May 8th 2015 - published in Bees Review
Jack O’Connell could not have been recalled into the Brentford squad at a more exciting time.
After a loan spell at Rochdale following his move to Griffin Park from Blackburn Rovers, Mark Warburton has brought the defender back into the fold to boost a side pushing for a Wembley Play-Off Final.
O'Connell has not made a First Team appearance for the Bees yet but he is happy to be part of the final act of the season.
"Since the Wigan match, it has been unbelievable and there is a great feeling around the place," Jack told me.
"Everyone is really sharp and fit. It is a hard one because you want to celebrate but there is nothing to celebrate yet; we haven’t achieved what we want to achieve. But hopefully we will be celebrating in a couple of weeks."
The dream of being in the Premier League has certainly lost its blurry edges for Brentford and its fans.
Brilliant performances over the season and a Play-Off place means a Premier League spot is now grounded in reality. And Brentford may gain the advantage of having a slightly lighter step on the pitch – one not weighed down by expectation or demand.
"We are a threat because we do not have too much to lose," said Jack. "I was in a similar situation with Rochdale when we weren’t expected to go up and had less pressure on us; I think it is the same here.
"We got promoted last season so no one is demanding us to go up - except ourselves."
Jack is very clear on the reason why Warbuton’s team has done so well.
"It is definitely the team spirit. It is the spirit which has got us into this position. Every time we are at training we are sharp and everyone wants to win. It is very competitive."
"I noticed it straight away when I arrived. There is usually a good team spirit at clubs but I think it is different here – there’s a lot. And you can tell by the way we’ve been performing on Saturdays.
"The players are all different but at Brentford we are in it together and want to play as a team, not just for ourselves."
O’Connell celebrated his 21st birthday in March; however his youth does not make him special amongst Warburton’s young guns.
Spaniard Jon Toral is 20, Moses Odubajo is 21 and Jake Bidwell, Alex Pritchard and James Tarkowski are a year older than O’Connell at 22. In fact, the majority of the Brentford starting line-up are under the age of 25.
"I think the young squad may be a factor to our success. We are all hungry."
"It is not full of old experienced players who want to stay around the game. We do have a few experienced lads in there and they help us along. Whatever the age we are all fit – the staff have got us all at a very good fitness level."
Although O’Connell’s age is not unusual – the age of his discovery is.
"I didn’t actually get picked up until I was 17. I went to sixth-form in Liverpool, and Blackburn Rovers saw me when I was playing in my sixth-form team.
"I only joined Blackburn when I was 17 which was pretty late because players usually start their scholarship when they are 16.
"I always thought I was good enough. I lived in Spain when I was a kid for four years so when I came back I was trying to catch up with everyone because in Spain it’s not as physical as over here."
During four years at Blackburn, O’Connell had loan spells at Rotherham United, York City and Rochdale before signing for The Bees.
"I wasn’t really getting the opportunity there so thought it was time to move on," said Jack.
"When Brentford said they were interested I thought it was the right thing to do. I didn’t know the gaffer was going to leave but he was a big factor too."
When Blackburn hosted Ipswich Town in the last game of the season, it was time to call upon old friends.
"I know a young lad Darragh Lenihan and the Spanish keeper David Raya - so I text them before the match asking if they could do us a favour and they did in the end as well.
"Although we got through due to the Derby County result, they did text me back saying they did what I asked."
In footballing terms, the May bank holiday weekend was a great success for O’Connell and those close to him.
The day after Brentford’s victory, his girlfriend [England Ladies International Alex Greenwood] reached the FA Cup Final with Notts County.
"It is the first time the Women’s FA Cup Final is being held at Wembley so I guess there is a chance that we will both be playing there. But we have to beat Middlesbrough first."
O’Connell is also confident that Alex will play a role in the England team that Mark Sampson takes to the Summer World Cup in Canada.
"I am sure she will make the squad. She has been training with England all season so it is more than likely.
"I am not sure if I will go to Canada but I try to watch Women Super League matches when I go up there but it is hard because I play every weekend too.
"We didn’t meet each other through football; we met when we were at sixth-form.
"She played for Everton before Notts County and she was part-time so studying as well. Now she is full-time with Notts County."
What is a relationship like when both partners play professional football - is it balls, balls and more balls?
"No - we talk about each other’s football but we don’t talk about football in general much. She still loves girly stuff. We do go to the gym a lot though."
Jack has also experienced playing for England in the Under-18 and Under-19 sides.
"Being part of the England setup has definitely helped my development, especially considering the way that Brentford play football now."
"It is a lot more keep the ball, play off the back and that’s how they play at international level too so it has kept me in good stead."
Playing with England has meant O’Connell has played alongside some of the country’s top talent.
"John Stones is one of the best players I have ever played with – he has done well. So has Callum Chambers of Arsenal. But Stonesy is up there – he has done really well to get a place on the England first team at 20."
But when it comes to his favourite player of all time – there is only one man for the man from Liverpool.
"Steven Gerrard. I loved him as a kid and I still love him now. I will probably buy an LA Galaxy shirt when he goes there."
O’Connell also has a lot of admiration for Rochdale manager Keith Hill and has fond things to say about his three spells at the club.
"The highlight of my career so far was gaining promotion with Rochdale. I scored my first goal for Rochdale this season and made 100 appearances for the club.
"Hill is one of the best coaches I have worked with but from what I have seen Warbuton is a great coach too. And if Brentford can achieve promotion it will be because the players are playing for the manager as well as themselves.
"Rochdale finished eighth in the end which was a big achievement as they have a small budget so they did well just to stay up."
A club that has a much larger budget than Rochdale is Middlesbrough.
On the receiving end of a 4-0 drubbing at the Riverside, and a 1-0 loss at Griffin Park, it is unlikely to be easy for The Bees against Aitor Karanka’s men.
"Middlesbrough are a good team and they have good players. I’ve played against some of their players before, Patrick Bamford when he was at Chelsea playing for the Under-21s."
“It should be a tough game but I think we can do it.”
With Warbuton sticking to a similar starting line-up throughout the season, it could be frustrating for players like O’Connell to sit and watch from the sidelines.
Didn’t he think he would have a chance of starting when he was recalled in February?
"The lads have been performing so well. All I can do now is the best I can and hopefully I can get in the team. Tarky and Harlee Dean have played well every week so I don’t expect to be playing.
"I’m not worrying about the competition for places, I just take every day as it comes and appreciate what I have.
"I enjoy playing football and that’s what I want to be doing for a long time. Whoever comes in I want to push them."
Although it may be frustrating to watch team mates go onto the field to compete for one of the biggest prizes in football, O’Connell believes he was brought back to the fold so that he could be better prepared for next season.
"I think that was part of the manager’s idea of calling me back. I could then get to know the lads a bit more so that when I do come into pre-season I am not a stranger."
"In that way it was good and I have felt instantly involved in the Play-Off battle. It has been amazing although obviously we need to concentrate on Middlesbrough."
What are O’Connell’s goals for next season?
"If we are in the Championship next season then our goal is to get into the Premier League. If we are in the Premier League next season then our goal is to stay there."
"My own goals are to play as many games as possible and to push these lads."
Jack is also keeping one eye on the future.
"I was studying for a BTEC when I was in sixth form and I still want to go down the sport science route one day. I’ve just been offered a place at Manchester University to do a degree in Sports Science so from September I will be doing distance learning."
"When I do finish playing football hopefully I will go down that road and work with players on the fitness side of things."
However at the age of 21, and with the Premier League within touching distance, that could be a long way off for the talented defender.