The summer of 2018 was a step into the unknown for many Sunderland fans. Back-to-back relegations had sentenced us to a first campaign at the third level of English football for only the second ever time.
The squad was rightly dismantled, and as a new era dawned we would sign a crop of players most of us had never heard of.
One of these first players to come through the door was a midfielder from Wycombe Wanderers. With his lovely smile and near-perfect hair, Luke O’Nien has made a home for himself on Wearside.
Since his arrival in the summer of 2018, plenty of players have joined the club. Most of them have since moved on, yet O’Nien remains a permanent fixture in the Sunderland set up.
This is by no means a fluke, and for several reasons we are very lucky to have him, both on and off the pitch.
His general off-field brilliance can be traced back to when he joined the club. He immediately got stuck into replacing seats with fans, and regularly turned out at events in the community.
During the pandemic lockdown, at a time when football took a back step, O’Nien recorded workout videos to share with Youtube followers to help those looking to keep body and mind active during what was a time of isolation for many.
On the field he struggled to nail down a regular place initially, but soon was giving it his all in an unfamiliar right back slot. Injuries meant a defensive slot was available, and although he’d never played there before he put his hand up and wanted to give it a go.
It could have backfired. It didn’t, and he ended up playing the vast majority of the season at full back, before playing commendably at centre back, too.
Without a doubt, my favourite LON moment came in May’s Play-Off final at Wembley. His crunching tackle near the halfway line issued a further statement to Wycombe, which said we were not going to lose. His passionate scream and first pump action was stunning, and in terms of key moments was on par with our two goals.
Luke O’Nien is a consummate professional in everything he does. He wears his heart on his sleeve and is a footballer and person we can all be proud to have representing our club.
His support for the community off the pitch has shown itself again more recently with his efforts to promote a Christmas toy collection for the Salvation Army. The organised effort to bring a smile to those who are less fortunate than him at Christmas time is overwhelming each time he meets up with fans. He’s always approachable and so happy to be chatting with supporters.
This is a guy who has no reason or no obligation to do these things, but he does them regardless. He is an absolutely top guy who, years after he has left, will be looked back on as a cult hero. I understand this term has a lot of weight behind it, but he has done more for the club and community in the last few years than most other players.
For me, O’Nien sums up everything you want in a footballer, but which you don’t see too much of in the professional game. He is a genuine person and just a very nice, positive guy off the pitch. On it, he continues to be moulded to fill gaps in our side. He has rarely put a foot wrong in and rarely does he leave anything out on the pitch.
Over 20 appearances so far this season is proof that he has made the step up to the Championship. The former Wycombe man is going to be as vital as ever in the second half of the season.
O’Nien seemingly loves playing for SAFC, and I in turn love seeing him in red and white. He doesn’t have the flash or flair of some of our other players, but what he does have is good old-fashioned graft and a passion for the game.
If we had 10 Luke O’Nien’ on the pitch, then we would outwork every single team in this division week in, week out. Hell, he’s surely due a chance in goal. I’d hardly be surprised to see this happen one day.
Off the pitch and around the club, O’Nien has been a bright light during what has been a dark few years for us. He has his critics, like all players, but for me far too much of it is unwarranted.
Whichever direction his Sunderland career goes in 2023, we can sleep soundly in the knowledge we saw one of the most hardworking players to represent the club in the last five years turn out in the famous red and white.
Don’t ever change Luke, you are an absolute credit to this club, and it’s a joy to say you play for SAFC. You are a perfect role model for younger Sunderland fans.
Hopefully, when his time at the club does come to an end, we’ll all appreciate LON for the hard-working, all-round nice guy he is.
As well as for being a bloody good player, too.