Inside the major call Luke O'Nien faced this summer & why his new deal will encourage Sunderland supporters
There was a wry smile from Lee Johnson as he was asked what he expected to happen next with Luke O'Nien.
A week earlier, the Sunderland head coach had outlined how the majority of his summer had been spent in various zoom calls with potential recruits, explaining his plans going forward and why their development would be best served on Wearside.
Very clearly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, a significant amount of time had been spent with this popular and most versatile of players.
“With Luke, I must have spoken to him every other day for the last three or four weeks," Johnson said.
“I'm hopeful on that one, but it's not quite there yet."
By now, the fears of O'Nien moving to the Championship had all but dissipated and within four days, pen had been put to paper on a new three-year deal.
For both Sunderland and its fanbase, the significance of the deal is two-fold...
ON THE PITCH
When Lee Johnson first arrived on Wearside, O'Nien was out injured but the new head coach quickly gained an understanding of his application and enthusiasm behind the scenes.
An obsessive coach happiest when on the training ground, an affection was quickly forged.
One of Johnson's first comments was that he hoped to work alongside O'Nien to find a permanent position for the 26-year-old, enabling him to maximise his potential.
Given that Johnson has been tasked with implementing an aggressive pressing game, the widespread expectation would be that this would be in central midfield.
Then came injuries, one after the other.
In perhaps the most obvious example of best-laid plans going awry, O'Nien was thriving in the middle of the pitch in the early exchanges of a Papa John's Trophy game at MK Dons. Before even half an hour had been played, he found himself at left back.
It would stay that way for much of the campaign; O'Nien stepping in wherever the injury crisis at the back demanded.
So good was O'Nien at centre-back for a time, Johnson was beginning to joke (with more than a hint of seriousness) that he was back to square one in the great debate over that long-term position.
It was notable, though, that by the end of the campaign Johnson was again talking up the potential that O'Nien's athleticism could offer in midfield.
In the opening pre-season friendly at Spennymoor Town, O'Nien was absent but the role in which he has much to offer was not.
With options limited, it was Aiden O'Brien who dropped a little deeper, sitting alongside Elliot Embleton as one of the two attacking options in Johnson's midfield trio.
O'Brien pressed with enthusiasm and was encouraged to make late runs into the box. Shortly before putting his side ahead, the Irishman struck the post after good combination play with Will Grigg.
For all parties, there is an obvious desire for O'Nien to get a sustained run in one position and given the planned evolution of the playing style this campaign, that midfield role is the obvious one.
Yet the need for versatility through the squad remains; Sunderland again set to face a punishing schedule.
That O'Nien, like Lynden Gooch, is able to drop into a number of positions with ease and reliability is a major boost for Johnson and Kristjaan Speakman as they go about building their squad.
Given the push to bring down the average age of the squad more generally, it's also seen as a major boost behind the scenes to retain a player who now has significant experience both of the level and the environment at the club.
THE LONGER-TERM PICTURE
"Hearing their plans for the club and how they want to develop me personally was incredibly exciting and I can’t wait to get going again.”
Aside from the importance of securing an important player, this was the other notable aspect of O'Nien's decision to remain on Wearside.
As Sunderland's statement confirming the new deal noted, there was interest in O'Nien from a number of Championship clubs.
The 26-year-old has made no secret of his ambitions to test himself at a higher level and to give himself the best chance of being a success when he gets there.
So in recent weeks he was faced with a conundrum.
Was he better off making the move now, to a team where he could look to establish himself and then kick on further?
Or, are Sunderland's ambitions such that in fact, he is best served staying the course and growing with the new regime.
Though the majority of his talks with the club were undoubtedly based around their plans for him and where he fits into the new playing philosophy, the wider picture of where Sunderland are headed under Kyril Louis-Dreyfus will have been firmly on the agenda.
That O'Nien has been impressed with the vision presented, and has shown his faith in it by signing a new long-term deal will give supporters encouragement for the vast and critical work that needs to be done in the weeks and months ahead.
THE NEXT STEPS
Sunderland's to-do list for the summer remains a daunting one.
Even with O’Nien’s presence, they remain at the very least one central midfielder light, three full-backs light and probably two centre-backs short of where they would like to be.
And that is before considering the expected departure of Charlie Wyke, and the fact that Denver Hume is still to make a decision on his future.
Supporters are understandably keen to see Speakman make a breakthrough in the near future, to give a clearer picture of where the club is headed.
But this was a welcome update, and a refreshing change when too often Sunderland’s assets in their time at League One have left without realising either their full potential as a player, or their full value to the club.