Luke O'Nien opens up on his Sunderland campaign, play-off challenge and has this clear message on contract uncertainty

It probably sums up Luke O’Nien’s season that he is preparing for the biggest game yet and from the outside, it’s hard to have much sense of what position he will be playing in.

Saturday, 15th May 2021, 6:00 am

Lee Johnson has some big calls to make as he monitors the fitness of Tom Flanagan and Conor McLaughlin in particular this week.

O’Nien is a popular figure both behind the scenes at Sunderland and in the wider fanbase, and his response to the prospect of stepping into an unnatural role in the most pressurised fixtures imaginable tell you why.

Totally unflustered. Enthusiastic. And keen to talk about just about anyone else but himself.

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Luke O'Nien was named in the League One team of the season
Luke O'Nien was named in the League One team of the season

“It's the same as it's been all season really,” he says.

“I've just got to focus on the task at hand, whenever we go out to train the whole squad has to stay focused.

“We've had lots of different players who've had to play out position. Goochy has been tremendous, played wing-back, full-back, ten. We've had to have lots of people doing that.

“It's important that we know we can do that and wherever the manager chooses to pick us, we give it our full focus and do the job the best we can.”

O’Nien’s willingness to wade into unchartered waters has been a valuable one for his head coach, and there was recognition of that when he was recently named in the League One team of the season.

In another nod to just what an unusual campaign this has been, he was named at right back: the position he was one filling in at, that then became an apparently full-time role, and yet one that he has rarely reprised in recent months.

“It's a great honour and I know some of the other boys were in there too, which is great,” he says.

“Again, though, that's a collective effort.

“So when I've been playing centre-half, I spent a lot of that time alongside Dion who was simply superb next to me. Then when Bailey Wright was injured, he was giving me tips and pointers to help me adapt to the position.

“It's great to be in that position, there's a lot of people who have helped me get there.

“I'd swap it all day long for a promotion, though, that's the most important thing.”

The 26-year-old will always tell you he is looking to learn and the coaches who often have to drag him off the training pitches at the Academy of Light would concur.

So just what has this challenge taught him, about defending and the game in general?

“Communication is a big thing,” he explains.

“When we're on the pitch as a collective you need to be doing that all over the pitch. The more you're communicating with the people around you, the less work you have to do as a team because you all know where you are.

“Whoever it is and whatever position you're playing, whether it's your first time or fifteenth time, it's your 100th time, you've got to keep learning and developing.

“And if it doesn't come off, back to the drawing board, learn, keep progressing.”

Should injuries elsewhere mean it is O’Nien and Bailey Wright at the heart of defence against Lincoln, he insists they are ready for the challenge.

“I think Bails is a great leader,” he said.

“You ask any of the boys in the changing room, the way he communicates, the way he conducts himself on and off the pitch, around the training ground, he leads by example.

“It's great to have him back fit and he's done great, it's not easy coming back from injury and being thrown into the kind of schedule that we've had.

“Credit to him for that, he's a warrior at the back and a great asset for us.”

After the most relentless of schedules, the pace of Sunderland’s campaign has dropped at a welcome moment.

O’Nien thinks that has given a welcome moment for reflection, on both the disappointment of Sunderland’s top-two hopes falling away, and the opportunity ahead.

The experience of two years ago, the tension and the ultimate disappointment, is another advantage for this group in his eyes.

Clearest of all, though, is his belief in not looking too far ahead.

Lincoln City have proved themselves an excellent side not just in the recent meetings between the two, but over the course of the season.

Before Wembley or promotion or anything else, there is a ‘big job to be done’ over these two legs.

So when he tells you that his contractual situation doesn’t matter right now, you believe it.

“Any player, whether you've got five days, five years, five minutes left on your contract, you give your all for the club,” he says.

“That's the most important thing.

“Whatever the length of your contract, you've got to play for that shirt.

“We've all got contracts until the end of the season and until they run out, we've got to give our all for the club.

“The contracts don't matter.

“We've got to give it everything to win promotion.

“We all play football to win.

“There's no better way to go up than through the play-offs at Wembley. So there's a huge carrot at the end of these two legs.

“We know how big a job there is to do before we can think about that, so we'll be focusing on the Lincoln game, making sure we put in the best performance we can to get the best result we can.

“If we manage to get through that then the focus turns to Wembley, but it's a big job to do first.”

Wherever he plays, O’Nien’s performance will be all-action. In a season of uncertainty and unfamiliarity, that’s thing of which you can be certain.

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