The first time Jack O’Connell played at the New York Stadium, he was an 18-year-old boy finding his way in a man’s world.
O’Connell had only joined Rotherham United a month earlier on a loan deal from Blackburn Rovers, a club whose academy he had been part of for just a few months more. It was his first senior start, Rotherham lost 2-1 to Gillingham, but O’Connell – who was studying at sixth form a year earlier – thought he had done okay.
The Millers manager at the time thought otherwise.
“Steve Evans just came into the dressing room and went loose on me, and I was just like, ‘wow, this is mad’,” smiles O’Connell now.
“It was a wake-up call. But it was good to get that taste of it so early on and it held me in good stead for the rest of my career.
“My time at Rotherham was a good taste of real football.”
The boy returns to Rotherham this lunchtime as a man with O’Connell part of a three-man Sheffield United defence that is helping the Blades mount another sustained promotion assault on the Premier League.
“We’ve got a good understanding,” the 24-year-old said of his burgeoning relationship with Chris Basham and John Egan.
“Egan had never played that formation so he struggled at first and we lost our first two games, but ever since that we’ve worked hard on the training ground and improved.
“The key is hard work and repitition in training every day. We’d just like to keep more clean sheets.”
It was a wake-up call. But it was good to get that taste of it so early on and it held me in good stead for the rest of my career.Jack O’Connell
“We’ve been playing well, but not been picking up the results we wanted. The players the gaffer has brought in have got Championship experience, so I think we are better than last season.
“There’s still a long way to go yet, it’s just about being consistent, putting the performances in and hopefully the points will come.”