Fulham v Sheffield United – Jack O’Connell’s return to Blades training ground is welcome sight

LONG ROAD BACK: Sheffield United's Jack O'Connell. Picture: Simon Bellis/SportimageLONG ROAD BACK: Sheffield United's Jack O'Connell. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
LONG ROAD BACK: Sheffield United's Jack O'Connell. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Sheffield United spirits have been given a much-needed lift this week. The sight of Jack O’Connell on the Shirecliffe grass must also have promoted thoughts of what might have been.

Too many things have gone wrong for the Blades this season to point to any one and say that is the reason they are going to be relegated from the Premier League as despite what happens at Fulham’s Craven Cottage tonight, they surely are.

Injuries, though, will figure high on the post-mortem.

Of all the blows the Blades have taken on that front, the loss of O’Connell has been the most severe. As the team was mounting an assault on last season’s European places, there was plenty of praise for the job the left-sided central defender was doing. Seeing how six different players have struggled to fill his boots since the Merseysider succumbed to a knee injury in October and went under the surgeon’s knife has really rammed the point home, though.

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With Gareth Southgate having switched back to three central defenders this season a fit and firing O’Connell might even have been a candidate for his European Championship squads but daydreaming is of no use to the Blades now. Even if they do go down, it is important they do not do so without a fight, and a positive result this evening will stop them having the joint lowest points tally in Premier League history, and potentially move them off the bottom too.

Running on grass is a very long way from playing Premier League football but in a season where reasons to be cheerful have been thin on the ground, O’Connell’s return was one.

“Jack being back on the grass does have a positive effect,” says manager Chris Wilder, who has moulded O’Connell into an outstanding overlapping centre-back. “He was out there on Thursday doing some work and he’s a popular boy, incredibly important for us.

“I don’t think we’ve replaced Jack, which was disappointing. We’ve had to play Enda (Stevens, a left wing-back) there out of position, Ethan (Ampadu, on loan from Chelsea and now established as the next in line) there out of position and Kean (Bryan) who is finding his feet. Jack (Robinson) has had injuries and issues.

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Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder. Picture: John Sibley/PASheffield United manager Chris Wilder. Picture: John Sibley/PA
Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder. Picture: John Sibley/PA

“Jags (Phil Jagielka) has played there and that’s not his ideal position either.

“When Jack is back, that will be a huge bonus for us.”

It is not just O’Connell, of course.

John Egan, the ultra-reliable figure to O’Connell’s right, is set to miss the next eight weeks after an operation on the toe he dislocated making a block tackle in defeat at West Ham United on Monday. There are only 13 left in the season.

BAD LUCK: Sheffield United's John Egan is another to have suffered a serious injury. Picture: David Klein/Sportimage.BAD LUCK: Sheffield United's John Egan is another to have suffered a serious injury. Picture: David Klein/Sportimage.
BAD LUCK: Sheffield United's John Egan is another to have suffered a serious injury. Picture: David Klein/Sportimage.

John Fleck, who broke his back before Christmas, was hospitalised at the weekend, and will not be back to face Scott Parker’s side tonight.

Sander Berge, the Champions League midfielder signed amid much fanfare in January 2020, has been in London receiving treatment from a specialist on the tendon injury which, when he suffered it in December, was expected to keep him out for three months.

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Stevens and his fellow wing-back George Baldock have not been the unbreakable fixtures of 2019-20, and Oli McBurnie suffered a serious shoulder injury. Others have had Covid-19.

“I actually feel sorry for our medical staff because they’ve been brilliant,” says Wilder. “We’ve had very few muscle injuries because of overplaying.”

It has exposed some younger players to tests they were not expected to face this season but although in the short-term it may be scarring, Wilder has never been one for mollycoddling.

“These are professional footballers,” he responds when given the opportunity to say some reassuring words. “They have to take disappointment.

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“I don’t say, ‘shall I run you a hot bath and put some bubbles in it?’ I don’t have to say, ‘Are you okay, do you fancy training? Come on, I know it’s cold but do you fancy it? You do? Brilliant. That’s great.’”

When it comes to schools of hard knocks, Shirecliffe is a centre of excellence.

With his intention to keep the squad together if – when – the inevitable happens and push for promotion with the core of players who won it in 2019, these difficult experiences might not be such a bad thing.

“Young players are going to be up and down,” argues Wilder. “Look at Max (Lowe), he’s been up against (Hakim) Ziyech at Chelsea so he has to raise his standards. Even Ethan. He’s played international football (for Wales) but all of a sudden it’s game on, week in and week out.”

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Wilder has first-hand experience of learning the hard way as a young defender.

“I did a Cruyff (turn) as a 17-year-old at Southampton in a Hampshire League game, and I got hammered on the pitch and coming off,” he recalls. “I got hammered by Matt Le Tissier, Frankie Benali, Phil Parkinson because I cost them the game. So I never did it again. I made some mistakes, but not that one.”

So yes, seeing O’Connell out of the treatment room might be soothing for Sheffield United’s embattled players but they will know by now not to get too comfortable.

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