Sheffield United: Defender still believes in fairytales ahead of tomorrow's visit to Championship leaders Wolves
His bloodshot eye and slightly swollen cheekbone serve as reminders that football is a tough old game.
Three days ago, Jack O’Connell discovered it can be a mighty cruel one too when Sam Johnstone’s reactions and Robert Snodgrass’ finishing combined to ensure Sheffield United, despite impressing for much of the evening, were beaten by Aston Villa.
After dominating the first-half and creating chances in the second, Chris Wilder’s side deserved better. But, as he struggles to fathom how they failed to engineer a breakthrough before conceding in the 90th minute, O’Connell acknowledges another hard luck story against Wolverhampton Wanderers could seriously damage United’s promotion ambitions.
“We’ve got to take points,” the 23-year-old says, “We’ve got to take something from our next two outings. We don’t want people ruffling our hair and telling us we’ve been unfortunate. We want to be winning because that’s what we’re in this for.”
United travel to Molineux ranked seventh; two points behind sixth-placed Fulham and trailing Derby County, who occupy the runners-up berth, by eight. Although the gap between themselves and their latest opponents appears insurmountable - Nuno Espírito Santo’s men boast a double digit lead at the top of the Championship table - O’Connell’s sense of urgency demonstrates just how far United have come since lifting the League One title nine months ago. Villa, whose match-winner earns £60,000 a week, possess a squad stuffed full of household names and established internationals.
“Okay, we never expected to be in this position,” he continues. “But now we are, we’re not satisfied. Personally speaking, I’m not interested in people saying ‘haven’t they done well’ and then just fading. We’ve come this far and we want to keep on going, building on everything we’ve done.”
A lack of respect and disregard for reputations has served United well so far this term. But, five months after beating Wolves at Bramall Lane, they will require more than determination and upbeat words to repeat that feat tomorrow. Espírito Santo’s players have lost only three times in the intervening period and enter the return fixture with the likes of Rúben Neves, the former Porto midfielder, and Diogo Jota, on loan from Atlético Madrid, at their disposal.
“I don’t think anyone who watched the Villa game could say we didn’t warrant anything from it,” O’Connell insists. “Okay, maybe we didn’t do enough to win but we didn’t deserve to lose. Still, we’ve got to look at why were didn’t, analyse what happened, and then work hard on what we come up with. We’ll take what the gaffer and his staff come up with on board.”
Wilder, whose team hosts Leeds next weekend before facing Leicester City in the FA Cup, is likely to focus on small details rather than broadbrush changes after confirming United have no plans to change their attacking approach.
Despite enjoying plenty of possession against Villa, even though John Fleck, Ryan Leonard and George Baldock all forced Johnstone to make saves, United’s final pass could have been better on occasion. A lack of ingenuity around the penalty area could also see Mark Duffy recalled as Wilder, who recently awarded the midfielder a new contract, attempts to translate pressure into goals. Leon Clarke, the division’s joint leading scorer, has claimed only one in eight which suggests either a shortage of quality service or subtle positional shift.
O’Connell, who hit the woodwork against Villa, accepts he must also contribute.
“I got a few last season, six I think it was, but haven’t got one this season yet. I thought I’d got one (against Villa) but it wasn’t to be. Hopefully the first isn’t too far away.”
It spoke volumes that Wilder, having previously complained about United’s failure to “marry up performances and results”, struck a decidedly different tone following the meeting with Villa. After identifying that fixture as the start of a potentially season-defining period, he instead insisted that being disappointed to lose to the former European champions was actually a sign of progress. With Clarke among three former Wolves players on the books at Bramall Lane - Richard Stearman and new signing Lee Evans complete the trio - United’s work in the Black Country is guaranteed to carry an edge. But O’Connell, a member of the team which beat the hosts 2-0 in South Yorkshire, also believes their work during the recent transfer window illustrates United are on an upward curve.
“We’re a lot stronger now,” he says. “There’s competition all over the park now with James (Wilson), Ricky (Holmes) and Ryan also coming in. That depth, if you ask me, makes us a lot better equipped now than before. They’re all quality.”