For the past two-and-a-half years, Chris Wilder and Jack O’Connell have been two of the constants for Sheffield United. The local fan and player-turned-manager and the statuesque Liverpudlian centre half have formed the core of a Sheffield United side, which has seen so much success brought to the red side of the Steel City. Jack O’Connell is United’s leading appearance maker in Wilder’s time yet for both of them, Rotherham United played a crucial role in shaping their respective careers.
With games increasingly hard to come by, a 25-year-old Chris Wilder left Sheffield United in 1992 with the boyhood Blade completing a move to the Millers. Wilder spent four years at the club making 132 appearances and still clearly holds a lot of respect for the Millers and reflected fondly on his time at Rotherham.
He said: “I really enjoyed my time there it wasn’t a hugely successful one in terms of winning stuff and promotions but it came at the right time for me and it was a great club and I was treated fantastically by the club and fans.
“I needed to get back and play games. There are lot of similarities between both clubs both very hard working, working class clubs which are not arrogant and don’t get above their station.”
For many players a drop down in division may seem the end of the world but with Wilder you get the sense that as both a player and manager this is a man who loves football and wants to be involved every week.
Wilder has played and managed at all levels and he has spoken before about how this experience has hardened him to the highs and lows of football management. The old fourth division was so different from the championship in 2018 but as grit and hard work form a core of Wilder’s managerial philosophy it is no surprise that he is able to reflect fondly on his time at his South Yorkshire neighbours.
For Jack O’Connell, his situation on arriving at the millers was quite different, he was aged 18 out on loan from Premier League Blackburn Rovers and one could be forgiven for thinking that the young academy product may not fancy the hard graft at the foot of league one under the management of the formidable Steve Evans.
However, if you were to watch O’Connell play or even to spend time in his presence you would know immediately this is not a player who lives up to stereotypes of a modern footballer. He was not picked up by any professional football team until he was 17.
He said: “I did the normal thing, I was at six form” and he is currently studying for a degree in sports science although as he admits going back to doing homework again is proving a struggle. His first senior appearance in professional came for Rotherham and he has good memories of the club:
“That’s what every kid wants to do make their first appearance in the seniors.” Although in Steve Evans, the former Rotherham manager, the young centre-half had a rude awakening.
“It was a wakeup call on my debut – my first start, he came in and just went loose at me and I was sat there like this is mad, it was good to have that experience early on though and its held me in good stead for the rest of my career.”
That a player would look back fondly at receiving what amounts to a bollocking tells you a lot about O’Connell’s character. He combines a large amount of physicality with skill on the ball and has made 204 league appearances at just 24. The mental toughness learnt the hard way at Rotherham has held him in good stead.
So in many ways Blades fans have their neighbours in Rotherham to thank for their part in the success of their manager and one of their leading players.