Luke O'Nien exclusive: His role at Sunderland, Alex Neil's instructions and looking ahead to Coventry
As Luke O’Nien and some of his Sunderland team-mates dropped to their knees on the Wembley turf, 50,000 supporters rose as one.
After four years in League One, the Black Cats had finally escaped the clutches of England’s third tier by beating Wycombe Wanderers in the play-off final. For many, the overriding emotion was pure relief.
O’Nien has been a part of that League One journey since the start. Four permanent managers, previous play-off disappointments and a season cut short by a global pandemic. And that is only the start of it.
The 27-year-old joined Sunderland, ironically from Wycombe, in 2018 and has embraced the move to Wearside.
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He was named the North East Football Writers’ Association personality of the year in 2021 and has regularly engaged with Sunderland’s supporters with enthusiasm and humility. His daughter Jasmine was also born at Sunderland Royal Hospital.
That moment at Wembley, where he left the field with a heavily bandaged head following Sunderland’s agonising defeat to Charlton in 2019, was therefore extra special.
Winning at Wembley
"I think when that whistle went there were tears and a lot of emotion, not just me but for a lot of people,” he tells the Echo.
“It was special because I have wanted to achieve that for such a long time and to finally do it meant the world.”
“To share it with everyone in the North East who has been waiting patiently for that, it was a very special day. Being back in the North East since and seeing the buzz is special to be a part of and we have to work for some more now.”
Promotion didn’t come without its challenges, though, particularly for O’Nien, who missed over three months of the campaign following shoulder surgery.
The player opened up on his struggles in a social media post in February, with the aim to help people who were going through a similar experience.
“It was difficult, it teaches you a lot about yourself and I had wonderful people around me helping me through it,” he explains when asked about the setback.
“I only voiced it just to connect with people who are going through it, youngsters. I have a little girl now so I think I have to be a role model for her.
“For any people going through that sort of stuff I did it just to connect with them and help them through that as well.
“I’m glad to come through it and getting promotion was easily the best moment of my footballing life so far.
“I’ve got that medal now but equally that’s in the past and we have to work for more, moving the club and moving each individual forward.”
Stepping up to the Championship
Sunderland are now moving forward into the Championship, a level which O’Nien and several of his team-mates haven’t played at before.
The Black Cats have managed to keep the core of last season’s promotion-winning squad together, though, with the likes of Lynden Gooch, Bailey Wright and Patrick Roberts all signing new deals, with Jack Clarke joining the club permanently from Tottenham.
All four players have previous experience playing in England’s second tier.
“I was buzzing to see the likes of Goochy, Bailey Wright, Pat Roberts, Jack come back, those guys were magic,” says O’Nien.
“Bailey Wright is one of the best leaders I’ve ever seen, Goochy, Pat, Clarky, they have just produced moments of magic as you’ve seen through the season.
“To have those sorts of players and characters stay in the group it’s special to be a part of and is going to help us going forward as well.”
O’Nien’s role in the side remains a little unclear ahead of Sunderland’s season opener against Coventry City at the Stadium of Light.
Elliot Embleton was the only outfield player who received more game time than O’Nien in pre-season, yet the latter was deployed in several different roles, varying from centre-back to attacking midfield.
Asked about the instructions he receives from head coach Alex Neil, O’Nien replies: “He gives me information about what he wants from me and what he requires from me in each position.
“I go into each game knowing what he requires of me, which I enjoy because whatever position he demands from me he wants me to perform for the team and he’ll tell me otherwise if I’m not.
“We have a really good squad with players playing different positions and we have to make sure whoever is playing where we do the job and perform for the manager, for the fans as well.
“Lots of players play in different positions but when we are there we are there to do a job and not just fill in.”
While O’Nien’s position looks likely to change during a lengthy campaign, the immediate focus is Sunday’s meeting with Coventry.
A crowd of 44,742 attended Sunderland’s last home match, in the first leg of the play-off semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday, with a similar number expected to be present against the Sky Blues.
“When the season finished and we celebrated for a couple of days, I was like I’m ready to start again now and on to the next one,” admits O’Nien.
“Coventry, I’ve been looking forward to that one for a while and it’s going to be an exciting one. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone there.”
That moment at Wembley will certainly take some beating, yet O’Nien hopes there are even better days to come.