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Norwich City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship

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Five years after he first arrived, Luke O’Nien’s influence is more vital than ever for Sunderland

O’Nien’s versatility, work rate, and team-oriented approach are proving to be invaluable for us, and his return to the team at Norwich City demonstrated exactly why.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

When he arrived at the club in the summer of 2018 from Wycombe Wanderers, how long might you have assumed Luke O’Nien would be a Sunderland player?

Had we managed to escape League One at the first attempt under Jack Ross, could you have foreseen him making a significant impact in the Championship, or being rapidly exposed at a higher level and moved to the fringes of the squad before eventually making way altogether?

Fast forward half a decade, however, and it’s safe to say that things have panned out quite remarkably, and certainly in a positive way.

His fellow members of the ‘class of 2018’, including Max Power, Charlie Wyke, Alim Ozturk and Dylan McGeouch are long gone, but O’Nien remains, still grafting, still leading, and still contributing. He’s been here through the near-misses, the heartaches, the hammerings, the managerial changes and eventually the glory of Wembley success against his former club last May.

So, after an eventful spell at the Stadium of Light so far, has he made the step up to the Championship successfully? Without a doubt.

O’Nien’s return to the starting eleven against Norwich on Sunday was not only a welcome sight; it was a call that was utterly crucial to our victory over the Canaries.

Norwich City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship - Carrow Road Photo by Joe Giddens/PA Images via Getty Images

He slotted in at left back (the latest in a frankly ridiculous multitude of positions he’s played since 2018) and proceeded to dominate the game, tackling everything that moved, heading anything that came his way, and injecting some much-needed aggression into the team.

No Sunderland eleven with O’Nien in it is ever going to take a backward step, and that mindset filtered throughout the side on Sunday, helping us to an impressive win and ensuring that the 1-5 debacle against Stoke City was consigned to the dustbin.

For his younger teammates, his attitude at Carrow Road was clearly a shining example, and far from showing the hosts too much respect, we showed them none whatsoever, and he was central to that.

Norwich City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images

Sunday was also a welcome boost because after a run of three defeats during which O’Nien’s influence was pretty minimal, we started to wonder what was going on. Had there been a trust issue between himself and Tony Mowbray, despite the head coach regularly praising and hailing him as a key figure in the dressing room?

The red card he picked up against Swansea was unfortunate, but reflecting on the tough games against Rotherham and Coventry, you wonder whether we might’ve stood more of a chance had he been drafted in for those fixtures, but that’s in the past.

So, should O’Nien’s ongoing importance come as a surprise? Personally, I don’t think so.

Looking beyond his on-field ability, for which he often doesn’t receive due credit, he embodies many of the qualities that a Sunderland player should.

Sunderland v Swansea City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

He’s a wonderful example of a player not local to the area, who moved to Wearside in order to further his career and has found a home here. From day one, he showed up the club’s former wasters and wage-stealers for what they were, applied himself diligently and became an integral part of the team.

The tired old tropes about him ‘smiling a lot’ and being limited as a footballer are thankfully all but gone now. He’s emerged from some tough times in red and white and as such, he doubtless appreciates the chance to play in the Championship even more.

Come the summer, when we dip into the transfer market and strengthen the team for 2023/2024, you can bet that O’Nien will apply himself even more and do everything in his power to show that he can remain a key player for the foreseeable future.

We’re fortunate enough to be able to call on a raft of exciting creative-minded players at this moment in time, but you always need to augment that with some abrasiveness and the organic qualities that a computer can’t measure, a profile that O’Nien fits perfectly.

He’s a leader on the pitch, articulate and insightful in interviews, and his work surrounding mental health awareness shouldn't go unheralded, either.

Our best eleven should always have a place for such a versatile and selfless player, and hopefully he remains a go-to pick for the remaining ten games of the season.

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