I’ve wanted to write an article about Luke O’Nien for a while and for a number of valuable reasons. Firstly, he’s my little lad’s favourite player, by a mile. That means a lot to me as not only a dad, but as a supporter and as a hopeless football romantic.
As an impressionable boy just turned 10, this has really been my son’s first full season at the Stadium of Light, having had a lot of tasters over the years. While he’s enjoyed his previous visits, the last number of years haven’t been the type of experiences that have fluttered the heart of a potential young fan.
For example, over a time-period of bringing the lad on and off for 2 years, he never once witnessed a victory, and in the same period enjoyed only 2 goals. The performances were hideous and the atmosphere was as joyless as it can get. There were also no inspiring players, no heroes to step forward and shine brightly in view of young, adoring eyes.
When I was near my boy’s age I had Marco Gabbiadini. In the late 80’s most lads I know played in the street, believing they too were smaller versions of the wild Italian stallion. With thighs like a Rhino’s and blonde hair flapping gloriously in the wind of his light-speed charges, he would tear the turf from under his feet and rip his way towards the fearful eyes of centre halves panicking like trapped by-standers at the running of the bulls in Pamplona.
Marco was raw. Powerful. Quick. Aggressive. He had edge and a little devilment. Was he the most sophisticated striker we’ve seen in Sunderland? No. Was he the most talented or skilful? Perhaps not. Yet he was pure class. He worked like a Trojan whenever he took the field. He gave it his all and we loved him for it. We still do.
For a young kid he was a cartoonish, heroic bruiser - all action and mesmerising.
In the Reidy revival days we had Bally, Quinny and perhaps the best player I’ve seen play for us, Super Kev.
In the last few seasons such never-say-die characters have been in short supply as we’ve struggled from one miserable relegation to another. Most players have adopted the role of pantomime villain and few - until this season - have been worthy of a young child’s adoration.
But this season has been different. A happy rebirth has taken place and with it, some all-action heroes have emerged as the new wave of bold conquistadors, ready to step forward and claim the devotion of a generation of young supporters we wish to maintain as loyal followers for the next 5 or 6 decades.
For my son, there are a number of players who have joyously sank into his footballing consciousness during our recent rise from the ashes - none more so than the gung-ho express that calls himself Luke O’Nien.
In a short space of time he has rapidly forced 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.
But he means more to us than just sheer will and drive.
He’s an emblem. He’s a throwback to a rose-tinted era of brylcreemed old boys running up and down the dunes of Whitburn in pre-season training and taking the bus to matches with the very fans who were about the scream their names from the terraces.
He’s a reminder of post-war kick-a-bouts with balls the size and weight of a small planet. Of players who had no reputation when they arrived, but left as roaring lions after they’d embraced the challenges of surviving and thriving in the goldfish bowl of Wearside football.
Despite his southern roots and his relatively short time here, he has crucially become a member of the Mackem family. He has, regardless of his accent or birthplace, become a symbol of the very people who sing his song from the stands.
Like us, he is more than the sum of his parts. Like the people of this region, he proves that hard work is more precious than fleeting brilliance. That lack of delicate style does not mean lack of substance. That all can be possible if you are just willing to grab your dreams with two hands and embrace it with everything you have.
Just like he forced his way into the team, just as he’s made an unnatural position in the first eleven his very own and just as he has pushed his personality on the squad and onto the pitch, O’Nien has - through utter drive, determination and will power - transformed himself from a relatively mysterious quantity into an indispensable footballing matador.
Many of us believe he is the potential missing link that can bind our midfield and our star striker together. Others think that by sheer tenacity and grit he’s turned himself into the club’s best full back and provides a steely balance to an otherwise shaky defence.
Some just think he’s great crack... and we’re all right!
Against Plymouth we sang his name for what seemed like hours and it was well rewarded by a round of applause from the man himself. Against Walsall he threw his body into everything like a non-stop locomotive. He smiled and winked at the crowd as he feigned injury to break up the play and buy us some time. We howled in bubbly appreciation.
He gets us. We get him.
We have been burned, robbed, abused and cheated by so many footballers in the last ten years that it’s almost impossible to count. Some have humiliated us, scammed us and used us. Some have taken until there was nothing left to take.
It was depressing.
Luke O’Nien is the antidote to the supposed curse of the modern footballer that tricks us into believing a false narrative that all players are leeches and selfish narcissists. He’s embraced the club. The experience. The opportunity. He’s embraced the supporters, the culture and the region.
He may be rocking all over League One, but his will power and determination remind me of another Quo classic: ‘Nothing Comes Easy’.
O’Nien is living proof of that. But the harder he works, the easier he’s making it look.