He scored yesterday, playing through pain and putting in a shift out of position at left back, he was many people’s man of the match - and today Luke O’Nien turns 27.
After coming through as a youth player at his boyhood club Watford, and a loan spell at Wealdstone that he credits for properly introducing him to men’s football, O’Nien really made his mark under Gareth Ainsworth at Wycombe Wanderers. He won a contract at Adams Park in the summer of 2015 after a successful trial and went on to play over 100 games for them as an attacking midfielder - culminating in their promotion to League One in 2017-18.
His performances as part of that successful side caught the eye of the new regime at the Stadium of Light in the summer of 2018, and he formed part of the influx of players that Jack Ross flung together at haste. He was clearly enthusiastic and keen to integrate himself as fully as possible into the life of the club, he featured on Sunderland ‘Til I Die helping to install new seats at the Stadium of Light, and reportedly made himself slightly unpopular with some of the old pros at the club by staying back at the academy to do extra training late into the afternoon while they went off to the golf course.
Initally, he admits he was overwhelmed by the stage upon which he’d found himself playing and was famously substituted at half time in his debut against Chartlon Athletic. But eventually he worked his way back into contention, coming off the bench to scored his first goal and earn the Lads three points on the road away at Shrewsbury, which was also my son’s first ever Sunderland match.
It was the beginning of O”Nien’s love affair with a large proportion of Sunderland supporters; his reaction to that victory that really began to build his reputation as a footballer who wears his heart on his sleive and will go above and beyond for the cause. You could see how much it meant to him, and the connection made in the reaction of the fans that sunny autumnal afternoon in Shropshire.
In terms of his position on the pitch, he’s shown himself to be the ultimate Mr Versatility. The legend goes that Jack Ross asked him if he’d ever played right back, and O’Nien thought he was talking about playing FIFA on the Playstation rather than in real life (although he’s subsequently admitted telling a fib in order to secure his place in the side). But right back - or right wing back in a five man defence it was, and it became a position he made his own over the next couple of seasons.
In his first year at the club O’Nien seemed to be at the centre of everything, notably involved in those memorable moments of the playoff campaign - getting punched by the orks and warlocks sitting in the front row of in the Fratton Park paddock, and bleeding from the head on the Wembley pitch as our hopes of bouncing back to the Championship first time disintegrated. Despite being 23 at the time he was awarded the Young Player of the Year Award in recognition of his efforts to almost get us promoted.
During the first coronavirus lockdown fitness videos aimed at kids cemented his reputation as a man who would give up his own time to help others, and he seems to have matured since becoming a father. His cameo at centre back last season, with Max Power taking over at right back, was perhaps the defining feature of Lee Johnson’s unsuccessful attempt to rescue the mess that Phil Parkinson had left in season 2020-21. Clearly not a natural in that position, O’Nien won plaudits and man-of-the-match awards for his well timed headers and coolness in possession at the back.
A driven, articulate, very modern footballer with an intellect and a hinterland, O’Nien has in more recent times become a lightening-rod for elements of the fanbase that prefer the more brutish ideal of a footballer and social media bullies who see politeness and positivity as signs of weakness in a person. This characterisation of O’Nien as a bit soft is ironic, given he’s clearly a master of smiling shithousery and has managed to get himself sent off three times and booked on 34 occasions during his time on Wearside. He’s not Kevin Ball, but he’s not Anthony Le Tallec either.
After playing the majority of his first three seasons with Sunderland out of position - plugging gaps in the squad and probably denting his overall development as a result, most fans were delighted to see him re-sign for the club on another three year contract in summer 2021 when the prospect of moving up to the Championship on a free transfer was very likely on offer.
O’Nien has made a total of 161 appearances and scored 14 goals for Sunderland, and if and when we do go back up we can expect that he will be fondly remembered as one of the best things about our time in League One. Happy Birthday, Luke.