When Luke O’Nien first arrived at Sunderland back in the chaotic summer of 2018, you might’ve been forgiven for thinking that he was just another lower-league drifter, given a chance to make the switch from Wycombe on the basis that he’d be here for a year or two, before being moved on and embarking on a wandering career through the football pyramid.
However, it hasn’t quite worked out that way (perhaps to some people’s ongoing irritation), as next summer, it’ll be six years since O’Nien first set foot inside the Stadium of Light.
Now playing for his sixth Sunderland manager/head coach in Michael Beale, there are no indications that our captain is set to leave for pastures new any time soon, and he seems to have taken pleasure in defying the doubters and making the step up from League One to the Championship.
As the club continues to take steps forward, he remains a reassuring and constant presence within the squad, and the fact that he never fell out of favour with any coach from Jack Ross to Tony Mowbray speaks volumes. It’s simply not a coincidence that he’s retained his place during six often turbulent years, and while other players have come and gone, he’s very much a stalwart.
On Boxing Day, O’Nien played a key role for the Lads as we eked out a victory over Hull City.
Playing in his now customary position in central defence (with the impressive Jenson Seelt at right back), he turned in a typically robust display at the MKM Stadium, tackling with gusto, blocking with relish, and generally performing at the level that’s become his trademark.
It goes without saying that for reasons that are often unclear, O’Nien has frequently been one of the most criticised players at the club over the years. Some of it is fair, regarding his ability relative to some of his teammates, but much of it is exaggerated.
To begin to understand the criticism that O’Nien often receives, you have to consider the question of character, and it’s here that things start to become clearer.
He arrived at a time when the Sunderland dressing room was still haunted by the spectres of the work shy money grabbers who’d contributed to our downfall, and it was clear from day one that he was going to apply himself, work as hard as he could, and grasp the opportunity he’d been given.
O’Nien’s seemingly perpetually upbeat nature might not be to everyone’s taste and indeed, to those of a certain vintage, the surly, no-nonsense Kevin Ball represents the ideal vision of a red and white captain.
With his love of a tackle and a face on which you could smash concrete, Ball epitomised Sunderland under Peter Reid: no backward steps, never shirk a challenge, win at all costs. It was effective and a perfect fit for the times, but as the game evolves, so does the profile of a club captain.
With his positive demeanour, his commitment to improvement, his generosity with the fans and his willingness to play in whichever position is asked of him, O’Nien is cut from an entirely different cloth and in terms of conducting himself as a captain should, it’s difficult to find a solid argument with which to criticise him.
He’s not a shouter and he’s not known for his temper, but he leads by example, cajoling his teammates and playing a huge role in keeping an incredibly diverse group of footballers united. It’s true that he sometimes takes the darker arts of the game too far, but that’s part of the deal- you have to accept the quirks in order to reap the benefits.
As a defender, a position in which he finally seems to have settled after spending much of his career as a utility man, O’Nien has generally been a reliable figure alongside the brilliant Dan Ballard.
Has he made mistakes and costly errors? Of course, but as a good leader will do, he doesn’t shirk responsibility and uses the bad performances as a spur to respond strongly in the next game.
Whether you like the man or not, whether you rate him as a defender or you don’t, the unavoidable truth is that you don’t remain a fixture of Sunderland squads for over half a decade unless you’re adding something of value, and O’Nien certainly does that.
He had a front row seat as Sunderland AFC plumbed depths that few of us had ever experienced- playoff final losses, defeats against teams who we never thought we’d be playing, and so on- and the image of him kneeling on the Wembley turf after our playoff final success against Wycombe was telling. He’d stuck in through the darkest days and was now enjoying the rewards.
It feels like O’Nien’s attributes will find favour with Beale and as he continues to learn about his squad, reliable and dependable players will be worth their weight in gold. O’Nien certainly fits into that category and although things have changed a lot at Sunderland since 2018, he remains as valuable and steadfast as ever.