch and their form.

“It was vital to get the win against Millwall because we have a blank weekend (due to Coventry City being in the Checkatrade Trophy final at Wembley). We knew that. The big thing, though, was we played with no pressure. We knew if we did our job that we would get the win.”

Asked if his mind was wandering towards the likely clinching of promotion, O’Connell added: “Personally, I look at the next game and that is Coventry. No further than that. I will follow the other results this weekend, of course I will.

“But the pressure is on the others now. We can just sit back and watch the results, and look forward to Coventry.”