I recently had the pleasure of recording a Roker Rapport podcast with former Sunderland winger Kieron Brady. He spoke eloquently and in some detail about the need for Sunderland to develop its own mysterious and mythical ingredient that he believed all top clubs seem to have developed and maintained.
It’s own ethos. Its own identity. Its own clear and identifiable philosophy.
He cleverly took us back in time, to an era long before desperate celebrities had ever trended on Twitter and not long after Transvision Vamp were yodelling ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ on Top of the Pops. When Brady considered the allure of Roker Park, he was advised by professionals in and around the game to sign for Sunderland, because it was well known as an easy gig. No pressure. No goals. No expectations, but good money - more than he was offered by Chelsea at the time.
In his own poetic expressiveness, Kieron described how during his playing days at Sunderland there was never any pre-season goal setting. No targets to reach. No professional or ethical performance indicators. No philosophy. No ethos. No accountability. Just a jump on board the gravy train attitude generally prevailed.
If you happened to succeed it was an accidental by-product of kicking a ball around the pitch better than the opposition. If you fail and relegation arrives like the footballing Grim Reaper, then its no big deal. We’ll move on and never think about Sunderland again. And the cycle of an improvised ‘rolling the dice’ sporting existence continues to turn, causing frustration and perpetual anxiety amongst a loyal support - an anxiety that causes very familiar angst, rapid anger and hair-trigger criticism, formed from years of being used and left high and dry by a catalogue of devil-may-care players who saw us as an easy touch.
In reference to potential new owners, Brady identified this ethos as more important than any changes to playing style, transfer policy or finance. An ethos that remains regardless of who happens to be the owner or manager. A philosophy that stands above the winds of temporary change. An ethos that builds an unbreakable foundation by which you can constructand fortify a club for the next 10, 20 or 30 years.
So, it’s with Brady’s sage-like advice in mind that I was most amused by a recent internet rumour involving none other than our very own human cannonball - Luke O’Nien.
A spurious story of nonsense, spinning the yarn of O’Nien’s impending transfer to Barnsley. A tale of woe involving a punch up between Luke and Jon Mclaughlin over O’Nien’s disappointment in what he viewed as mediocre, half-hearted performances.
Of course, on the one hand, there was a lot to debunk from the rumour. Vague, unnamed sources and unexplainable suggestions that seemed sensational and ridiculous. A catalogue of guesses and unconfirmed hearsay. In short, unbelievable hogwash.
On the other hand, if a player - in this case O’Nien - did happen to hold others to account, if he did take ownership of mediocrity and if he felt so strongly about maintaining consistently high-performance levels, that he would throttle a teammate to achieve it? I’m not certain many of us would lose too much sleep.
Returning to the genesis of the article, the solid, foundational ethos as spoken of by the persuasive Kieron Brady - the heart of such a change in philosophy must be forged in the chest of a loyal and thunderous player who leaves everything on the pitch. Rather than ship a player out who has higher standards than others, as the aforementioned transfer rumour suggested, we should celebrate and laud such obsessive drive.
It’s a player like O’Nien who this potential new ethos should be built around. It’s a player like O’Nien upon which we should transform our club from a repetitive eternal rumour within football about being an ‘easy ride,’ to a footballing powerhouse who absolutely prides itself on high standards of ethical professionalism from the ladies and gents who sweep the stands, to the owners who make the ultimate power decisions.
Luke is my ten-year-old lad’s favourite player. Other parents reading this article will know how powerful a motivator it is to have a footballing hero whose image, reputation and example your child can embrace. As a parent you will understand the challenge of making Saturday afternoons as meaningful as possible, when there are a million other social activities that constantly hover as genuine alternatives. To have a player who your child can excitedly look forward to watching is another decisive tool in your parenting armoury that can convince your young one that an Arctic, blizzardy evening in mid-January bleakness is worth putting their PlayStation down for.
That means a lot to me as a dad. As a supporter and as a hopeless football romantic.
O’Nien has, in typical Luke fashion, forcibly wedged himself into our hearts and minds. This raw desire, to fight, battle and practically drag himself to the forefront of our battle for promotion is indicative of the man and symbolic of the player.
Luke is a throwback to the rose-tinted era of bryl-creemed young men on black and white analogue television, running up and down the dunes of Whitburn in pre-season training and taking the bus to matches with the very fans who adored them. Like us North-Easterners, he is more than the sum of his parts. Like the people of this region, he proves that hard work is often more valuable than fleeting brilliance. A lack of delicate style does not mean lack of substance.
O’Nien has, through utter drive, determination and willpower transformed himself from a relatively mysterious quantity into an indispensable footballing matador. Now he’s finally pushed himself into the crucial number ten role after forcing his way into the starting eleven in the unfamiliar fullback slot.
Kieron Brady was right. We have been burned, robbed, abused and cheated by so many footballers in my lifetime that its almost impossible to count - although these days its fair to say, I’ve had a pretty big lifetime. Lots of players have humiliated us, scammed us and used us. Some have taken until there was nothing left to take.
But Luke O’Nien and players of his ilk are the antidote to the oft-heralded belief that the modern footballer is a leech and selfish narcissist.
He’s embraced the club. The experience. The opportunity.
He’s embraced the supporters, the culture and the region.
O’Nien is living proof that the harder you work, the easier you make your job look. He deserved his starting birth last season at right back. He made the best of it. He deserves his shot at playing as a ten and you can bet your mortgage he will work as hard as humanly possible to make a success of it.
Talk about building a lasting ethos? Luke O’Nien is the kind of player who can form the cornerstone of a philosophical legacy that will last well beyond my boy’s generation. That, like Luke’s attitude to his career, is worth fighting for.