During our time so far in League One, we’ve often ended up having a weaker squad in the second half of the season than the first. Under Jack Ross, we sold Josh Maja in January and then lost the hugely influential Aiden McGeady one game after the Checkatrade Final as we failed to take advantage of our games in hand and ultimately fell short.
Last season, too, we lost Bailey Wright and Jordan Willis to long-term injuries, and stumbled through the final quarter of the season with a busy fixture list and an even busier treatment room.
Of course, injuries are part and parcel of football, and a fixture backlog is often the sign of a successful team – cup success and international call ups equals postponements.
This season has been somewhat different – we’ve reached the halfway point of the season with a tonne of injuries, and the second half of the season should see a number come back to fitness. Complemented by some January arrivals, we should hopefully see a strong second half of the campaign.
Jordan Willis is, of course, out for the season, and whether we ever see him again in the red and white stripes is open to debate.
Three of the long term injured who have played a part this season and could be hugely influential still are Aiden McGeady, Niall Huggins and Luke O’Nien.
Huggins is a hugely talented prospect, and his absence has gone under the radar a little, but his return to action could be a huge addition. We know all about Aiden McGeady and what he can bring to the party, even in the twilight of his career.
But where will Luke O’Nien fit in when he returns to full fitness – something he’s literally not had for more than 12 months now?
Playing through the pain barrier
O’Nien first did his shoulder prior to Lee Johnson arriving at the Stadium of Light, and since his return last season it’s been very clear he’s been struggling. He didn’t have surgery at the time, and at the end of the season probably put it off pending his contract being sorted.
So, for the past year, he’s been unable to able to play in wide positions due to his inability to take a throw in. He played remarkably well at centre back during last season, particularly alongside Dion Sanderson, but even before a ball was kicked in the present League One campaign, he missed the friendly win against Hearts up in Scotland due to the same injury flaring up.
That was very much a sign of things to come, as it turned out.
Looking back, the situation was somewhat similar to Jordan Willis’s knee injury, in that both footballers were clearly determined to play through the pain barrier to help the club and our team – an admirable characteristic typical of the men they both are, but rare in wider football circles.
In truth, both O’Nien and Willis probably should have had operations earlier. Only the players and club staff know why they did what they did, and we have to respect that they all took an acceptable level of risk to benefit the club, and the players too.
This season, O’Nien’s been primarily deployed in midfield, and his performances drew some criticism in certain quarters. Some of the criticism has been fair, some rather personal and over the top.
As well as playing while clearly injured, opponents were targeting him – sometimes subtly, other times (Wycombe being a prime example) not so subtly, knowing they could put him off his game and potentially force an early change in personnel, as well as tactics.
As the weeks passed, it became a regular feature that 4-5 minutes would be added on for O’Nien to be treated during matches. With every tumble he took, we wondered if he could play on, or if he would walk off with his elbow tucked into his shirt, ready for the physio to pop it back in down the tunnel.
It’s not even like you could blame the opposition to be honest.
If you know a strong shoulder barge on the right side of a player is going to put him off his stride and probably put him in some very distracting pain, most League One midfielders would do that to gain an edge. That isn’t cruel or against the laws of the game, it is just part of the way people play football.
The game we watch, play and adore is a contact sport, and at the level Sunderland have been for the last few seasons, if you expect anything less you are probably fooling yourself.
If you cannot take what the opposition are going to throw at you in terms of football skills, tactics and also broader physical play, you shouldn’t be out there. Don’t play if you aren’t fully fit and right up for it.
Unfortunately, we had very few decent options when Luke went out there and took one for us.
A valuable addition... but where?
Fast forward to more recent games and, after some very strong performances from our midfield players including Neil, Pritchard, Evans and Embleton, as well as some impending transfer window additions, it does make you wonder where O’Nien will fit in when he returns.
It’ll be interesting to watch. Of course, there’ll be players who are out of form, injuries and suspensions to deal with. when he does return – but if he were available for selection for our next league game, it’s unlikely he’d get a starting berth.
Defensively, we’ve been strong over recent games, and since putting Gooch at left wing back we have been a much more attacking focused team. Before the Sheffield Wednesday game, we had only conceded three goals in five games, winning 11 points from 15 in the process.
Johnson could potentially put him into the right back slot he’s occupied for the vast majority of his Sunderland career, but Bailey Wright and Carl Winchester have done very well there this season.
Moving up the pitch to his preferred role of central midfield, the competition is also very strong for starting shirts. Dan Neil is now a shoo-in, Winchester has been player of the season so far for many fans, while Corry Evans has done a decent job when fit, too.
What we are starting to see more and more too is that if we can give our team that strong base, Dan Neil can just be Dan Neil (again)… calm, creative, evasive and elusive, and periodically nothing short of brilliant with his passing and long range distribution. No wonder he is attracting attention from higher leagues. Attention we absolutely have to ignore.
The form the team has produced over recent weeks is hugely encouraging, and the fact that someone like O’Nien isn’t guaranteed a starting place just highlights the job that Lee Johnson and Kristjaan Speakman have done.
With the likes of Cirkin and Hume already back, January signings to come in, Neil getting better by the week, Diamond likely to be recalled, Xhemajli building his fitness, and O’Nien, Huggins and McGeady to return towards the tail-end of the season, it could be that, for once, we end up getting stronger as the season goes on.
And, ultimately, if we do, from the very good position we’ve already established, we’ll be very, very close indeed come May.