Sunderland AFC news: Sean Dyche's view on Luke O'Nien at Watford before Wycombe and Sunderland moves
Luke O’Nien has become the epitome of what it means to play for Sunderland but his humble beginnings offer a revealing insight into the player and the man.
O’Nien signed for Sunderland back in 2018 after the club had just suffered double relegation from the Premier League to League One. In the four-and-a-half years since his arrival, the former Watford youth teamer has become the antithesis of the questionable era that preceded him. Some have even labelled him “Mr Sunderland”.
It is funny how the world works. Just four short years before Jack Ross signed O’Nien, the Black Cats were a Premier League club, and their future midfielder-come-defender was on loan in the Isthmian League Premier Division. O’Nien, with his effervescent brand of professionalism, graft and determination, and Sunderland would eventually meet in the middle.
A loan at Wealdstone from Watford was where the young, fresh-faced O’Nien would sample the delights of men’s senior football for the first time as a first-team player.
Ex-Wealdstone gaffer Gordon Bartlett is, to put it mildly, a non-league legend. After retiring as a player back in 1977, the 67-year-old managed for 33 years, 22 of which came with O’Nien’s former loan club.
“I am not surprised,” Bartlett laughed, when told O’Nien had become a fan favourite at Sunderland. “He was a manager’s favourite as well!
“My memories of Luke is that I would have to drag him off the training pitch. He would train with Watford during the day and we had to drag him off the training pitch at night.
“I remember one evening he was saying, ‘Please, just a couple more,’ he was trying to hit the crossbar! He was always setting himself challenges. I said, ‘Luke, come on, we need to go.’ In the end, I had to turn the lights off.”
“It was the only way to get him off the training pitch and that was testament to Luke, his character and what he has gone on to achieve.”
At Sunderland, the versatile O’Nien has fashioned himself into a Swiss Army Knife, able to play in multiple positions yet always giving 100 per cent for his manager, teammates and supporters.
“That was exactly what we had,” Bartlett remembers. “He came to us as a central midfield player but we also played him wide, we played him at full-back, his best position was central but at that stage, he wasn’t the strongest because he was still a teenager.
“Sometimes you have to look after players like that and push them a little wider because of their youth but his enthusiasm, energy and just general desire to not only do well for himself but do well for the team too.”
O’Nien is certainly a player who has made the absolute most of his technical ability; practice has made perfect with the player’s sheer persistence and bloody-mindedness more than paying off in terms of his footballing career.
Sunderland head coach Tony Mowbray – who was himself a superb centre-back in his day – recently remarked O’Nien could make it in the Premier League in the near future.
It was a huge compliment and symbolic of O’Nien’s meteoric rise since the days spent in non-league with Wealdstone – but was there any inkling then that the teenager Bartlett managed in 2014 would play at a top-end Championship club after his release from Watford in 2015?
“For me, I was astounded Watford couldn’t see his potential back then,” Bartlett remembers. “Their loss was our gain. He did so well for us that season that we ended up instigating him going to Wycombe Wanderers. Sean Dyche, who was Watford's manager at the time, really liked him but for whatever reason, Luke wasn’t kept on.
“We shot ourselves in the foot as I think he would have stayed with us had we not recommended him to Wycombe after Watford released him. But I thought we owed it to Luke.
“They said they’d take him on trial for a week and at the end of the week, I phoned to ask how he had gotten on and they said Luke had produced the absolute perfect trial!”
During his 33-year managerial career, Bartlett managed Jermaine Beckford, once of Leeds United and Everton; Britt Assombalonga, who is now back at Watford via Middlesbrough; and Marvin Sordell, formerly of Burnley and Coventry City… it is an impressive CV.
“Britt was just raw strength and pace as a young lad,” Bartlett responds when asked how O’Nien compares to the most talented players he has managed. “But Luke worked so hard at his game.
“I can’t turn around and say he was one of the most gifted players I have ever seen but he had the ability and worked even harder to make sure he got better. You watch him week in and week out now and you see his attitude.
“He had that at Wealdstone and it developed from a very young age from his family roots and from coming for us. I just can’t speak highly enough of him. I have been reluctant to give interviews since retiring, I’ve wanted to take a back seat.
“But when I was sounded out about this I said, ‘No, he deserves it and I’m going to give you a ring!’ I wouldn’t do this for many people nowadays but for Luke, I would. He’s a genuinely nice lad and he deserves all the success he gets.”
Thanks go to Wealdstone FC, former manager Gordon Barlett, programme editor (and Sunderland fan) Mark Hyde and stats man Roger Slater for their help tracing contacts for this interview.