As Sunderland’s season has hit the rocks in recent weeks, one of the regular pre and post-match refrains is that we are woefully short of on-pitch leaders - and not just from the fans in the stadium or on social media.
Listen to Gary Bennett’s analysis during radio broadcasts of Sunderland games, and you can be certain that, four or five times per game, the great man will refer to our ‘lack of leadership’, in a very frustrated tone.
Last summer, when the likes of Corry Evans arrived at the club, Lee Johnson established what he described as a ‘leadership group’, which would, in theory, carry the mantle of on-field leadership among a core of senior pros, and ensure that the younger players were not left to fend for themselves if the going got tough.
Since then, however, things have taken a decisive turn for the worse. Evans’ influence on games has often been minimal, Bailey Wright is still on the comeback trail after his own injury struggles, and Sunderland’s only real talisman at this point is Alex Pritchard, who seems to have evolved into a leader without really trying.
With that in mind, the return of Luke O’Nien to the squad, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, is something that, in light of the multitude of issues we currently face, may well give us something of a spark, and could help the team to at least build up some momentum as the season heads for its conclusion.
Absent from the first team since November, he will doubtless have watched the recent disintegration of our form through clenched teeth and probably with as much dismay and anger as every single fan.
It is often used as a throwaway defence of a player to suggest they ‘care’, but in his case, it would extremely churlish to deny it. The way O’Nien has always conducted himself, not least with the fans and in the community work he undertakes on behalf of the club, shouldn’t be overlooked.
As someone who has been at the club since our foray into League One began, O’Nien can speak from bitter experience of seeing promotion challenges end in heartbreak, having tasted defeat in the playoff final during his first season on Wearside, and then losing out to Lincoln in the semi-final last season.
The squad was overhauled in the aftermath of that defeat, with many of the summer 2018 intake of players departing, but O’Nien penned a new contract, with Johnson clearly seeing some merit in retaining his services.
Indeed, the former head coach often made use of O’Nien’s versatility during his time at the SOL, something that he often spoke very highly of. I’ve always felt that attitude is as important as talent in this division, and that is a box that O’Nien ticks.
It goes without saying that O’Nien is not, and never will be, the most gifted footballer at the club. He can often be positionally suspect defensively, and he does have a habit of picking up sloppy yellow cards and allowing the opposition to get under his skin from time to time.
What the ex-Wycombe player does offer, however, is an impressive work rate, and a willingness to empty the tank, whether in victory or defeat. The fact that he refused to undergo surgery earlier in the autumn, despite visibly playing through the pain barrier, was admirable as well.
I get a sense that these are qualities that Alex Neil values greatly, and will be eager for the players to show over the remaining fourteen games. If we are gearing ourselves up for the playoffs by the time O’Nien returns to the fray, he’ll doubtless be absolutely determined to help drive the squad into the end-of-season shootout as positively as possible.
When the decision was taken to withdraw O’Nien from the firing line and for him to undergo surgery last November, after suffering a number of shoulder dislocations, the reaction was, naturally, fairly vocal. Few seemed to believe he would be a big miss, given that, at the time, our squad had not yet been decimated by injuries.
Fast forward three months, however, and some of his aggression and drive might be something of a godsend for a team that looks worryingly fragile.
We haven’t really got a player, at the moment (bar Jay Matete) who looks like they are willing to do whatever it takes in order to ensure the team comes out on top, whether that be chasing seemingly lost causes or making a tough tackle and getting the team onto the front foot.
Will O’Nien’s approach have changed during his absence? I don’t think it will, and it’s a good bet that he’ll re-enter the fray with manic enthusiasm and with desperation to make up for lost time when he is given the green light to return.
We do have equally, if not more influential players still to return, including Nathan Broadhead and Niall Huggins, but if O’Nien can make his comeback on schedule and play a part during the run-in, it could just give the club a lift we will need if we are to end the season on a high.