Luke O'Nien opens up on extinguishing his Wembley heartbreak, a new Sunderland role and THAT viral final moment
It’s the kind of moment you could easily have missed in the heat of the game.
As Lynden Gooch raced through on goal to put Sunderland ahead at Wembley there, inside his own half, was Luke O’Nien.
The midfielder-turned-centre back dropped to his knees, his hands raised as if praying – before leaping to his feet when the ball hit the back of the net.
Clips of the moment were widely shared on social media after the win over Tranmere Rovers, so what was going through O’Nien’s mind as he sunk to the turf?
"Please go in!”
"I think a lot of people were probably the same in their living rooms I don't even know why I did it, I just saw Lynden going through and I was like 'please, come on.'
"I know if we got in front, everybody could close out the game and stop them from scoring. Burgey has been phenomenal behind us and I knew as soon as we scored we were going to win.
"As soon as it hit the back of the net it was just an incredible moment.”
And that was far from the only moment from Wembley that went viral.
Another image – this time of club chef Joyce with a medal round her neck, trophy in her arms and with a smile to rival that of O’Nien’s – was widely shared on social media.
It was the joy of dedicated club staff such as her, and that of Sunderland fans across the globe, that gave the 26-year-old the most satisfaction.
"Everyone just enjoyed the moment,” he said.
"It was one of our goals from the start of the season to win the Papa John's so it was nice to see everyone enjoying the moment, lifting the trophy, having photos and Facetiming family. There were a lot of people on and off the pitch who worked really hard, so it was an enjoyable moment.
"I think people still celebrated like they were there which was special.
"The fans selling virtual tickets, I thought it was an incredible job from so many people.
"I know a lot of people have been to a lot of the Wembley appearances and have come out on the wrong side, so lifting that trophy we knew there were a lot of happy people back home.
"We're delighted we could bring it back to Sunderland to everybody, and hopefully everybody is still enjoying it.”
And it was a special day for O’Nien, too.
He was one of a number of the Sunderland squad for whom the double heartbreak of 2019 lingered.
But this time, he wasn’t flat out on the turf in tears at full-time. He was spraying champagne, collecting a man of the match trophy, and then placing his winners medal around young daughter Jasmine’s neck when he returned home.
It's another day O’Nien won’t forget – but this time, for the right reasons.
"I'll just remember Goochy sticking the ball in the net. What a great goal it was, he's a hero.
"That final whistle going and seeing the joy on everyone's faces, it was special. Then going home to my little girl and and putting the medal round her neck... it was just an incredible day. It'll live long in the memory.
"It was my dream to play at Wembley,” he continued.
"Then when you play there a couple of times, it becomes your dream to win at Wembley as well.
"Having two defeats there, I was desperate to get back there and put some wrongs right and I think a lot of people were as well.
"When that final whistle went you could see how much it meant to a lot of people. There were a lot of people who have played in the last two Wembley appearances as well, and you could see how much it meant to everyone.”
Sunderland's win beneath the arch was made even more impressive when you consider the circumstances under which the squad entered the game, with a number of key players injured.
The absences of Bailey Wright, Jordan Willis and Dion Sanderson saw O’Nien continue in his new-found role as a central defender. It’s yet another area of the pitch in which the former Watford man has impressed, and another role he has relished.
But in his typical selfless style, O’Nien is quick to praise those around him for helping to adapt.
“Playing left-sided centre half is really enjoyable.
"I've had great communication alongside me and playing next to Dion has been fantastic.
"Bailey Wright on the outside has been giving me advice which is great because he's got years of experience and I can learn from him. I've got a really good team of people helping me, from all the staff.”
O’Nien is expected to continue at the heart of the back four in the coming weeks given his strong performances of late.
And he’s far from alone in that regard, with Sunderland’s players stepping up to the plate in recent weeks.
“The performances from back to front have been fantastic,” he said.
"You've got Burgey in goal who, for me, hasn't been given enough credit. He's been superb in the sticks relieving the pressure and making some great saves at crucial times.
"There's a lot of strong performances going in and we just need to make sure we keep putting in the right performances and pick up some points.”
And points are what Sunderland need if they are to keep putting the pressure on the top two.
For while it may have been O’Nien’s dream to play at Wembley, there will be no complaints if he can help the side avoid the play-offs this term.