It hasn’t been officially confirmed by the club as yet, but the fact that Luke O’Nien led out the team on his first pre-season appearance this weekend suggests Lee Johnson is seriously looking at the former Wycombe midfielder to be his new skipper.
Following Max Power’s departure the armband is vacant and, to my mind, O’Nien’s the standout candidate.
Yes, people may point towards Aiden McGeady (that’s the 35-year-old Aiden McGeady, who’s never captained a team before, has a reputation of being a bit tricky to handle, and can be a rather selfish player on occasion). Six months ago. you’d have assumed Bailey Wright was a shoo-in should the role become vacant (more likely, given Johnson appointed him captain at Bristol City, but you get the sense that something’s not quite right there, and Wright will be on the move sooner rather than later).
So it looks increasingly likely that O’Nien will be appointed Sunderland’s new captain – and, if so, it could be one of the best decisions Lee Johnson’s made so far in his spell here.
The importance of a good skipper
When it comes to football captains, people tend to fall into one of two camps. Either it’s a purely symbolic role and it doesn’t really matter who the captain is (enter ‘we should have 11 captains out there’ cliche in here) or it’s a hugely important role that needs the right person in it.
I fall firmly in the latter camp. It’s naive to think of the captaincy purely in an on-the-field sense. As far as I’m concerned, a good captain is crucial to the team’s performance – and the club’s development – and the vast, vast majority of their impact is off the field.
As a Sunderland supporter, I was brought up with Gary Bennett and Kevin Ball as captains. Two men who are leaders. Two men that had the respect of the dressing rooms, and were a crucial link between playing squad and manager.
Two men who got Sunderland, who knew what the club means to supporters. Two men who knew what it takes to make it as a Sunderland player.
It’s no surprise those two men are still actively involved in the football club.
Being a captain is about far, far, more than wearing the armband, tossing a coin and cajoling players when needed.
A good captain manages the playing squad in a way that, by virtue of his position, the manager simply cannot do. A good captain is in charge in the dressing room, maintains a code of conduct, ensures things off the field are right – from the first team to the youth team – and is the link between not only the players and the management but the players and the community too.
Since Bally’s departure we’ve never had a captain who really took on that role as his predecessors – Bobby Kerr and Charlie Hurley among them – did. We’ve had a variety of people with the armband – from Dean Whitehead and Gary Breen to John O’Shea and Lee Cattermole – and while some may have excelled at one aspect or another, to my mind no one’s really ‘owned’ the role.
O’Nien – the ideal candidate for captain
Since his arrival at Sunderland, O’Nien’s been a model professional – he seems to look after himself off the field, and is articulate and intelligent when interviewed. His attitude is spot on – a rare oasis of positivity in a sea of negativity – he interacts with fans well, he has a tremendous work ethic and seems to genuinely care for the club.
He wants to be here. He’s excited and happy to be here.
Stories made the press last year of the work he and Jordan Willis were doing to mentor the youth team players – completely of their own initiative – and it’s this sort of attitude that the club’s been lacking for so, so long.
We need people to invest their hearts and souls into the club – just as Hurley, Kerr, Benno and Bally did. We’ve had too many players who’ve been happy just to see their vast pay land in their bank accounts every month.
Anyone who’s listened to O’Nien’s podcast can’t help but be impressed by his desire for improvement – big improvements, yes, but small, incremental improvements, too. He’s got an insatiable desire to learn and to get better. And what a superb attitude and ethos for the club captain to embody, and embed further into the whole club.
If O’Nien – who seems popular with the rest of the squad – can step up to take that extra level of responsibility, it could make a significantly positive impact on the whole of the squad. The whole of the club. We need a captain who demands high standards and leads by example, and O’Nien can certainly do just that.
No more versatility on the field?
While he has lots of stellar attributes to captain the side, what about on the field. As well as the carrot of the captaincy potentially being dangled in front of him during contract negotiations, surely some assurances over his playing position have been, too.
Given that, despite our lack of full-backs, O’Nien started in midfield, it suggests this has been the case. Lee Johnson’s post-match comments that O’Nien will primarily be played in midfield this season all but confirmed it.
For all he’s done very well at Sunderland overall as a player, O’Nien’s rarely had the opportunity to play in his natural position in the centre of midfield. Some may argue that, if he’d been good enough to play in midfield he would have been playing there. I disagree. He’s been played out of position – at right-back, right wing-back and last season at centre back purely out of necessity – and has done remarkably well everywhere he’s played.
Of course, he started his first game in a Sunderland shirt, at home to Charlton, in midfield and frankly looked lost. But on the rare occasions that he’s subsequently been given a run out in midfield he’s performed well and looks to have a goal threat that we’ve been lacking from our engine room.
In some respects, in terms of his career trajectory, he’d probably have been better off not signing for us. He joined the club from Wycombe after gaining promotion to League One, and would undoubtedly have been a regular starter for them in midfield. With Wycombe’s (dodgy) promotion last year he’d have had the opportunity of a season in the Championship – who knows what could have happened.
Instead, he’s spent three years being played out of position in League One, but he’s developed as a person and as a player, and with an additional 100 or so games under his belt I’m confident he can excel in what is his ‘natural’ position. He’ll add an energy, enthusiasm and goal threat that we’ve not had there in what seems like living memory.
O’Nien – the people’s choice?
Of course, some supporters may not rate O’Nien as highly as a player as others – yes, he made some errors at centre back last year, but when our first choice centre backs are prone to doing the same it seems a touch harsh to go overboard on O’Nien. His solid performances significantly outweighed his poor ones. He’s a talented player, but he’s a League One player (he could easily play in the Championship in my opinion) and as such he’s not going to be perfect week in, week out.
Who is in this division?
There’s also been a continual, underlying criticism of O’Nien from small, extreme elements of Sunderland fan representation on social media who seem to revel in deriding and putting O’Nien down – seemingly because he ‘smiles’ and has a positive attitude.
Why? Who knows. After all, we are all supporters, and by definition, all want to support the club and players, and see the club succeed.
Maybe it’s a belief that no one should be allowed to be remotely happy until we’re back in the Premier League?
For me, and I’m sure this goes for the vast, vast majority of Sunderland supporters, yes of course I want to get out of League One and back to where we all believe we belong. But I also want to see players who are happy being at the club, who want to be here, who exude positivity and are desperate for us to succeed.
And let’s not kid ourselves O’Nien’s Mr Nice Guy on the field – he’s got an innate desire to win, can stick his foot in, and has the ability to ‘shithouse’ when needed. Presumably a legacy of his Wycombe upbringing.
We’ve been through the mill on and off the field over recent seasons, and we need consistency and stability on and off the field if we are ever to break this cycle of failure.
Since John O’Shea’s departure, we’ve chopped and changed captains every season or two, and hopefully, if O’Nien is given the armband permanently, we can see the beginning of some stability there, too.
Because we need it and, make no mistake, this is a player – and a person – who can grow with the club over the coming seasons.
Luke O’Nien Sunderland captain? He certainly gets my vote.