John Terry oozes it, Sir Alex Ferguson wrote a book about it and Jack O’Connell tries to show it every single day.
Leadership. A concept many people feel is becoming increasingly rare in English football but which the Sheffield United defender is on a mission to revive.
“I always try and be professional with everything I do,” O’Connell says. “The way I eat, the way I look after myself away from the training ground and what I do here. If you’re wearing the armband or not, it shouldn’t change how you play or talk to the other players. You should try and set the right example all the time.”
Chris Wilder spoke about his desire to create “a team full of captains” when he was appointed manager during the close season. Three months and 15 appearances after arriving from Brentford, O’Connell might only have performed the role once; during a Checkatrade Trophy tie against Walsall. But his displays in United’s rearguard, and perhaps even more importantly his attitude, reveal why the 49-year-old wanted him at Bramall Lane.
“I captained England under-19’s when Noel Blake gave me the armband,” O’Connell continues. “It comes naturally really, I always try and lead by example on and off the pitch. Hopefully I can captain Sheffield United one day in the future. But whether I do or I don’t, it won’t stop me giving my all.”
O’Connell, aged 22, has been doing exactly that since entering Blackburn Rovers’ youth system five years ago. Spells on loan at York City and Rotherham United soon followed but it was during a temporary spell with Rochdale, where he captained them to promotion in 2014, when his personality traits began to emerge.
“Keith (Hill), the manager there, made me captain,” O’Connell explained. “It was a real honour for me, especially because I wasn’t there permanently, but it brought me on a lot. The aim now is to get another promotion on the CV, I did it at Spotland. We’ve got a good squad and I think we’re capable of doing it. But we’ve got to keep fighting and sticking together. I think, knowing the characters we’ve got here, that we’ll definitely do that.”
Dave Reddin, head of team strategy and performance at the FA, outlined plans to improve the leadership qualities of the nation’s footballers after accepting the position 12 months ago. O’Connell, who left Ewood Park after being signed by Championship club Brentford last year, attributes his maturity to a late arrival in the game.
“I didn’t get picked-up until I was 17,” O’Connell says. “My first year in youth football I won the league at Blackburn and then got picked-up by England. But because I’d come into the game late, I’d had to look after myself and consider other things.”
“My family is active,” O’Connell continues. “Mum always goes jogging before work, my brother boxed in the RAF and even when I was at sixth-form I got up early, at six o’clock in the morning, to go to the gym. I did go to college. I was planning my future, thinking about going into the army or becoming a PE teacher or even university. But I always knew I was good enough to play because I knew some of the lads who had gone to pro clubs.”
O’Connell’s first taste of professional-style football came when, as a youngster, his family spent a brief period living in Spain before returning to their native Liverpool.
“The standard over there is different. Even the Sunday League teams are like academy teams with their own stadiums and training sessions taking place three times a week. We were in Malaga, mum just fancied a change, and so we used to go and watch them. I played for a local side over there as well.”
A late developer, O’Connell’s desire to make-up for lost time was a factor behind his decision to accept United’s offer despite Brentford’s pleas for him to stay.
“I came here because it’s a massive club,” he says. “It was always going to be hard to turn down. I was also at that stage where I just wanted to play games. The manager (at Brentford) wanted me to stay but I just wanted to be out there on the pitch, being involved. Especially at a club like this one. We’re ambitious and want to succeed.”