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Jack O'Connell - Well Red

2 October 2019

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For each Premier League issue, UTB, United's official matchday programme, catches up with a member of the playing staff for an in-depth, exclusive interview.

Phil Jagielka, Luke Freeman and Oli McBurnie had already featured prior to Saturday's clash against Liverpool, where lifelong Red Jack O'Connell was thrust into the spotlight.

At just £3.50, following a first price rise in 15 years, UTB will now be a 100-page publication for every Premier League fixture this season and it packed full of other intriguing content from the players and management, in addition to former favourites of previous eras.

United are currently selling subscriptions to UTB which will ensure a copy delivered to your door on the morning of every game and all can be ordered through our design partners Ignition Sports Media - click here.

As Jack O'Connell prepares to face Champions League winners Liverpool this afternoon, it is hard to understand a player of his ability almost slipped through the net.

Jack is set to line-up against some of Europe's deadliest strikers on a level-playing field at Bramall Lane today, with the fixture underlining a rapid rise for the boyhood Reds fan, who didn't sign for a professional club until he was 17.

Now 25, Jack's pathway to Premier League football is unconventional to say the least. There was no academy schooling for the Liverpool-born ace, who cut his football teeth playing in the school yard in Malaga of all places.

Perhaps though it is this approach which has turned Jack into the player he is today. The fact that he missed out on professional coaching throughout his childhood and well into his teens, gave the defender a desire to make up for lost time. It is this drive and determination which saw Jack, who eventually signed for Blackburn, accept every possible opportunity to make up the ground on his contemporaries.

He told UTB: "In my mind I was always playing catch up with the rest. I always knew I was good enough. I grew up with lads who had been at clubs and I thought I was as good as them. It was just a case of getting the chance. I always felt though when I signed for a club, I was a couple of years behind, so in my mind I had to work harder than everyone else. That has held me in good stead though.

"I was 17 when I went to Blackburn. I went in as a second-year scholar but in my first year we won the league and made the youth cup final - I also played for England. It was a big jump up, and after a year I signed my first professional contract. I didn't expect it, but I would stay behind after every session and practice to give myself the best chance. It would be the same at night as well as I lived on the training ground in digs. I would do stuff in the evenings. Once it had passed 5pm, I knew the password to the buildings so I would go in and just have a night practicing on the 3G. I would do it every night."

One reason for Jack not appearing on professional clubs' radar until late in the day could be answered by his geographical location.

He left Merseyside as a youngster for a new life in Spain, and he remained on the continent until his mid-teens.

Moving to a different country at such a young age sounds like a daunting prospect, but despite having misgivings to start with, Jack has nothing but good memories from his time abroad, becoming a season ticket holder at his local club Malaga.

"I moved to Spain when I was eight or nine," says Jack. "I was there for four years and I was 13 or 14 when I came back to England. I don't remember too much about the move to be honest. I didn't want to go at the time because I was in school and had friends. Having said that, once I made the move, I didn't want to come back really.

"My best mate over in Spain, his name is Juan. He was half-English, his mum was English, his dad was Spanish. I used to go around to his house, and I picked up the language quite quickly. We couldn't afford an English school, so I went to a Spanish school, I was thrown in at the deep end. I had to learn the language myself, but playing football in the playground every day, I picked it up quite easily. The language does get lost when you aren't there. I don't know how many years it has been now; I can still speak it a little bit, but I am not fluent. I lived in Malaga, so I had a season ticket there. I used to watch all their games. I loved it. There was a Portuguese player called Duda, I used to love watching him play. He was a free-kick expert and very popular. It was great watching Malaga against Real Madrid because all the top players were there, and they had the likes of Owen and Beckham at the time. I really enjoyed those games."

Once back in England's green and pleasant land, playing professional football was far from Jack's mind as he started to think about a career once he left school. It was whilst playing for his sixth form college that his future plans took a different path when scouts from both Everton and Blackburn started to take notice of a player who had somehow avoided the attentions of the rest of the country.

Jack recalls: "In Spain, because I wasn't as solid with the language as the natives, I was struggling to pass my exams. I loved the lifestyle though; I was playing football every day, but it wasn't going to help me in the future, so it was the right decision to come home and do my education.

"It took me a couple of years to get into the school team because no-one had seen me play football. I was playing Sunday League but that was about as far as I'd gone. I went to sixth form with the idea of either going into the army or maybe becoming a PE teacher or, with my school being a sports school, there was a possibility of getting a scholarship to go to America. I was playing for my sixth form team and Everton came to watch me. I was asked to go for a trial but in the meantime, I got injured. Blackburn then asked if I would come down, so I did, and they said they would sign me."

The Blades' current squad is packed full of players who climbed the ladder from the bottom rung to earn the right to play in the Premier League. Despite Jack signing for a top flight club, he is no different to his colleagues in having to learn the hard way. After coming into football so late, it was obvious he would have to learn the game whilst out on loan, and these early experiences were a real eye opener to some of the Football League's cast of characters.

