This season, Luke O’Nien has been handed the task of being Dan Ballard’s full-time centre-back partner. The decision has been criticised by many, with some occasions this being more than justified, but all three of his head coaches this campaign have stuck with him in the role.
Another responsibility handed to O’Nien is the captaincy, a position which often requires someone who has a big personality and can be both a caring arm-around-the-shoulder type of person or a player who can give a scalding to a teammate when needed. Luke has shown himself to be both of these types of person this season.
The 2-0 win against Preston North End on New Year's Day was a prime example of why O’Nien is a great player to have as captain. Upon Nazariy Rusyn scoring his first goal for the club, O’Nien made his way through the crowd of celebrating Sunderland players to hug the Ukranian. He then made an effort to push Rusyn towards the Roker End, giving him the chance to be singled out in the celebrations of what was a lovely finish.
It’s important to look past footballers being just that and to recognise that they are humans. Rusyn is a player who moved to Sunderland without his family and could not speak the language. He’s had a long wait to be given a proper go in the starting line-up and after a great display on New Year’s Day, this is hopefully what we’ll see.
O’Nien made sure that Rusyn received well-deserved praise and allowed him a few seconds to soak up the occasion. This kind of support is hugely beneficial to our younger players, particularly those who have moved from abroad. Being integrated into the squad daily will help even the most disconnected person feel settled- something which is key when taking the big leap of moving overseas.
Luke did this following the 5-0 win against Southampton, except the man at the centre of attention then was Jewison Benette. The Costa Rican came off the bench and spun Southampton defenders into oblivion before putting a stunning cross into the box for Chris Rigg to head home. O’Nien made sure Jewi got the praise he deserved — unfortunately, that was the last time any of us saw him in the first team for Sunderland.
Yet what makes O’Nien a great captain is that he handed out constructive criticism as well as praise. At one point during the Preston win, he was addressing Timothy Pemebele in a way that looked like he was frustrated.
Whatever it was, the point got across well and it was good to see our captain addressing this on the pitch to a player who will soon find his feet and become a solid part of an improving squad.
Luke O’Nien is a vibrant and important part of Sunderland AFC, both on and off the pitch. He has become a staple of a defensive line that, although it could look different soon, looks to be tightening up under Michael Beale. Disciplined displays from Luke and Co have helped towards this, and it stands us in good stead as we push into the New Year.