Jack O’Connell has opened up for the first time about what he admits was the “hardest time of his career” after joining Sheffield United in the summer.
The defender was recruited as part of Chris Wilder’s Bramall Lane revolution but endured an inauspicious start to his career in South Yorkshire, scoring an own goal and giving another away against Southend before conceding a last-minute penalty at Millwall four days later.
That defeat at The Den left United bottom of League One, with one point from four games, but Wilder’s side have since recovered to, remarkably, sit on the verge of promotion to the Championship.
Former Brentford man O’Connell has emerged as a key man in that journey, and had arguably his best game yet in United red and white on Tuesday night as his side beat Millwall to move 13 points clear of third-placed Fleetwood.
And, after admitting he felt some personal motivation to perform against Neil Harris’ men, O’Connell told The Star: “I owed the boys one after what happened down at Millwall.
“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.”
O’Connell broke the deadlock with a bullet, close-range header – his celebration showing exactly how much it meant to him – before playing an instrumental role in the second with a marauding run down the left wing, before Kieron Freeman netted his tenth goal of a remarkable season.
Nine points from their remaining six games will now be enough to secure promotion irrespective of results elsewhere, but United could secure promotion as early as next Wednesday if they beat Coventry and Fleetwood lose their next two games.
“We knew Millwall was going to be a massive game but I thought we passed the ball very well in the first half,” added O’Connell, who turned 23 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.
“The goal was pleasing, of course, but the main thing for me was the clean sheet.”