The story of Luke O’Nien’s Sunderland rise as Jack Ross gives in-depth explanation of decision to switch position
Few players have a better connection with the Sunderland support than Luke O’Nien and so it was fitting that he was right at the heart of the Rochdale celebrations.
There had been a wonderful moment before the game when the PA boomed out ‘rocking all over the world’, completely unaware of the significance this song held for the travelling fans.
They roared their ode to a new cult hero and the music was swiftly changed.
O’Nien delivered another exceptional display, driving his team forward from right-back. He laid on the crucial assist for George Honeyman and celebrated wildly in front of the away end as three precious points were confirmed.
It has been some journey for the 24-year-old, who started slowly before delivering a string of big contributions from the bench as an attacking midfielder.
Among all that, however, there had been an enforced cameo in an unfamiliar right-back role.
Sudnerland were short of bodies ahead of a cup tie against Walsall. O’Nien joked he had played the role before... on FIFA.
He did well, and the performance lingered in the mind of Jack Ross.
Eventually he returned there and became one of the first names on the team-sheet.
It could turn out to be one of the best decisions Ross makes all season.
“We played him there because we needed someone to play there due to the injuries we had,” Ross said.
“But we didn’t do it just throwing him in there.
“We looked at the attributes he had, and he’s got a lot that are suited to that position.
“Then because of his attitude and his approach, he learns how to play it which means he has just got better and better.
“When he plays in the middle of the pitch he covers so much ground. I wouldn’t say its easier there but you’re involved in the game all the time. It’s been encouraging him to cover the same distance from full back.
“It’s difficult to get right at it but you can get close if you get up and down, up and down,” he added.
“Even then, it’s a different kind of fitness because in midfield, it’s more about short bursts whereas at full back it’s longer runs and recovery.
“All these things he takes on board and he listens, he tries to improve upon. For a young man playing in the position for the first time, for a club like this for the first time, he has been brilliant.”
Crucial has been the way O’Nien has produced the goods in defence.
He has a good leap and is rarely beaten, a key reason why Ross made the switch.
“You strip it back and look at what you need to play full back,” Ross said.
“It sounds very obvious but it’s what you do in academies, and he ticked a lot of boxes.
“Even when we do a lot of one-v-one stuff in training, or if you watch him in games, he’s awkward to get past. He’s physical, he’s competitive, he doesn’t like people getting past him. There’s a lot of things that worked out for us.
“He’s been a revelation in that respect and credit to him for how he’s embraced that challenge.”
He is, put simply, a manager and a supporter’s dream.
“He’s a dream for a manager,” Ross said.
“His desire to want to get better is outstanding.
“But you have to have him in the right group as well, because he’s unique.
“What he then starts to do is influence others. Other players see how hard he works at making himself better, and they know if they replicate that they can improve.
“Luke makes the absolute best of himself and he’ll continue to do that,” he added.
“If other players take on that mantra then you’ll have a squad that is continually improving and that’s what you want as a manager.”