Burton Albion, Prayers And Professionalism – Why Sunderland’s Luke O’Nien Can’t Be Taken For Granted

Few players sum up the spirit, professionalism and desire needed to play for Sunderland like Luke O'Nien. Graeme Atkinson pays tribute to the utility player
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Imagine, if you can, that it is April 21st, 2018. Just for the briefest moment, remember the numbness you felt trudging away from the Stadium of Light as Burton Albion helped relegation consume Sunderland. Again.

Clack further through the memory turnstile and you will still see Darren Bent. Darren ‘Ear Cupping’ Bent.

The former Black Cats striker peeling away from netting the equaliser, and subsequently sprinting past the East Stand, was surely the most commitment he’d shown to movement on a football pitch in years.

This should begin to evoke a sense of what was on Wearside, recollections we as supporters try and consign to the past. They’re always there, of course, under the surface. But if that moment was a representation of all that was wrong with Sunderland, what the club is evolving into now is a statement of everything that’s right.

This club will climb the leagues again. And we can be sure it will based on failures such as that ‘Burton relegation’.  It might not always be pleasurable to remember those games but it’s important to maintain that sense of perspective when the winds of change come and happier times begin to return.

Think back to how perhaps at 5pm on April 21st, 2018, you declared with fire and fury that you just wanted “the Lads to show some passion, some commitment, to play for the shirt”. Well, when that passion, commitment and, dare we say it, technique, are all now on display, they shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Perhaps there is no one better player to reflect a new era at Sunderland than the Swiss Army Knife of football, Luke O’Nien. Given the fact he recently missed out on an EFL Player of the Month award, and given the turgid times we’ve endured up until recently as well as the sorry excuse for professional footballers we’ve all had to bear witness to over recent seasons, let’s wax lyrical about this gem of player for a minute.

We can allow ourselves that, right?

This isn’t about what is his best position. In some ways it doesn’t matter. Instead, it’s a eulogy for a player who does everything we’ve ever demanded in the past. If, after Burton, you looked up at the footballing gods and pleaded for someone to pull on the red and white and be an extension of yourself on the pitch, with Luke O’Nien those prayers were answered.

Let’s remember his Terry Butcher moment in the play-off final. There was no way O’Nien wasn’t coming back on that Wembley pitch despite a bloody head injury. In fact, while we’re on the subject, let’s acknowledge the manner in which he puts his head in front of firing forwards when defending. Don’t get hung up on whether the situation should’ve been better dealt with first. The best defenders struggle against the best strikers in any league.

But how many place their body so hazardously on the line to stop a goal from being conceded? Very few. Fewer still are those who have played for Sunderland in recent times. Even fewer are those supposed to be midfielders by trade.

The former Wycombe Wanderers player knows what we supporters expect, recently saying: “It was clear from the outset that all fans want to see is players putting their bodies on the line and trying their hardest. That’s the baseline. It’s the least I owe the club.”

Let’s recognise his professionalism off the pitch, the time taken with supporters for photographs and autographs. We’ve all seen it on social media. It’s not pretentious; it’s authentic and decent. After a while, it can’t be easy to have your day taken up with those requests, yet this display of affection for supporters continues unabated. A nod too then for the North East Football Writers’ Association’s Personality of the Year award he recently received. We can agree, it is richly deserved.

Let’s bask in the professionalism on the pitch, the “poster-boy for improvement” according to Jack Ross. Being subbed at half-time on his debut could’ve shaken him but it didn’t hold Luke back. Such has been his growing influence on the group, of the nine games he’s either missed or started from the bench this season, the Lads have won only two. The demands he places upon himself to continually improve in all areas of his game will continue to benefit Sunderland as well as his own development.

That is of course assuming the club can tie him down to a new contract. It is hoped Sunderland can offer him Championship football next season, something his former club could have done already. All the signs are there, but we can’t be certain. O’Nien, thankfully, has shown his trademark relaxed demeanour.

“It’s something that is out of my control,” he said. “Contracts are dealt with by the club so our focus just has to be on what we can control. My focus is on training hard and giving my all for the club.” All we can do is trust that everything will come together.

So, when you close your eyes and think of Sunderland, if that Burton game and others like it are still bubbling under the surface, make sure it’s players like Luke O’Nien who keep it from returning to the fore.

Let’s not take this lad for granted. We deserve to enjoy the moment. We owe it to April 21st, 2018.

Graeme Atkinson