When you mention Luke O’Nien, you’ll struggle to find many Sunderland fans or individuals in general who have a bad word to say about him. He’s a consummate professional and one who, in the past, outshone some of his teammates with his commitment. O’Nien embodies everything you’d want in a professional footballer.
It’s fair to say that despite being a Sunderland player for five years now, O’Nien’s true position has been difficult to pinpoint. Having played in almost every position on the pitch, it finally appears that we’ve found a permanent role for him.
Playing in central defence alongside the talismanic Dan Ballard, he has helped solidify our defence, which has conceded just six goals this season, securing two clean sheets along the way. O’Nien, after a shaky start against Ipswich, has made this position his own and ensured that the departure of Danny Batth and the long-term injury to Aji Alese (who will almost certainly be used as a centre-back this season) have not been felt.
Having O’Nien in the back four has added mobility to our team. He and Ballard appear comfortable on the ball, and the ability to play out from the back often pays off for this Sunderland side. Additionally, despite his cheerful disposition, O’Nien is tough as nails. He isn’t afraid to get stuck in when necessary, a crucial attribute for a centre-back even in the modern game. He combines composure on the ball with solidity, making his presence in the heart of defence increasingly sensible with each game.
We’ve all witnessed O’Nien’s significant personality both on and off the pitch at Sunderland. However, since receiving the captain’s armband this season, it seems he has truly come into his own, even more so than before. He exudes leadership qualities, constantly communicating with his teammates and providing encouragement.
A notable example of this occurred after the 5-0 win against Southampton. Following Jewison Bennette’s cross that set up Chris Rigg’s headed goal, O’Nien made sure to bring Bennette over to the Sunderland fans to bask in the well-deserved praise. Bennette is thousands of miles from home and is in the process of learning the language, and gestures like that will undoubtedly assist him in settling in.
His stature as a leader has become even more apparent in recent weeks. In Wednesday’s 3-1 win at Blackburn, there was a barely noticeable but telling instance. As tempers flared, Anthony Patterson approached to have his say, but O’Nien stepped in, taking hold of his goalkeeper and asking him to step away before addressing the referee. This is precisely the type of attitude often required in the professional game, and it was precisely what we needed at that moment.
As a footballer, he has his flaws, and his role as a centre-back will likely be handed over to one of the three other central defenders we have in the squad at some point this season. He was easily muscled off the ball in the lead-up to Cardiff’s winning goal. However, O’Nien is the kind of player who will learn from such experiences, whether it’s improving his positioning or another aspect of his game.
The club exhibits a level of togetherness we haven’t seen in years, and I have confidence in saying that Luke O’Nien is a major contributor to this. He has a deep affection for the club, and every time he puts on the shirt, he leaves nothing on the pitch. We are fortunate to have him, both as a person and as a player, and I look forward to him continuing to be a part of the club as we courageously move forward together.
This club is currently in a good place, constantly progressing in the right direction. For all the attacking flair we possess, we still need strong figures on the pitch and in the dressing room. Luke O’Nien is the nearly perfect candidate for this role at SAFC.