Jack Ross discusses Luke O'Nien's new Sunderland role and why he's thriving
Jack Ross spoke of his pride as Luke O’Nien delivered one of his best displays in a Sunderland shirt.
O’Nien’s first goal of the season was worthy reward for a series of energetic displays since moving back into an attacking midfield role.
It was a fine strike, too, racing on to a good ball over the top from Conor McLaughlin and chipping the helpless MK Dons goalkeeper Lee Nicholls.
O’Nien’s best position has long been the subject of debate on Wearside but Ross is eager to see the bigger picture.
He is thrilled to have overseen the rapid development of a player who arrived last summer having never played in League One. “Luke, we take pride in his improvement,” he said.
“By coincidence we had a chat yesterday about taking a step back and seeing how much he has developed in the last year. We don’t often do that, not only in football but in life as well.
“Because he’s now doing so well where was he a year ago and how did he feel in himself a year ago?
“And his improvement has been brilliant.
“We have to work hard here to get praise and we have worked hard with him to help him learn the game and how the staff have worked with him,” he added.
“So we are really pleased with him, he’s in a good place right now and could probably play in any position on the park and put in a good performance.”
O’Nien’s form has been in no small part due to the gradual improvement of Conor McLaughlin, now growing into his Sunderland career in his favoured position.
A lack of options in the early part of the season forced the Northern Irishman onto the left but two excellent showings from Laurens De Bock have taken much of the pressure off Denver Hume and given the squad are far more settled look.
O’Nien has been one of the key beneficiaries and Ross says he is an example for players right throughout the club.
“I’ve been really pleased with Conor the last few games – showing why he’s played in the Championship and had a long and good career,” Ross said.
“Some take a long time to settle into a club, but he’s settled in well and that’s allowed Luke to play elsewhere and give us a different dynamic. Long may it continue.
“We have Luke here now and he’s a great one in terms of recruitment – I suppose he came from a lower league at the time – it’s great to have people at the club who have had to adjust and develop. His career path, he started at Watford, so he’s been at a big club and had to find his way back.
"He's a terrific example for us to use within the club for other players, at first team level but the younger ones too that have aspirations of making a career in the game."
Though Ross was frustrated with the goal that allowed MK Dons back into the game, but feels McLaughlin’s form reflects a defence improving all the time, particularly since the introduction of Joel Lynch and Laurens De Bock.
“The defence was assured,” he said.
"I think over the season we work hard defensively and have defended pretty well, even though we have only kept one clean sheet.
“We didn’t give away many opportunities here, the balance of the back four was really good.
"Joel and Jordan in the middle and Connor and Laurens are proper full-backs if you like.
“There will be times when we need something different but at the moment it looks nice and has a comfortable feel to it, that is encouraging for us.
"We have a natural left-sided centre-back in the squad and that helps.
"Jordan can play on his natural side and those in possession of the jersey need to keep it and they have done that the last couple of games."
It was perhaps fitting that it was McLaughlin who produce the assist for that O’Nien goal.
This week they have looked like two of the players to benefit most from a thus far successful reshuffle.
McLaughlin believes O’Nien has a lot to offer int he final third but with Marc McNulty and AIden McGeady likely to be back in contention in the near future, he is insists that no one will be taking their place for granted.
“Luke is a midfielder first and foremost but the lads say he played really well at right-back last year,” he said.
“I just have to keep playing well and improving to make sure I stay in the team.
“Luke's a pest up there! He's really composed on the ball and his finish on Saturday showed that.
“He's a pest, he annoys defenders.
“He makes unselfish runs in behind and lets other players get on the ball.
“We've got a lot of very good players, some who aren't in the team and Geads is injured at the moment so there's a lot to come back in and we have to make sure we do our jobs to stay in the team.”