Kevin Gage's Blades Column: Step forward 'Superman' Jack O'Connell - a new Sheffield United star
So officially, we haven't yet secured promotion. The champagne is sat in the ice buckets, the party invites are sent and the fat lady is tapping her microphone and doing a sound check.
Yes, I accept that mathematically it’s not a done deal but by every logical, sensible and reasonable rationale, it’s over. The Blades ARE going up, and now EVERYONE is gonna believe us! We can all look at Bolton’s and Fleetwood’s fixtures and do the points permutations, but it’s a futile exercise. We've only lost three times in our last 36, we simply aren’t going to buck that trend anytime soon.
It actually leaves us Blades hanging in this weird kind of promotion limbo, where we want to celebrate and shout from the rooftops but we can’t. That time will come, maybe a bit sooner than we originally thought. Put it this way... get your tickets for the ‘beam back’ from Northampton. Don’t miss that potential Bramall Lane promotion party!
Let’s gloss over the ‘battle on the beach’ at Oldham, and the great point in the circumstances. Our focus moved to a potential banana skin game against Millwall, though as it turned out we needn’t have worried (I didn’t by the way!) as the Blades put on another convincing display, including a first half footballing masterclass. I called it ‘champagne football’ at half-time as we fizzed the ball around, through and over a bewildered Millwall team.
With a better final ball, a bit of luck and more clinical finishing we could have been three or four ahead. We needed a second goal though to put the game to bed and it was a welcome relief when it deservedly came. Kieron Freeman got the plaudits with his superb finish for his tenth goal of a remarkable season, but the real accolades should go to another man for a passage of play down the left hand side that created the chance and quite honestly had to be seen to be believed.
He won the ball in his own half, then somehow kept it in play whilst muscling his own teammate out of the way, before embarking on a rampaging run down the left wing. A quick exchange of passes and Freeman applied the finishing touch. I use the word ‘man’ but that short simple word doesn’t do this fella justice.
He turned into Superman on Tuesday night as he elevated his performance to a whole new level, and he’d already been excellent this season! On Tuesday night a new Blades superstar was born. Step forward and happy birthday, Jack O’Connell - who turned 23 yesterday.
His display was simply awesome. It was one of the most complete performances from a defender that I can remember seeing from anyone in a Blades shirt. Except he isn’t even just a defender. He’s very comfortable in possession, has the speed and athleticism of a wing-back as he overlaps down the flank, and combines this with wonderful left foot delivery of passing, both short and long.
He usually sets the tone for the team with his crunching tackles and he wins headers for fun. Oh, and he scores goals as well! He is some player, believe me. He’s also only 23 years old by the way... he’ll get even better! Perhaps it was also subconsciously stored away in his mind that the return Millwall fixture was targeted to exorcise a few personal demons.
Sheffield United’s shaky start to the season didn’t help any newcomers, and Jack probably suffered more than most in the first few weeks. It’s therefore also a measure of the man that he so quickly recovered and has been such a consistently good performer at the heart of our team. In fact, he is the heart, and his heart-pumping, whole-hearted and fully committed displays epitomizes everything good that this current Blades side stands for.
Whatever, O’Connell cost in a transfer fee, it was money very well spent. Another sum of money, much less smaller but again very well spent, was the Â£100 Chris Wilder paid in a London off-licence for some cases of beer for the players to enjoy on the way home from Millwall back in August. We were bottom of the league at the time and had lost three of our first four games. Since then, we’ve lost three of 36.
This is not an advert for the magical healing or health benefits of alcohol, by the way, and it certainly didn’t turn us into a table-toppers overnight. It’s more of a brilliant insight into the man management of a group of football players, honed by many years of experience and dealings with all sorts of scenarios through those years.You won’t be taught to buy a hundred quid worth of beer on a UEFA Pro Licence course and it won’t be on any page of an FA Coaching Badge syllabus. Perhaps it should be? Instead of spending Â£200 million every transfer window, tell Jose, Arsene and Pep to just pop into Booze Busters occasionally instead.
It’s a bit old school I know, but old fashioned values and old school practices like having a beer or two and creating team spirit, alongside winning tackles and headers and giving everything for the cause still work in this modern football age.Ask Jack. He knows. So does Chris Wilder, and we love them both for it. UTB