When Luke O’Nien first arrived at Sunderland, he couldn’t believe his luck.
After all, having been released by Watford as a teenager and then forced to earn his stripes in League Two with Wycombe Wanderers, rocking up at the biggest club in League One was a huge step up from what he had become used to elsewhere.
He’d worked hard to get here, though. He was keen to make a great first impression.
And due to the lack of options available to the Sunderland manager at the time, O’Nien was given that chance to show his worth earlier than many may have perhaps expected - starting the very first game of the season in the centre of the park alongside another rookie, Bali Mumba, in a tough game against Charlton Athletic.
I’ve heard O’Nien talk about that day more than once, but it’s fair to say that being pulled at half time massively affected his confidence. He took months to recover and only found his way back in the side after an opening appeared at right back. He made that position his own and, as a unique character, Luke worked harder than anyone else to force his way into the team.
I honestly don’t believe that the majority of other young players out there would have dealt with that situation in the way that Luke did, though. Most would have fizzled away and probably ended up leaving the club at some point - see George Dobson, for example.
Really, when you think about it, it probably wasn’t fair to expect such an inexperienced player to jump straight in and succeed. In an ideal world, we would have taken our time with Luke before introducing him slowly, in cup games, and so on, and once the first few months of the season were out of the way, he would have probably been more ready to make an impact. The way you handle a young player at that point could be make or break.
I mention this story here because right now, Sunderland possess a gaggle of new recruits who arrived probably expecting to have played a lot more football than they have.
Only Dennis Cirkin and Callum Doyle have seen significant game time - everyone else has had to wait it out, mainly because the players in the team already are playing so well, scoring goals and winning games.
It’s a bit of a strange situation to be in - ultimately, there’s a bunch of players there now that are largely undroppable.
For example, absolutely nobody expected Carl Winchester to be one of our best players this season, yet here we are. He’s bossing it at right-back and unless he gets injured, I don’t see how Niall Huggins gets in the team any time soon.
Up top, Ross Stewart is leading the line impeccably. Nathan Broadhead must be frustrated that he’s barely kicked a ball since coming in from Everton, but it’s impossible to drop the big man. Likewise, Aiden O’Brien has four goals in cup competitions this season yet didn’t even make the bench last weekend - competition is fierce.
Alex Pritchard was probably the highest-profile signing we made in the summer, but a combination of missing most of pre-season due to catching COVID and the elite form of Elliot Embleton has meant he’s been restricted to cup and substitute appearances - not quite the start to life he probably expected.
And it goes on and on - the only positions I’d really say, as of writing, are up for grabs are at centre half (Tom Flanagan will miss out at Fleetwood through suspension, meaning either Bailey Wright or Frederik Alves will get a chance to steal that spot), and the wide positions, with the form of Aiden McGeady and Lynden Gooch so far this season leaving little to be desired. Nathan Broadhead is apparently very capable on both flanks, and Leon Dajaku will be able to challenge once he’s fully fit, but they’re being made to wait. And to be fair to both Gooch and McGeady, whilst they haven’t been great, they’ve each picked up an assist each in our last two games, which might buy them a little time.
I imagine that all of these players are hugely frustrated - but what they may not realise is that they’re being handed a luxury that very few footballers are ever afforded.
When you move to a new club, it isn’t just a footballing adjustment that you make. Your whole life changes - for some more than others - and you have a litany of things to work out and deal with before you can actually settle and concentrate on your game.
For the younger lads, this is probably the first time that they’ve ever had to live away from home for a sustained period. Dajaku and Thorben Hoffmann have come from a different country, so settling for them will probably be more difficult than for others. Older players like Corry Evans and Alex Pritchard are probably more used to moving around, but if their families aren’t following them north, that presents a whole load of other issues.
Every player’s situation is different, but what’s true of them all is that they all need to ‘settle in’ to varying degrees.
They work every day, they train every day, but they aren’t playing in games - and that’s not always such a bad thing when you’re looking to make a great impression.
Their opportunities will eventually come - the season is long; injuries will occur, and people will get suspended, like Tom Flanagan has this weekend. We will, unfortunately, eventually lose games, players will suffer from drops in form, cup games will come around, and that’s where they’ll get their chance to impress.
We’re going to need a big squad this season, one motivated to work hard every day, pushing their peers to their limits and striving for the common goal of promotion.
You cannot achieve success with just eleven men - you need almost an entire other team of other players to call upon at any given time, and for probably the first time since we dropped into League One, we’ve got an incredibly strong squad made up of hungry, energetic players.
This is nothing personal - simply, they’ve arrived at a club where standards are high, as are our ambitions. That’s the way we should want it to be. If you want to make it at Sunderland, you should have to work very hard to even earn that opportunity.
It might not seem like it right now, but they’ll get their chance at some point and when it comes, it’s up to them to keep that place. What a fantastic position to be in!