Since signing for Sunderland in the summer of 2018, Luke O’Nien has established himself as a fan favourite, with much of the adoration attributed to his work rate, his on-pitch attitude, and a general sense that he is a really good lad who simply enjoys playing for the club.
It was a big step up for O’Nien after switching from (at the time) a promoted League Two side in Wycombe to a relative giant at League One level, in terms of expectation, support and facilities.
With that in mind, it is to his great credit that his stock has risen significantly over the course of four years. In that time, he has racked up 175 appearances and has become a mainstay of the team.
When a player experiences such a rise, it naturally leads to interest from elsewhere, and O’Nien is no exception.
It has been well documented that he has often been on the radar of Championship clubs throughout his time on Wearside.
As recently as last summer, Peterborough, Preston and Hull were all credited with an interest in acquiring his services, and in 2019, Stewart Donald specifically referenced rejected offers for the midfielder:
A lot is made of the fact that we cash in, etc. We didn’t agree to sell Aiden McGeady, we didn’t agree to sell Luke O’Nien and we didn’t agree to sell Jon McLaughlin.
What all this proves is that although he has had several chances to leave Sunderland, he has remained faithful, and last season he penned a three-year contract extension in the face of legitimate interest from the league above.
He has made it clear that he has aspirations of playing in the Premier League, and rather than take a quicker path, he has opted to continue what he started here, citing how “desperate” he is to play in the Championship with Sunderland.
Having achieved that goal with a playoff final victory over Wycombe, can he continue to progress at the club that took a chance on him four years ago?
For me, O’Nien’s attitude is at the forefront of everything he does. He appears to have a genuine affinity for Sunderland that hasn’t always been demonstrated by everyone who has played for us.
In addition, he is generally loved by supporters, the feeling is mutual, and this was illustrated in a recent post on his social media account, alongside a video of him lining up prior to our playoff final victory, grinning like the proverbial Cheshire Cat.
It is important to remember that O’Nien endured a tough start to his Sunderland career.
Thrown into the first game of the 2018/2019 season against Charlton in front of a bumper crowd hoping for a response following back-to-back relegations, he turned in a muted display.
That game was followed by a difficult acclimatisation process, during which he felt isolated after moving to the North East, and commented that he was doing extra training just to keep busy.
How things have changed since. Four years on, he is loved by the supporters, he has tapped into the beating heart of Sunderland, and I believe it is firmly under his skin.
An interesting point to consider is exactly how ready he is to make the step up to the Championship.
Clearly, other clubs believe he is capable, but some fans are of the opinion that he does not possess the required technical quality to succeed. In response to that, I think it is important to push the strengths of the individual, as opposed to focusing on what a player is unable to achieve.
I do not think that he will ever be a playmaker in the mould of Alex Pritchard, for example, but he has a number of attributes that are absolutely vital.
He has an unquestionable work rate and desire, alongside a generally solid all-round game. This is complemented by his oft-overlooked aerial ability, and a willingness to do the dirty work when needed.
You only have to look at the struggles of Andy Hinchcliffe’s own world-class favourite- Barry Bannan- across both legs of the playoff semi-final to see the kind of job that O’Nien can do.
It is not always pretty, but it is vital to an Alex Neil side, and I think every team needs a player of his ilk. Equally, his willingness to work hard lends itself to improvement, and I’m sure he will back himself to meet the standards of a superior league.
I feel like I hark back to his attitude repeatedly, but it really is something special.
Look at his desire to play through injury with his shoulder problems, for example, which was eventually curtailed when surgery was needed. During this time, he was honest about how his mental health had suffered, a refreshing take that should be commended, which in itself is a glowing endorsement of the man, as well as the player.
He understands the ethos of Sunderland and has gone past simply being another one in a long list of players to have worn the red and white. If he continues to work hard, I’m sure he will adapt to life in the Championship, and maybe he will fulfil the Premier League dream at Sunderland, if and when we return to the top flight.
With O’Nien, you have a player with a bona fide passion for the club, and I’d go as far to say that his return from injury is one of the main reasons that we managed to reach the playoffs.
His performances across those three games were key in us achieving promotion, and at the very least, he deserves a chance to continue his progression with us.
Without any hesitation, I’d back him to keep impressing and help us keep moving on an upward trajectory.