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Sunderland v AS Roma: Pre-Season Friendly

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Roker Roundtable: How important will Luke O’Nien’s influence be this season?

Sunderland’s ‘Mr Versatile’ caught the eye in Portugal with two forceful displays. How big a role will he play during Sunderland’s Championship campaign?

Photo by Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images

Sean Brown says…

One of the many wonderful things about O’Nien - beyond a smile that aggravates the terminally miserable - is his proven ability to play in almost any position, which in many ways makes him the perfect team player.

I’ve never hidden my love for the lad, so I may be heavily biased here, and I could go on praising him for all the things that often go unnoticed, but I won’t. I will, however, repeat the fact that he leads by example both on and off the pitch.

This season is an unknown for a lot of our lads. We can guess at exactly how they’ll cope against a slightly higher calibre of player during a gruelling Championship campaign, but that’s about it.

So my guess is that O’Nien will continue to feature in the roles he’s best known for.

If Alex Neil wants his physicality and aggression in midfield, that’s where he’ll be. Likewise, if he’s required to play in defence, he’ll do so.

His performances in pre-season so far have been ‘typical Luke’, really: during our abandoned friendly against Rangers, he played like a seasoned defender- robbing the attackers of any momentum, remaining composed throughout, picking sensible passes and coming up with the only goal of the game.

In his next forty-minute performance against a fairly strong Roma side, he absolutely flew into challenges in midfield, leaving his mark on more than one of Jose Mourinho’s men, to the point where the Special One decided to wander onto the pitch to get involved - presumably he was thinking that if he didn’t, half of his team would be carrying knocks by the time the match ended.

The lad’s performance was just entertaining from the moment he first got stuck in, to the moment when he was unceremoniously hauled off.

Obviously we can’t take much from these games. They’re not a great indicator of how a side or player will progress throughout a full season, but we already know exactly what he offers.

I honestly think that O’Nien could be one of our most important players this season. I’m hopeful that he can adapt to the Championship quickly - not an issue looking at half the opposition we’ll be facing, in my opinion - and he’ll flourish yet again.

He will meet the f**k out of that ball, he will make key challenges; he will disrupt games for fun, he will leave his mark on those he comes up against, he will win aerial battles all over the pitch, he will score the odd goal from nothing, he will assist his teammates to the very best of his ability, he will get into a few fights, and he will lead our side with the sort of passion and commitment we’ve seen from very few Sunderland players over the years - and even despite the mistakes he may also make - we will absolutely adore him for all of it and roar him on every step of the way.

Most of us, anyway...

I’ll leave the system and where he fits to our manager, but Luke O’Nien - as he has done every season since he arrived - gives me a real sense of hope for what lies ahead.

No pressure, fella!

Sunderland Pre-Season Training Camp Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Malc Dugdale says…

Whilst not as effusive as Sean clearly is about Luke, I absolutely loved his attitude and application during the Roma game.

Yes, he got a yellow card and was close to picking up an undeserved red, but the graft, commitment, and never-give-up attitude was a joy to watch.

This was especially impressive considering this was ‘only’ a pre-season game, and in hot temperatures, his fitness level was clearly already very high. It is obvious that he wants to stake his claim immediately, and he has made a good case already.

I see him as a very good option for the team, as cover at centre-back and full-back, and his forty five minutes against Rangers was as decent a showing in defence as his efforts in midfield against Roma.

That being said, I do think that O’Nien can and should apply his qualities in a similar way to players such as Jay Matete and to a lesser extent, Corry Evans.

If we need a robust energetic midfield dynamo to break up the play and score the odd goal, he has proven in the past he can do that. He faces a challenge to force himself into the starting eleven, and in some ways, his yellow card against Roma will count against him in the eyes of the gaffer- his aggression has to be contained or it could lead to red cards and suspensions.

For us to have three such players vying for the role of ‘disruptive, energetic midfielder’ is a decent place to be, and we may well add to that collection before the transfer window closes.

As mentioned by Sean, he would get an A* for doing the washing up and would be happy to do that for us, if it was required of him.

I really hope he gets a chance to shine, as he lives and breathes Sunderland. This could be a great season for our smiling assassin of a midfielder, and I really hope he gives it a good go.

Sunderland v Rangers: Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Mitch Marshall says…

Thinking about where Luke O’Nien might fit into our side this season makes me optimistic for the season ahead.

Although I love his adaptability and enthusiasm- as outlined above - it will be nice not to have to rely on him for anything more than he is capable of giving at Championship level, such is the calibre of our squad.

This is certainly true in midfield, where Jay Matete and Corry Evans provide the mettle, Dan Neil offers dynamism and enormous potential, and Elliot Embleton and Alex Pritchard are both more than comfortable with providing creativity in central areas behind the striker.

Defensively, our solid combination of Bailey Wright (once he gets up to speed after his international commitments this summer) and Danny Batth has been supplemented by the exciting addition of Dan Ballard.

Consequently, I feel that it is unlikely that O’Nien will have to play in central defence too often- especially given that Dennis Cirkin and Carl Winchester can do that job in a back three fairly adequately too.

Perhaps O’Nien will play a major role at full-back, especially if Alex Neil opts for a back four for the majority of the campaign. It’s hard to know how much of a role Trai Hume or Niall Huggins will play, having barely even featured at League One level, and Carl Winchester’s suitability as a Championship right-back is uncertain, too.

Nevertheless, Lynden Gooch has demonstrated his ability to essentially play out of position as a right full-back, while both he, Jack Clarke, and Patrick Roberts can do a job as wing-backs when necessary.

This may be a position we look to add depth in, especially if the likes of Hume are loaned out, but I am happy that O’Nien can offer cover when needed.

As such, despite my love for him during our spell in League One, I find it calming to think that he need not be thrown in at the deep end on our return to the Championship.

Instead, he can put his best qualities to use without worrying about having to be a lynchpin of our team at a higher level. His willingness to run, jump, and tackle for his life in whichever position the manager needs him to cover throughout the long, arduous Championship campaign makes him a great member of a relatively deep, cohesive squad by Sunderland’s recent standards.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One - Play Off - Final - Wembley Stadium Photo by Tim Goode/PA Images via Getty Images

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