Luke O'Nien opens up on his Sunderland role and season in typically brilliant fashion
One of the defining moments of Sunderland's season so far came as Lynden Gooch fired a low shot into the bottom corner at Walsall.
Luke O’Nien shook the net and then pounced on a delirious supporter.
There has never been any doubting the midfielder’s infectious enthusiasm but that game also underlined his growing importance as a player.
He may not have had the starts he would have hoped for but his contributions from the bench have been excellent, never more so than that afternoon as he helped Sunderland haul themselves back from a two-goal deficit, despite playing with ten men.
He has been superb playing in a more advanced role, keeping Sunderland high up the pitch and playing in dangerous areas as the game reaches its critical point.
The delight of those contributions far exceeds any frustration at a lack of starts.
“Frustration in football, you have to channel it,” O’Nien said.
“If you’re not in the team there are reasons for it, either the team’s doing really well and if they’re doing that, great , or you’ve got things to work on.
“We have a cool team where I can speak to anybody here and they’ll say, ‘You need to do this, you need to do that.’
“There are always things to be working on for me.
“You just have to look at the players in front of me,” he added.
“In training today Geads [Aiden McGeady] turned me inside out and I still don’t know where he went. I get to learn from players like that in training every day. Every week I’m getting stronger, I’m getting faster and my game’s improving.
“I’m in a good position because the manager keeps giving me more minutes and it’s important because coming on you either want to help maintain things or help change the game.
“I’ve still got a lot to do but the most important thing for me is that come Saturday five o’clock we have three points.”
That attitude was summed up when O’Nien was asked to play right back against Walsall.
The 24-year-old took on the challenge in trademark fashion.
“Potts came up to me on the Monday and said, “Have you played right-back before?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve played right-back a few times... on FIFA!’
“In a game? I’m not sure I have, but I didn’t tell him that,” he said.
“But I’ve played there in training, I’ve watched people play there, I thought yes was the right answer and I picked it up fast. I learn fast.
“I had Flans [Tom Flanagan] next to me and he helped me out so I was more than happy to play there.
“A couple of years ago I was second-choice goalie at Wycombe. We didn’t have any goalies on the bench, so they told me I was on the bench and if the keeper went off I was in. I went, ‘Yes!’
“Right-back, left-back, it doesn’t really matter to me, I know what I need to do. I did well and I got good feedback. I’ve looked at some of my footage so if we have any more injuries or anything like that the manager knows I’m ready to go.”
Jack Ross has spoken regularly of the adjustments O’Nien needed to make in his opening months on Wearside but has also always said that he has a big future at Sunderland.
The midfielder has taken on a different role to the box-to-box game he thrived on at Wycombe Wanderers.
“I had a manager for three years at Wycombe and what he wanted from me was completely different from what the gaffer here wanted me to do, so for me to change [suddenly], it’s hard,” he said.
“It took me a while.
“I was speaking to the gaffer and he speaks to me every day. I think the gaffer saw I was looking to improve, willing to change. It might have taken me a little longer than people expected or hoped for but as long as you’re constantly looking to improve, that’s the most important thing.
“The gaffer recognised that and gave me the right information when I needed it. He told me he understood what I was going through.
“Everyone has their own path. He understood my path and helped me get to where I am now. I’m in a good position now where I understand what the team needs from me, what I’m doing, and I understand each position better. Hopefully in another two or three months it can only be better and better.
“I’ve enjoyed working under everyone here, especially the gaffer.
“At Wycombe I played box-to-box. I’ve come here and I’ve played more attacking, he added.
“It’s important to learn all roles in midfield.
“When we play 4-2-3-1 you’ve got five [midfield] positions there and they’re all different. You’ve got to learn a lot for each one because they’ve all got different positioning and requirements.
“It took me a while to adjust to the position. Maj has played an advanced role, George – most players have played there. So it’s learning from them, watching back my footage. When I first arrived I was making runs too early and not running onto the ball.
“It’s a constant education of learning each position. I come on sometimes in a deeper role.
“I’ve been versatile. When the 60 minutes come up, some of the boys have really worked hard and it’s important for me to continue that, whether from a deeper role or an attacking role. Wherever the manager puts me, I’m ready to go.”
Change on the pitch is only part of the picture.
O’Nien has also been adjusting to a new region and a new life, something he is relishing.
“Oh I’m loving it! It took a while to transition but it was new to me because when I was at Watford and Wycombe I was always near home,” he said.
“Coming up here by myself I’ve really enjoyed it.
“It’s been challenging and it took me a good couple months to adjust and that’s probably reflected in the amount of gametime I got. In the last two months or so I’ve started to get more pitch-time because the manager’s got a bit more trust in me. That’s because I’m starting to understand the club and the players around me a bit more.
“It’s difficult just to go from one place to another and fit in straight away. Everyone handles thing differently and it took me maybe a bit longer than others.
“We’ve got players here who are doing the same and I’ve got lots of people to learn from.
“At this moment I’ve loved every day. Some have been more challenging than others but you’ve got to take each day with a level head and what I’ve learned in the last four months is what you can learn in two or three years, just through the sheer size of the club, the players are brilliant.
“For me there’s nothing better than being in an environment where you’re developing all aspects of the game. That can only help myself, the club and all the players around me get to where we want to.”
O’Nien may not start against Portsmouth but has every chance of making an impact.
The celebrations will no doubt be worth watching if he does.