After a well-documented bumpy start to his career at the Stadium of Light, Jack Ross, Phil Parkinson, Lee Johnson, and Alex Neil have all selected Luke O’Nien whenever he’s been available.
Any objective assessment O’Nien’s ability as an EFL player and his utility in a team that suffers its fair share of injuries would surely conclude that he’s worth every penny of the three-year contract he signed on this day last summer.
It wasn’t an absolute certainty that he would stick about at the club when the Lads failed to get past the semi-final stage of the League 1 playoffs in May 2021, and he attracted offers from a number of different Championship outfits that where keen to add him to their squads for the season ahead.
It think my head was wanting to play Championship and I met with a few managers, which I’m grateful for and I wish them all the best next season, but even though my head said “Championship” my heart said it wanted to continue playing for this great club.
This was an honest and magnamous way to deal with what was, for a few weeks, a bit of a saga. But is this emotional openness, his positive persona, and his ability to connect with others means that for any supportercomes into contact with him is left with an indelible mark as his quality person.
These attributes also really rile the contrarian, no-nothing, and caveman elements of the fanbase, which makes every success he earns that little bit sweeter.
In terms of his proffesional attitude, O’Nien continues to set and maintain standard that are an example to everyone else at the club. He wants to train, he wants to improve, he knows the value of hard work and isn’t afraid to put in extra hours and embrace all of the support that’s available to him at the Academy of Light.
Since re-signing, O’Nien has played on through the pain barrier of a dislocated shoulder and worked hard to regain the sharpness needed to help us in our promotion push.
It is widely understood that part of the negotiations around his new contract included discussion about his role in the team, with his preference to be played in his natural midfield possition being a crucial point upon which he sought assurances from Lee Johnson.
And this season he’d played a vital role as one of the more exeperienced heads in the side, his return to the centre of the park alonside Corry Evans was crucial in the unbeaten run that took us back to the Championship. Few of us will forget how he celebrated winning that challenge in the middle of the park in the dying moments of the glorious win at Wembley this May.
It’s been genuinely wonderful to watch a young man flourish at the club, even during the lowest and darkest days in our long history. He’s settled here, spends his time in the city, is raising his young family here and, all in all, Luke seems to have fallen head-over-heals in love with our club.
And the feeling is now almost universally mutual, with promotion back to the Championship he has cemented his place in the hearts of the fanbase. He has expressed his ambition to play in the Premier League, and there can be no better place for a player now coming into his prime to achieve such a goal.
As new additions come into the Sunderland squad this summer, O’Nien may find he has increased competition across the park for a place in the starting eleven. But one thing he’s shown over the last few years is that he is valued by the coaching staff and his teammates and will always be in contention, and willing to cover wherever and whenever required.
He’s now 27 and will be almost 30 when his contract expires. As a super-fit lad who avoids alcohol, he could well play on for many years at a high level. But is is now certain that, when his time with the club does come to an end, he will go down as one of the undouted heros of this period in the club’s history and join the ranks of adopted Mackems who we have made truly one of our own.