"It was hard at Blackburn because they were going through a transitional period," Jack said.

"They were going through loads of managers, so I took the chance to go out on loan to Rotherham. Steve Kean knew Steve Evans, so he recommended me, and I went there for a month. I didn't play too much, but it was still a really good learning experience. Steve Evans was quite ruthless, so it was a good experience for me to know that standards couldn't drop. Rotherham was tough because I was staying in a hotel. I wasn't earning great money, and I remember losing quite a lot of weight because I was just getting food to the room and there was a cap on how much you could spend. My missus would bring me food but living in a hotel you were limited to what you could do with it. I didn't want to tell the manager, because he was quite intimidating to me at the time.

"I remember coming on against Gillingham because Ian Sharps broke his nose. Deon Burton scored twice, and I got the treatment for it in the dressing room after. You know you are in the professional ranks when that happens, but again it stood me in good stead for the future. I also went to York, and that also helped. They were bottom of the league, but we survived on the last day, it was like getting promoted that feeling of staying up. I was only 18, so these experiences were vital in my development."

Jack's career really took off in 2013 as he embarked on what would eventually be three separate loan spells at Rochdale, where then Dale boss Keith Hill became a key figure in guiding his early career.
During his first season at Spotland, Jack made 45 appearances in all competitions, whilst also taking the armband, as Dale won promotion to League One.

"Keith Hill is one of the best managers I have played for," Jack reveals.

"He taught me so much about being a good player and being a good person. I can't recommend him highly enough. It was perfect timing for me. We had a lot of success at Rochdale. I felt wanted, I was given the armband for some games. That was a huge boost. At the end of the season I went back to Blackburn, and I said the first thing I wanted to do was to go back on loan to Rochdale. They were now in League One and that was the next step."

A return to Rochdale the following season saw Jack continue his development, and by this time Championship side Brentford had seen enough to sign him on a permanent basis in January 2015, before another loan with Dale completed a successful campaign.

No sooner had Jack departed Griffin Park for his third stint at Spotland, he was to receive news which would have a lasting impact on his time with the Bees.

Jack continues: "Brentford was another tough experience, because I signed in January, but I wanted to go back on loan to Rochdale because I was flying there. Mark Warburton was happy with that because Brentford had a settled side, they ended up making the play-offs.

"Two days after I returned to Rochdale, it was announced that Mark Warburton was going to leave at the end of the season. I'd just signed, and the manager was now leaving so that was disappointing for me.

"We had Lee Carsley in charge, followed by Marinus Dijkhuizen and then Dean Smith came in. I didn't play as much as I'd like so I decided to leave for Sheffield United."

Brentford's loss proved to be United's gain. Chris Wilder was putting together a new look side and Jack was one of a cluster of key arrivals which would kickstart a revolution at Bramall Lane.

After signing in July 2016, the sustained success the Blades were about to embark on didn't happen overnight, with Jack, as with many others, earmarking the away victory in early September at Gillingham as the turning point as United switched to 3-5-2.

"It was slow going to start with," stressed Jack.

"The gaffer here is an unbelievable manager, probably the best I have worked with, and he got the best out of me when we changed to a back three at Gillingham. It has just clicked ever since. I don't know why, it just has. The way me and Bash (Chris Basham) overlap, it has just worked through the leagues. When I did play in a back two, I thought I had the ability to step out and join in play. Playing in a back three just gives me that licence to do it more often. Following the success at Gillingham we just kept working and working on it, so it has now become second nature.

"We worked really hard to get it right. The style comes from the gaffer and the coaching staff, every day in training, it is the best training I have been involved in. Everyone is at it. Being good on the training field transfers into the match and that's why we have done so well over the years."

No-one needs reminding what happened next. Jack played 50 times in all competitions as United bagged 100 points in securing the League One title, followed by promotion again in 2019.

"It has been an unbelievable three years. I've done well, the team have done well, and the fans really got behind me, especially with the song, so I am made up, but we want it to continue.

"I haven't really looked back and reflected too much on it. At the time you just think about the next game, not about anything else, just the next game. Last year we just found that momentum when we were keeping so many clean sheets, and scoring goals, promotion just felt inevitable."

Today, Jack has the opportunity to lock horns with the team he supported as a boy. Growing up on Merseyside, there was only ever going to be one team in his life, with Jack's family all likely to have an extra eye on this afternoon's showdown.

He said: "I grew up as a Liverpool fan. My mum and my brothers were all Liverpool fans, and that's where it started. I didn't go to watch many games, some people call me a fake supporter, but my mum had four boys so she couldn't afford tickets. We never saw the games live, but we'd always watch on TV. I remember watching the Champions League final in 2005 when I lived in Spain, it was unbelievable.

"They are a very good team, as everyone knows. I have seen them virtually every game, and we know it will be a very tough game. With it being my boyhood club, I suppose playing will make it that extra bit special for me. I am looking forward to the challenge."

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